When, what and how
• The best time to visit is October-March, when river levels and humidity are lower. Expect daytime highs of about 30C but evenings are pleasantly balmy and rain is rare. Avoid Chinese New Year (the week of February 8, 2016) when the country is swamped with tour groups. • Pack loose cotton clothing; most hotels have a 24-hour laundry service. Include easy slip-off shoes or sandals to enter temples and a folding umbrella for showers and sun. A torch with a strong beam is recommended as temple interiors are poorly lit; also consider binoculars to watch riverbank life, plus tropical-strength insect spray and anti-bacterial wipes for polishing cups and glasses in tea-houses. • Pandaw pioneered cruises on the Irrawaddy in the 1990s, replicating the handsome polished teak and brass of the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamers. There’s a big choice of itineraries. Opt for its Bagan and the Upper Irrawaddy itinerary, which takes in village Burma and Orwell’s Katha as well as the classic sights. More: pandaw.com. • The 83-passenger Belmond Road to Mandalay is the river’s grande dame on the Mandalay-Bagan section while sister ship Orcaella accommodates 50 passengers and offers one-week cruises from Bagan to Yangon, including a stop at the ancient city of Sri Kestra near Pyay, recently recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Orcaella also plies the Chindwin River on a seasonal basis. More: 1800 000 395; belmond.com. • The 21-cabin Sanctuary Ananda, launched last November, has the largest suites on the river and operates July to April. More: abercrombiekent.com.au; sanctuaryretreats.com. • Book an east-facing cabin (port downstream, starboard upstream) to avoid the strong afternoon sun. • The river flows fast, especially in autumn, so choosing a downstream cruise will give more time at sites. • Pre-book a hot-air balloon ride over Bagan to ensure a space. • Pandaw’s ships offer no-single-supplement cabins on most departures; check other operators for similar offers. • Obtain a visitor’s visa well before departure. More: mecanberra.com.au. • ATMs and credit cards are slowly coming into use. Take US dollars in mint condition with no folds, tears or marks as they will be refused, even in banks. • This is a conservative society and dressing respectfully means avoiding skimpy clothing, bare shoulders and seethrough dresses. Shoes and socks must be removed in temple precincts. • Tipping is not expected outside of top hotels and restaurants, where 10 per cent is usual. Temple guardians will look for a small tip if they offer an extra service. Crew tips are usually included in cruise packages except for guides and coach drivers.