Me oh Myanmar
As we enter The Governor’s Residence in Yangon we are heralded in by the “welcome gong”. Turns out that Yangon/Rangoon in Myanmar/Burma, is a very hospitable place; I spotted three welcome signs in the first five minutes of leaving the airport. And everyone we meet is friendly and curious about the tourists now visiting their country.
We’d booked a hotel car to collect us and so are given the chance to check in en route along with a (very welcomed) cold towel and chilled water, so there’s no faffing about at reception when we arrive.
The Governors Residence is a 1920s mansion all wraparound teak verandahs with gingerbread trim. Lucky old governors getting to live here. In its reincarnation as an Orient Express owned hotel there’s a gorgeous green swimming pool lined with steamer chairs and red umbrellas designed to look like Burmese paper parasols.
We are staying here, like many of the other guests, ahead of flying to Mandalay and taking the Orient Express’s Road to Mandalay Cruise on the River Irrawaddy. Over the next 24 hours whenever we hear the “welcome gong” sound we turn discreetly towards the teak walkway to see who our fellow passengers on board will be. There’s a definite air of characters assembling in an Agatha Christie novel.
The highlights of Yangon – the Shwegadon pagoda, the Reclining Buddha and a few colonial architectural gems such as The Strand hotel – can be seen in the city tour arranged through the hotel. Leaving the rest of the time best spent by the pool or on the airy verandahs.
We try out the hotel’s more formal Mandalay restaurant for dinner. Eschewing the white table cloths and air con inside for a place on the verandah under the ceiling fans, we tuck into a menu that competently combines Burmese ingredients and flavours with modern European cooking style and presentation.
A late-ish night (darn that Rudyard Kipling bar for being so inviting) and a 4.30am alarm call does not make for the best of journeys but thankfully Orient Express takes care of everything. We say goodbye to our luggage at the Governor’s Residence before setting off to the airport at 5.30am and we don’t see it again until check in to our cabins on the Road to Mandalay later that morning.
Mandalay itself is a charming enough place with much to explore including the lovely teak Shwe Naandaw Kyuang monastery and the striking white marble Kuthodaw Pagoda. And in the absence (for the time being) of luxury hotels, making the moored Road to Mandalay a base makes sense.
From the boat we also have a bird’s eye view of Sagaing, a verdant green hill studded with gleaming gold pagodas (also known as stupas). It makes a dramatic backdrop for lunch. But first our engaging guide, San, (Orient Express cleverly splits the passengers into small groups ferried about by mini bus so you never feel you’re part of a coach tour mob) takes us to Mahagandayone monastery. Every day the 1,300 monks who live here queue up with their alms bowls to receive lunch. The lunch procession is becoming something of an attraction and signs bely some of the tourist atrocities: No walking in front of the monks…No exposed chests or stomachs.
Early the following morning we are taken to the top of Sagaing Hill to Soon U Shu pagoda. It has more bling than ones we’ve seen so far, encrusted with mirrors and with flashing lights above the buddha. “The people here like bright colours,” says San with a rueful smile. San who looks very stylish in his classic Rayban Wayfarers has impeccable taste: “There are three types of stupa: gold leaf, gold paint and white. I love the white and I like the gold leaf but I don’t like the gold paint. I think it looks so cheap.”
Back on the boat we set sail at 10 am. Our destination is Bagan, a journey southwards on the Irrawaddy. Along the river bank are serene landscapes of palm trees and pagodas. From my steamer chair I watch rural Burma go by. Everyone is watching the view or reading from the well padded chairs in the shade or the sun loungers. Someone takes a dip in the tiny but useful swimming pool. There’s a top deck bar temptingly close.
10.30am. Is it too early for a G&T?
Working vessels pass us in the opposite direction or cross from one side of the river to another carrying sacks of rice or stacks of wood. More curious craft come into view: vast rafts made of bamboo and floating petrol stations. But there are no other cruise boats like ours, unlike the Nile for example where it can feel like you’re on Oxford Street at rush hour. Even curiouser are the sandbanks in the river where people seem to have precariously set up camp.
A palm reader sits under the shade of the canopy and there is an endless stream of passengers to his table. One happy customer, an older but well preserved American, cheerily recounts to her husband on the sun lounger next to me: “Apparently I’ll have a health scare when I’m 88. If that doesn’t kill me, I’ll live ‘til I’m 96. I’m good with that.”
Note to self: if you consult the palm reader, ask him not to tell you when you’re going to die.
After lunch – served under shade on the top deck as well as in the air con dining room below – the river banks are sandier and fishing men in small boats cast out nets. By afternoon tea the landscape is more farmland and ox are ploughing the fields. Small hills crop up in the distance and teak tree trunks are neatly stacked on the riverbanks waiting for transportation. Stupas suddenly appear along the shoreline. By cocktail hour around the swimming pool it’s dark and we moor mid river for the night.
You may be sensing by know that life on board is punctuated by eating and drinking opportunities. The food is a combination of East and West with Burmese dishes like tea leaf salad and fried butter beans on the lunch buffet and both an Asian and Table d’hotes menu offered at dinner every evening.
Unlike larger cruises, there’s no enforced sharing tables so couples are free to dine a deux (although several – as well as the singletons – choose to eat with new friends they’ve made on the trip). And there’s entertainment every evening such as a traditional Burmese play or puppet show and a piano bar to retire to afterwards so no chance of going stir crazy onboard. But with the early morning starts, this is not a late night holiday.
At sunrise the next day, our last full day on the boat, we go on deck to watch the final approach to Bagan. Brick stupas loom into view. They’re less showy than the gold ones we’re used to from Yangon and Mandalay but no less beautiful for it.
After breakfast (where our smiley waiter always says: “Earl grey tea, two tea bags,” to me before I have a chance to order – now that’s good service) we leave the boat for an up close look at them. I lose count of how many copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days are proffered at me to buy whenever we reach a temple (which unlike a pagoda or a stupa you can walk inside.) In front of a Buddha statue at Hti Lo Min Lo a Russian girl is shooed away by a security guard for wearing short shorts and a “spaghetti blouse”.
There are plenty of Mad Dogs and English men walking around or cycling between the sites in the midday sun. But for me the highlight undoubtedly comes at sunset. We climb the five terraces of a pagoda in time to watch the sun go down over Bagan, a rural landscape groaning with brick and sandstone stupas. Despite the many tourists there’s a calmness over this magical place.
[UPDATE: Orient Express has been rebranded Belmond.]
For details on The Governor’s Residence and the Road to Mandalay visit http://www.belmond.com
Pictures: Zaw Min Yu