On day five I awake
special,” Soe tells me. “We didn’t ask them to do this. They just wanted to.” The dragon, animated pantomime horse–style by a pair of wiry male dancers, looks more like a deranged llama, and it spends much of the performance biting at imaginary flies on its hind quarters. But the dancers give it their all, bounding across the ironwood deck to the accompaniment of a cane flute and drum. Only later do I notice that the entire village has gathered on the embankment to watch. Whether they’re more entertained by the dance or by the sight of us in our poorly tied longyis, I can’t say.
By day four I’ve settled in to the slow rhythm of our progress. When I’m not thumbing through books in the lounge’s small library or lingering over a meal in the restaurant, my perch of choice is a rattan lounger in front of the wheelhouse, where the snap of a pendant in the warm afternoon breeze provides a counterpoint to the slap of water against the Orcaella’s bow two decks below. Here I try striking up conversations with the captain, Thein Tun, a reticent but ever-smiling riverman who’s piloted craft on the Irrawaddy for 40 years. Or I spend my time observing the other traffic on the river, mostly fishing canoes, gold-panning boats, and coal and gravel barges so overloaded they look ready to sink. Occasionally, I scan the water hopefully for a sight of the Orcaella’s namesake, the Irrawaddy dolphin, a beakless cetacean belonging to the genus— you guessed it— Orcaella. But I look in vain. Though they’re found elsewhere in Southeast Asia and along the Bay of Bengal, these adorable, smiley-faced creatures are only ever seen in the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, and even there they are increasingly rare. In one of his daily lectures, Soe somberly informs us that only 75 of them survive in the wild, and that’s likely an optimistic estimate.
But we do see plenty of pagodas. Even before arriving at the temple-festooned plains of Bagan, we tie up at Pyay to visit the Shwesandaw Pagoda, an important pilgrimage site believed to enshrine a couple strands of the Buddha’s hair. As at the Shwedagon in Yangon, there are creaky elevators at the ready to carry us up to the hilltop complex, where, between prayers, a throng of worshippers pose for photo ops in front of reclining Buddhas and the goldplated main stupa itself, which towers some 40 meters above the plaza. Two days later at Magwe, a fleet of waiting tuk-tuks zips us to Myathalon Pagoda after a brief tour of the town’s central market. Perhaps zip is not entirely accurate. On the final climb to the riverside pagoda, the tuk-tuk Martin and I are in breaks down, its whining two-stroke engine unable to bear the strain of our combined weight. Much to the amusement of onlookers, we get out and push.
Our Magwe excursion also includes a stop at a monastic school that Belmond supports through donations. It’s run by a pink-robed senior nun who has her students line up in a row to collect the stationery kits that the boat has organized. Then they sing us a song. It all feels a bit one-sided, but the kids seem happy enough with their new notepads and rulers. Plus, you can’t help but admire Belmond’s commitment to community outreach in Myanmar, where, despite the winds of political change—the country’s first democratically elected government since 1962 took office last April, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—poverty lingers, particularly in the countryside. Tourism clearly has a role to play in addressing this. And Belmond does its share. Among its many initiatives over the years, the company has run a free clinic in Bagan since 2011, and is in the process of building a hospital there. It also donates water pumps, medical supplies, and solar panels to villages along both the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin. Passengers may make contributions as they wish, and most do.
from an afternoon nap and groggily realize that the boat has stopped. Throwing open the curtains, I look out onto a sunbaked expanse of cracked, fissured earth and a bunch of listless oxen tethered to wooden carts. Where are we now?
The answer is Gwechaung. An hour later, squeezed into the carts, we’re jouncing along the village’s dirt road and then ascending an earthen defile that looks like it was recently cut into the hillside. At the top of the hill is Gwechaung Fort. This was built by European engineers at the behest of King Mindon following Brit-