DestinAsian - - FLASHBACK - gal­aba,” thanaka, MinOr­caella,


ain’s an­nex­a­tion of Lower Burma—pretty much ev­ery­thing south of Magwe—in 1853. Min­don didn’t live to see his king­dom fall, but his son and suc­ces­sor, Thibaw, did. In 1885, the swift ad­vance up­river of a fleet of Bri­tish barges and pad­dle steam­ers met with lit­tle re­sis­tance, and the royal cap­i­tal of Man­dalay was cap­tured with­out a fight. Thibaw, the last king of Burma, ended his days in ex­ile in In­dia.

To­day, the fort is an evoca­tive ruin of crum­bling brick­work. While point­ing out the bat­tery’s for­mer ele­phant cor­rals and gun em­place­ments, Soe spices up his com­men­tary with a di­gres­sion about the amorous ex­cesses of the coun­try’s by­gone roy­alty. “King Min­don had 45 con­sorts and 70 chil­dren. Ladies, can you imag­ine?” They can’t.

Martin and I skip the ox­cart ride back to the boat, opt­ing in­stead for a leisurely walk through the vil­lage. It’s a tiny place of maybe 20 stilted, wooden houses. A line of kids, their cheeks smeared with the ubiq­ui­tous cos­metic paste known as soon forms behind us, gig­gling as we march back to the river. The sun is low now, and ap­par­ently that means bath time, as a group of young men and women have gath­ered in a reed-fringed la­goon for their after­noon wash. There’s noth­ing im­mod­est about it—they’re all wrapped in sod­den longyis, the women’s tied un­der their armpits. Martin stops to take pho­tos. No one seems to mind. “

we say, prof­fer­ing the tra­di­tional Burmese greet­ing. It’s a mag­i­cal word that never fails to elicit a warm re­sponse. “Min­gal­aba,” they call back cheer­ily, be­fore re­sum­ing their ablu­tions. Af­ter the towns we’ve vis­ited so far— Danu­phyu, Pyay, Magwe—Salay is quite un­ex­pected: a dozy col­lec­tion of molder­ing colo­nial vil­las built in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the Burmah Oil Com­pany to house its Bri­tish rig workers. Most ap­pear un­lived in or used for stor­age, lend­ing the place an air of aban­don. One ex­cep­tion is Salay House, a lov­ingly re­fur­bished river­side ware­house dat­ing to 1901 that now does triple duty as a shop, restau­rant, and un­of­fi­cial mu­seum. The owner, Ma Khine, is a for­mer tour agent from nearby Bagan who— she hopes—is at the van­guard of Salay’s re­vival. “It’s beau­ti­ful here on the river, sur­rounded by so many ar­chi­tec­tural treasures,” she says. “Salay was once a pros­per­ous place. I don’t see why it can’t be again.”

Salay’s trove of treasures in­cludes dozens of monas­ter­ies and shrines, as the town has been an ac­tive re­li­gious cen­ter since at least the 12th cen­tury, when the King­dom of Bagan was at its height. Among them is Yot Son Kyaung, a beau­ti­ful teak build­ing dat­ing to 1882. Now a mu­seum, its creaky halls are full of elab­o­rate wood carv­ings and Bud­dhist stat­u­ary. But what catches my eye is a wooden frieze at the front, which ap­pears to de­pict a lech­er­ous old man at­tempt­ing to dis­robe a young lady. A plaque be­low reads BLAME THE SENSUALITIES. Soe ex­plains, “This monastery was com­mis­sioned by a man named U Pho Kyi, a very rich man and a very naughty man who wanted to atone for his sins. This panel was made by the monks to chas­tise him. U Pho Kyi was a wom­an­izer. He had many, many af­fairs.” We all look at Brian. From Salay, it only takes a cou­ple of hours for the Or­caella to chug up to Bagan. This is the high point—both fig­u­ra­tively and ge­o­graph­i­cally— of our cruise. Set on a vast, arid plain on the river’s east bank, Bagan served as the cap­i­tal of suc­ces­sive Burmese kings from the ninth to 13th cen­turies. Dur­ing this era, it be­came fash­ion­able among the city’s elite to build pago­das, tem­ples, and other re­li­gious mon­u­ments that grew grander and more elab­o­rate over the gen­er­a­tions. Marco Polo, who vis­ited shortly be­fore Bagan fell to Mon­gol in­vaders in 1287, called it “one of the finest sights in the world.”

It still is. More than 2,000 tem­ples and pago­das sur­vive from that pe­riod, and while most of their plas­ter­work and gold em­bel­lish­ments are long gone, the brick­work struc­tures that re­main are ex­alt­ing. We ex­plore them that after­noon by horse cart, but even af­ter an hour we’ve barely scratched the sur­face. The day ends at a small tem­ple back by the jetty, where the boat has ar­ranged a can­dle-light­ing cer­e­mony. As twi­light ap­proaches, the can­dles— seem­ingly hun­dreds of them—are lit up one by one. It’s mag­i­cal. “Ugly time,” I say to Soe. “Yes in­deed, Mr. Chris,” he replies. The only way to truly ap­pre­ci­ate the scale of Bagan is to see it from above. So the next morn­ing, Martin and I are up early for a sun­rise flight in a hot-air bal­loon. This is not in­cluded in the price of the cruise, but it’s well worth pay­ing ex­tra for. Ris­ing through the morn­ing fog, our big red bal­loon—pi­loted by an English­man named Andy and owned by an out­fit called Bal­loons over Bagan—is soon float­ing on a gen­tle breeze above the pago­dadot­ted plains, the glory of an­cient Bagan spread out be­fore us. The Ir­rawaddy is there too, bend­ing north­ward to­ward Man­dalay. I can’t make out the but I know she’s moored down there some­where. To­mor­row or the next day, the boat will turn down­river for the long jour­ney back to Yan­gon. And a part of me wants to go with her.

The Or­caella’s eight­night “Jew­els of the Aye­yarwady” cruise from Yan­gon to Bagan costs US$6,870 per per­son and op­er­ates in Jan­uary–March and Oc­to­ber–Novem­ber. At other times of the year, the boat is based out of Man­dalay, from where it cruises up the Chind­win River as well as to Bhamo on the Ir­rawaddy's north­ern reaches ( bel­ Where to Stay The Or­caella’s morn­ing de­par­ture from Yan­gon means you’ll need to ar­rive the day be­fore. Spend the night at the Bel­mond Gov­er­nor’s Res­i­dence: built in 1920, the ho­tel cen­ters on a colo­nial-style man­sion that over­looks lily ponds and a sprawl­ing gar­den. The nightly Burmese curry buf­fet is not to be missed ( 95-1/229-860; bel­; dou­bles from US$518). Hot-air Bal­loon­ing Flights with Bal­loons over Bagan start at US$330 per per­son and last for up to an hour, de­pend­ing on the wind. A must-do ( bal­loons overba­

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