Writers can’t seem to agree on the Irrawaddy’s colour. It’s been described as silver from afar. Up close it’s jade, brown, tea-coloured or even dark blue. George Orwell called it ochreous in his 1934 novel Burmese Days. But almost invariably, the Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s ‘great river’.
This wide expanse is the spine and central nervous system of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Flanked by a pair of mountain ranges, it cuts down the middle of the country, flowing 2,170 kilometres north to south and emptying into the Andaman Sea. Kingdoms rose and fell along its banks. An industry of agriculture sprang from its waters and heeds its seasonal changes. The country’s trade has traditionally depended on the gentle waterway. And today, as the country emerges from five decades of isolation, the Irrawaddy represents the most natural, unobstructed route by which to see the country.
Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure is relatively young but in the Irrawaddy, many have already seen the potential. Overnight river cruises, especially, have made sense for high-end travellers, offering comforts in parts of the country where tourism is just getting started. It was on the Strand Cruise, a newcomer to the river run by the venerable Strand Hotel in Yangon, that I found myself ogling giant gold Buddha statues and gleaming pagodas perched on hills just steps from the shoreline, as the ship journeyed from Bagan to the central city of Mandalay.
The thousands of edifices along this route were erected by kings and the wealthy devout, mainly in the 11th and 12th centuries, to earn merit for the next life. The more extravagant, the greater the merit. One of the biggest – and oddest – monuments of all is an unfinished stupa in the town of Mingun. Only a square base was built, but even that rises 50 metres, and outsized cracks caused by an earthquake run dramatically down its facade. In a surreal evening arranged by the Strand Cruise, I found myself standing barefoot on a sandbank, sipping champagne, with this mammoth stupa visible across the river, rare Irrawaddy dolphins bobbing in the nearby waters. If it weren’t for the modern ship behind me, there would be few clues to what century we were in.
The Strand Cruise is a worthy complement to its namesake colonial hotel and offers a taste of Myanmar’s nascent modern, luxury hospitality scene. Teakwood floors and tasteful furnishings are found throughout its 27 cabins, fine-dining restaurant and bar. Designed with spacious public areas, the ship’s layout encourages passengers to spend time outside their cabins, according to Olivier Trinquand, vice president of Strand Cruise. And indeed they should. The climate is dry in these parts, the temperatures moderate (getting very hot only in April and May), and many hours can be happily spent on the sun deck’s daybeds or at the pool tiled in the most inviting shade of green.
The pagodas were scene-stealers, but it was the river’s humbler sights that reflected Myanmar’s beauty. Families bathed and washed clothes in small clusters at the water’s edge, with modesty maintained by the traditional longyi skirts worn by both men and women. Colourful laundry was laid out all along the river banks. Long-tail boats sped past with loud, percussive puttering, their skippers’ hair flapping in the breeze. And the sunrises, which flooded the skies with orange, were made even more beautiful by dots of slow-rising hot-air balloons.
To break up long stretches of cruising, artisans were invited on board to demonstrate traditions like rattan-making and marionette theatre. And of course, passengers got to see the sights up close, with excursions organised for all but one of the days, mainly to famed Buddhist monuments and crafts workshops. Over five days, we visited numerous temples and stupas built with various ornate details, some covered in gold, some tiled with mirrors, and many located high in the hills with sweeping views of the towns below. The different facial expressions of the Buddhas spoke to the trends of their eras, the architecture to the advancements in technique over time.
The simpler shrines were even more breathtaking. In Bagan, we asked our private guide, Khin, to show us a selection of temples that would cover both popular tourist spots and ones off the beaten track. She took us to her favourite: the small, unassuming Pathothamya Temple. Enter through the arched doorway, and in semi-darkness you’ll see a towering seated Buddha in the inner alcove softly lit by skylights. We were alone here, away from the crowds, save for the bats twittering in the ceiling nooks.
Khin shone a torch on a wall and, unexpectedly, faded murals telling the story of Buddha appeared. The images were rendered in great detail and once covered every inch of the walls. Much of the plaster is now damaged with age, and of the surviving murals, many were irreversibly ruined by incorrect restoration attempts in the 1980s. Khin recounts these events with disappointment, her torch moving across the walls.
‘Do you have high-scare problem?’ Khin asked. I do have a moderate fear of heights but that wasn’t going to stop me from climbing the steep steps of the stupa she took us to. At the vertiginous top, dozens of tourists were sitting on its several platform levels, waiting for the sunset view. Mist floated over the scores of stupas that stood on the arid landscape as far as the eye could see.
On the fourth day, after some passengers asked to depart from the itinerary and experience a more authentic side of the country, the staff arranged a trip to a market. Trinquand says the company strives to stay flexible and customise experiences according to passenger preference. ‘I like temples, but I understand that not everyone does,’ he says. ‘In Myanmar, tourism is pagodas, it’s the holy story, which is absolutely great, but we don’t want to be just a package tour.’
Nonetheless, popular attractions can offer varied insights into a country and its people. At U Bein Bridge, famed for being the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world, the action on the Taungthaman Lake below speaks to Myanmar’s agricultural life. We saw fishermen casting their nets and farmers herding ducks; farther off, women crouched under conical hats weed sections of farmland. Thatched huts set up on these plots are only temporary; other times of the year, the farms are underwater.
Myanmar entered a new era in 2015, when the country transitioned from a military dictatorship to a government headed by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which won that year’s general elections in a landslide. Everywhere we went, ordinary people spoke about the transition with cautious optimism. Khin, our guide in Bagan, summed up the wide sentiment: ‘Our wish came true.’
The country is developing fast, as it should. New buildings are jostling for space with the colonial structures in Yangon. Two years ago, smartphones went from a rare commodity to an essential accessory almost overnight. And tourism is very much arriving. But for now, looking out from the Irrawaddy – the colour of miso soup – you’d never know.
Good to know
How to book
Lightfoot Travel can help book the cruise, as well as arrange your flights and airport transfers. The company also provides travel tips and restaurant recommendations for your destination. lightfoottravel.com
Avoid wearing shorts and sleeveless tops, as they are considered revealing and are not permitted on temple grounds. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering temple areas, so wear flip-flops for convenience.
Myanmar is still a cash society, although more and more places are taking credit cards. The local currency, the kyat, can only be exchanged in the country. Bring US dollars, but make sure the bills are in pristine condition, as currency exchanges, banks and shops frequently reject notes with even light folds or marks.
There’s only limited international roaming in Myanmar, but prepaid SIM cards with mobile data are cheaply available.