On day five I awake

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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-

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