The Rivers Less Travelled – New Journeys in Myanmar
The intriguing Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, flanked by Thailand, Laos, China and India, has opened up to tourism in recent years and one of the best ways to see the country is by boat. As many of the roads in Myanmar are in poor condition, some villages and areas can only been accessed via the waterways. Belmond Orcaella, a boutique sized river cruiser, is designed to reach remote, less travelled areas of Myanmar between July and March, avoiding the hottest and rainiest months of the year.
As a passenger you may choose to start your journey in the bucolic central region of Myanmar at Bagan or Mandalay, or alternatively at Yangon in the south of the country near the Bay of Bengal. Yangon, the former capital, is home to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, fascinating markets and historic colonial buildings as well as Southeast Asia’s largest reclining Buddha. Waterways connect Yangon to the great Ayeyerwady River which runs north to south through the centre of Myanmar. So for guests staying at Belmond’s Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon (below) it’s possible to begin your trip here.
Once joining the Ayeyerwady, the Orcaella travels between Bagan a verdant countryside filled with over 2000 temples and northwards to Mandalay, the bustling last Royal capital of Myanmar. The Chindwin river forks off the Ayeyerwady north of Bagan and up to Homalin near the Indian border in the foothills of the Himalayas. An alternative journey starts at Mandalay and continues north on the Ayeyerwady to Bhamo near the border with China.
Belmond is an early pioneer of tourism in Myanmar having launched the Road to Mandalay river cruiser on the Ayeyerwady River and the Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon in 1996. Twenty years later they remain the only company to own and operates two luxurious cruises in Myanmar with the launch of the smaller Orcaella ship in 2013.
Belmond Orcaella has a slimmer draft which allows her to travel on the shallower parts of the river and reach the lesser explored regions of Myanmar. She also runs longer, more in depth cruises than her sister ship, the Belmond Road to Mandalay.
With just 25 cabins Orcaella has an exclusive feel. All cabins have floor to ceiling windows and a number of the suites have balconies. The Upper Deck includes a dipping pool and lounge bar while the floor below includes a restaurant and wine cellar.
In between excursions, life on board is punctuated by eating and drinking opportunities from afternoon tea to cocktail parties. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in a modern, air conditioned dining room or on the observation deck. There are buffet style international dishes for lunch and a choice of Burmese or Western set menus in the evening with Myanmar dishes including. All accompanied by a good selection of international wines including the Myanmar wine producer Aythaya.
Pop up lunches, dinners and afternoon teas are also arranged throughout the various journeys in a village setting or at an historical site such as a fort or a 125 year old golf club, originally set up by the Scots.
As well as a small swimming pool, fitness area and beauty treatment rooms, morning yoga and afternoon tai chi is offered on board and at select, special locations along the route.
During November the Orcaella makes two journeys from Yangon to Bagan and Bagan to Yangon.
Beginning at Yangon, the boat cruises along the Twante Canal which connects the Yangon river with the the Ayeyarwady river, a journey of some five hours, before carrying on to Bagan. Once on the Ayeyarwady the Orcaella makes various stops on its nine day journey including at Pyay with it’s beautiful Shwesadaw Pagoda and 10 storey Buddha, the quaint village of Gwechang where guests may take an ox and cart ride, the trading port of Magwe where there’s a chance to travel by tuk tuck to the local market or see the famous Myathalan Pagoda and Sale with its exquisite wooden monastery and 20 foot lacquer Buddha.
Alternatively, the Orcaella journey from Bagan to Yangon is one night and day shorter, making similar stops. Additional sights on this itinerary include Shwe Myat Mhan pagoda featuring the only bespectacled Buddha in Myanmar and Zalon, a charming town with colonial wooden houses. On both journeys there’s a chance to visit artisan producers along the way including makers of sweet confectionery, bamboo shoot pickle and cheroots.
One of Belmond Orcaella’s signature journeys is only possible in mid-August to September each year due to the water level of Chindwin river. This exclusive 12 night journey allows you to travel to remote, ordinarily unseen areas of Myanmar. You’ll be treated to a verdant view of the mountain ranges while cruising along the river to Homalin, a small town in north western Myanmar near the Indian border that is not easily accessed by road.
You will also have the opportunity to visit some of the remote villages and meet hill tribes who have their own distinct traditions and cultures. At Naga village, for example, passengers will learn more about the community, which doesn’t ordinarily welcome outsiders, through their food (traditionally served on bamboo), dance performances and, at times, their colourful and cheerful festivals. Belmond’s local guide is on hand to help to translate the local dialects.
Beginning in Mandalay, the Orcaella heads north towards the Chinese border before returning to Bagan, south of Mandalay on the eleven day Gorges of the Far North journey. Stops include Katha where there’s a market made famous by George Orwell in Burmese Days and Shwe Paw Kyun with houses on stilts and an island monastery. En route to Bhamo, the boat enters a narrow gorge – the dramatic journey through the pass takes about two hours. Bhamo itself is a lively trading post between Myanmar and China.
Returning southwards, the boat stops at Nabi where you are transferred by train for a trek into the jungle and teak forest; and Ma Lae Village where you will witness the novication ceremony for young boys becoming monks. Then it’s on to Mandalay where you’ll be given a tour of this last royal capital filled with gold domed pagodas before ending in Bagan – a rural region scattered with temples.
“The small size of the Belmond Orcaella ship allows guests to connect with one another, to share experiences and ultimately become friends,” says Eddie Teh, General Manager of Belmond Cruises. “Travelling on Belmond Orcaella is also an opportunity to experience a more indepth trip to Myanmar, with some luxurious touches. We have guests who have travelled on both [of our cruisers] as they say that Road to Mandalay is an introduction of Myanmar while Orcaella provides an in-depth experience of the country. Passengers get to try some very authentic experiences that are rare to see for tourists.”
Eddie has also seen the transformation of Myanmar as the country has opened up to the outside world in the last several years. “We’ve seen a lot of changes, there’s been many challenges but we embrace them and have been running our business by working closely with local community to support them in a better life,” he says.
An important part of Eddie’s job has been to encourage communication with the locals. Not only to craft the best programmes for Belmond guests but also to establish a relationship with the villagers, to make them feel they are showcasing their home to foreigners. “There are many places where the locals are not familiar with having visitors and some haven’t seen foreigners before, especially when we first introduce a journey. When they feel a part of it, they become a proud host and naturally engage with our guests who in turn are immersed in these authentic experiences,” says Eddie.
“We have successfully introduced the magic of Myanmar to our passengers,” he continues. “I say to guests, you will be surprised to find the things you like to do the most are available on board and in the mean time you will discover something new through one of our amazing journeys.”
Dr Hla Tun joined Belmond in 2004 as the ship’s doctor on board the Road to Mandalay. Born and raised in Myanmar, Dr Tun gained his medical degree from Yangon University in his home town. He also achieved US medical accreditation through passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination.
When the boat docks in Bagan, Dr Tun attends to the Belmond Free Clinic there which is open from 9am to 11pm. He sees up to 300 local patients there a day, many who have travelled from remote areas to see him. At the same time he is on call for guests of the Belmond Road to Mandalay and if he is needed on board he catches a speedboat back.
Following the cyclones that hit Myanmar in 2008 and 2011, Dr Tun took a group of volunteers to affected areas to provide medical care and to help provide food, water and clothing to people in need.
Dr Tun also runs the Orphans and Vulenerable Children Programme which was originally set up by UNICEF to help under privileged children whose parents have HIV as well as provide basic welfare and education. He is integral to Belmond’s ongoing support of education in the region.
Belmond employs an impressive 97 per cent of locals in the places the Orcaella visits along its various itineraries. The Belmond team establishes a relationship with the locals in each area. Part of Belmond’s revenue, together with donations from guests, goes toward charities to support people’s wellbeing and education.
Over the last 20 years Belmond has built and renovated 26 schools in the central Myanmar region. The first was built in Shwe Kyet Yet village near the Belmond Road to Mandalay’s port and the latest is in the village of Pon, outside Bagan. There are also schools at the various ports along the river. Some 3,000 pupils are currently attending these schools.
Up to 300 people attend the Belmond Free Clinic at Bagan every day, some travelling from up to 200 km away. A free lunch is given to patients at the clinic and it’s also possible for them to stay overnight at the monastery. Belmond passengers are welcome to visit the clinic (they are also encouraged to bring unwanted spectacles with them to donate).
A number of Belmond guests, having travelled on one of the cruises, make a one off donation or a long-term commitment of support to the community. One former passenger, a doctor from Germany, joined Dr Tun for a month last year to provide help in remote villages. And in 2008, an Italian guest, who was also a doctor, donated a large sum of money to victims of Cyclone Nargis and also travelled to Myanmar to visit them.