AS TWILIGHT APPROACHES, THE CANDLES— SEEMINGLY HUNDREDS OF THEM—ARE LIT UP ONE BY ONE. IT’S MAGICAL.
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 ( belmond.com). 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; belmond.com; 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 overbagan.com).