“On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’fishes play. An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the bay!”
Poet Rudyard Kipling spent only forty eight hours in Burma (now Myanmar) and from that short trip came the now legendary but erroneous poem-On The Road to Mandalay. There are no ‘flying fishes’ and to add to this factually incorrect stanza the dawn does not come up “like thunder outer China crost the Bay” Nevertheless, these words continue to evoke images of a fascinating country of dramatic landscapes, ancient temples, cultivated fields, rice paddies and a history of wars and sieges. (These days one can’t omit the still obvious political tension and human abuses but this is a travel story). Thirty guests were about to embark on an incredible adventure on this water journey which would take us to seldom visited jungle villages, meeting the inhabitants who were equally curious about the large white dazzling ship that suddenly appeared for the first time and perhaps seeing Westerners for the first time.
The Road to Mandalay, itself, has also made an exceptional voyage. The German built cruise ship was completely renovated for over US$6million then transported to Asia in 1995, completely brought up to the state of the art level. To operate on the narrower, smaller Chindwin, the river cruiser is dependent on the water level. There has to be enough water beneath the keel to float but also the ship must be low enough to pass under the few bridges. The Road to Mandalay only travels on the Chindwin River once a year, usually after the rainy season.
The journey started in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Many city names were changed when the country became Myanmar. It was the prologue to an adventure in the throbbing city of 3 million with an easy grid street plan but roads were chuck a block with all sorts of two, three and four wheel vehicles. The wide, tree lined streets, dotted with remnants of large but now badly aging British Colonial period mansions showed that time and poverty, moss growing out of faded and peeling stucco, of their former grandeur. That said, the overall view is of a city of street vendors selling everything from fruits and jewels to clothing, not a tout in sight, with stall keepers always pleasant and surprised to see tourists in this recently virtually closed to the outer world country. But tourism is a great revenue provider and the Civil government (as this Military government is called) has made the decision to open their doors, ever so slightly..
The British may have left, but memories remain. A case in point is The Strand Hotel, so very English Raj, decorated with indigenous, rare teak wood, ceiling fans and large rooms and obliging staff. Although there are a few new modern hotels and buildings creating a skyline of tall buildings, Yangon, nevertheless is stuck in a time warp. But to feel complete about seeing this burgeoning city is to see the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda which dates back 2,5000 years and is the biggest and most important Buddhist shrine in Myanmar,. Rumour has it that there is more gold on the dome than the bricks under Wall Street. “A beautiful winking wonder” said Kipling.
With a height of nearly 100 metres, this soaring spire is visible from almost anywhere in the city. And happily instead of climbing the 104 stairs there’s a newly installed escalator. .
But the Orient Express’ luxury ship, The Road to Mandalay, an ultra shallow draft cruise ship would be traveling on its virgin trip on the Chindwin River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy, (formerly Ayerarwady) one of the great rivers of Asia. And to get there, it was necessary to take the hour flight to Mandalay, 630 kilometres (370 miles) north of Yangon, yet another world awaited us.. Although the population is only 600,000, Mandalay is considered the world centre of Buddhism as well the country’s centre of commerce. Mandalay Hill is well worth climb if only to see the site of war causalities in 1945 between the British and the Japanese. At the end of a covered stairway are small temples, one of many sights not to be missed. Since religion and spiritual devotion play a major part in the life, a most noteworthy monument is the huge Buddha statue carved from a single block of marble. So much to see, so little time.
This tranquil cruise is entirely due to the general easing of government restriction after many decades, finally allowing travelers a peek into the life of the people, learning about the legends, the country’s complex history, an opportunity to glimpse into the quiet villages with thatched woven bamboo homes on stilts, ox carts instead of trucks, women with perfect posture holding on to their children while balancing large baskets on their heads. Perhaps the biggest surprise was to be met at each stop by crowds of villagers waving quietly, who had in all probability never seen westerners or such a large ship. To kick start - a precursor of what was to come- was at Maktaw, the smallest village we would visit where it seemed the entire population of 500 was at the shore to welcome us, quietly with self conscious waves and dressed in their very best outfits.
Most mornings after breakfast on the Top Deck near the pool, the anchor was dropped. As with all our stops, a transfer vessel took us to each shoreline destination. At Kani, Nat dancers (spirits who embody people)- elderly women gracefully performed for us, but usually transvestites perform these dances. Far too soon we were back on board for a Vietnamese buffet lunch. Each day there was another East Asian feast.
Although this was only the second of eight days, I soon realized there was a reason why both men and women wore longyi (long airy wrapped skirts) With the blazing sun and jungle humidity, these cotton wraps were a cooling and breezy revelation. Another custom was the use of an ecru coloured paste applied to areas of the face and body. Thanaka, made from the bark of a small tree is beaten on a rock into the goo that acts as a sun screen, a firming and cooling cream with all the benefits women search for at any price. Here it cost pennies.
The after dinner (no menu ever repeated) this floating base featured lectures in the stunningly decorated, wicker-filled Observation Lounge, where we learned about the numerous hills tribes, white elephants, watched intricate hand puppetry and Chin Dancers. But political discussions were taboo.
For anyone who suffers from seasickness, the Chindwin River is as smooth as the skin of the Thanaka wearing natives. As we continued, the villages became larger. Mingin with an exquisite 250 year old completely teak wood temple, Maukkadaw, a wealthy village with a large teak wood industry, Kalewa, less than 60 km from the Indian border with coal mines and Kalay, a town of 90% Christian population only 24 miles from Kalewa. These few miles were a bus trip from hell, the only glitch on the trip. This unique vehicle with rugged, elevated seats, too high for one’s feet to touch the floor and nowhere to put them, bumped along the pitted road leaving all of us with wobbly legs when we finally ‘landed’. There was a rush to the on board spa for one of the Burmese massages.
I’d hazard a guess that the most poignant and memorable day with most of my fellow journey friends, was in Kindat where over 500 uniformed school children of various ages sang the anthem and pledged allegiance to the country, before being presented with hundreds of dollars worth of books, pens, pencils and other school needs, donated by The Road to Mandalay’s school fund. Not a dry eye around but happy well behaved and grateful children and teachers.
The countless times we removed our shoes before entering the temples and pagodas still didn’t deter any of the 30 guests. Often our destinations were accessible only by the river. We knew we were very privileged..
The big finale was hard to top or describe. Think of a small area with an orgy of thousands of temples and pagodas. There were originally 5000 but are a few thousand less now but Bagan (formerly Pagan) is an archeological zone founded in 1058 and boasts the most beautiful golden pagoda deserving all accolades and superlatives. The amazing sight of Ananda ranks up there with the wonders of the world. And as the sun set on the golden temple, few sights can compare. And for those who climbed mid way, awaiting us was yet another surprise. The staff of The Road to Mandalay had prepared a champagne reception just in time to toast the sunset and a memorable cruise in a country that in time should be become, one of the great destinations, far too long ‘off the tourist’s map’.
I traveled by Air Canada to Bangkok then took Air Mandalay to Yangon.
While in Yangon, I stayed at the Strand Hotel before boarding the Orient Express, Road to Mandalay cruise ship for a never-to-be forgotten visit to this exotic destination.
Article and Pictures by Barbara Kingstone
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