MYANMAR: HOP ABOARD NOW
There is an extraordinary timeless quality to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, also known as the Ayeyarwady. The kings of medieval Bagan would almost certainly recognise its riverbank life today, with the bullock carts and ox ploughs, tiered pagodas atop rambling teak monasteries, and villages of thatched homes raised on stilts, each with a dugout slung beneath for when the summer monsoon turns the dirt lanes into waterways.
The Irrawaddy bisects the country, rising among Himalayan glaciers and flowing for about 2170km across a wide alluvial plain into the Indian Ocean. Navigable for much of its length (unfettered by dams, though these are on the way), it remains a crucial commercial and transport artery, such is the parlous state of Myanmar’s roads. Many river cruises start from Mandalay and sail either south to Bagan or north to Katha. If the river is high, and ethnic tensions low, some ships carry on to Bhamo near the Chinese border. Belmond Orcaella also operates seven or eight-night cruises between Bagan and Yangon.
In both directions you will discover a deeply spiritual and traditional way of life that is just opening up to the outside world. Each day on the river begins with the sound of devotional chanting from waterside monasteries, surely one of the most beautiful wake-up calls in the world. In its middle reaches, the Irrawaddy is almost a kilometre wide and just a few metres deep, its waters eddying around sand islands where farmers plant peanuts and sesame and their wives thwack the family’s wash against the rocks. You’ll pass local ferries so laden with passengers and cargo that sinking seems a real possibility. Nearer the shore, fishing canoes bob along precariously like paper boats.
The stretch between Mandalay and Bagan is rich in cultural treasures, including several former royal capitals. Stops usually include a walk through the pagodastudded Sagaing Hill, sunset at photogenic U Bein Bridge, built from a thousand teak logs, and a pony-andtrap ride through sleepy Inwa (Ava) to admire the glorious woodcarvings at Bagaya monastery. Along the way, you will meet some of the most generous and endearing people in the world. If travelling towards World Heritage-listed Bagan, one of Asia’s most impressive, this is your grand finale, with more than 2000 temples, monasteries and pagodas built by megalomaniac kings from the ninth century onwards. Some contain superb frescoes of everyday life; others have giant statues of Buddha. To grasp the scale of this medieval capital, it’s worth taking a dawn hot-air balloon flight.
Fewer tourists head upstream from Mandalay but there is much to reward the inquisitive, with more time spent in villages, including Nwe Nyein, where potters make enormous water pots on hand-turned wheels with the ease of years of practice. To the north lies Katha, setting for Burmese Days, George Orwell’s scathing attack on empire based on his time here as a policeman. His gloomy red-brick house and the former British club still stand in this small town. Beyond Katha the river narrows to pass through a series of defiles that echo with the chatter of birds and gibbons in trees hung with rare orchids. If you are lucky, you will see elusive river dolphins playing in the ship’s wake. The sound of a car or a truck is a rarity. To explore these upper reaches is to travel back in time to the Asia of yesteryear.
Along the way, you will meet some of the most generous and endearing people in the world
Colourful life on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar, main; river vessels near Bagan, top right; sarong sellers, above right; pagoda at Sagaing Hill, opposite right; Orcaella passes local rivercraft, above