IT TAKES just one famous, stupa-fying view to make me understand why everyone is now heading for Burma. Gazing across the tea-coloured waters of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, I spy the 37 sacred hills of Sagaing crowned with hundreds of shrines, pagodas and monasteries that have been arising here since the early 14th century. Their ornate roofs and gleaming spires soar above the trees in a lustrous cavalcade of golden dots, epitomising the storybook charm of this most welcoming of Buddhist nations.
Being new to both Burma and the leisured pace of river cruising, I’m impressed by this panoramic opening shot as I embark for a 1024-mile (1648km) adventure that will see us sail up the broad, brown tentacle of the little-visited Chindwin River, which winds close to the country’s north-western border, then return to behold another of Burma’s great set pieces, the temple-studded plains of Bagan.
Within an hour of casting off, I feel as if I’ve boarded a luxury spaceship journeying back to the Middle Ages.
Elegant waitresses in red uniforms serve refreshing strawberry and cucumber drinks as we attune to a landscape lifted straight from a willow-pattern plate.
Eighty per cent of Burmese people still live an agrarian lifestyle, and the river-hugging world we discover beyond its cities seems barely brushed by the modern era. Yes, locals use cellphones and there are garish adverts for Lucky Cow creamer, but the predominant images are of water buffalo wallowing in the mud, teams of oxen churning the fields, and fishermen in conical hats floating by in wooden canoes powered by colourful sails sewn from old sheets.
My waterborne home for the next 11 nights is the Orcaella, a four-deck river cruiser launched last month by Orient-Express.
It is named after the small, beakless dolphins that inhabit the rivers of southern Asia, but the nearest sighting I get is a picture shown in an onboard lecture, which gives the impression they look like well-cooked sausages with fins.
With just 25 cabins and a contemporary design, the Orcaella has been purpose-built to make long and exploratory voyages into the country’s remoter parts.
My fellow passengers are an affable a mix of Australians, Americans and Europeans with an age range from 13 to 90. Many are first-timers keen to catch a glimpse of this hot-list country before it gets more developed, while others are veterans of Orient-Express’s larger and more traditional sister river cruiser, the 43-cabin Road to Mandalay, which has been offering voyages on the Irrawaddy since 1997.
“It looks like a hospital ship,” one old-hand opines, and there are early grumbles about slow service and a lack of atmosphere. There’s no faulting the Orcaella’s spirit of adventure, though, or the comfort of its cabins, which are kitted out with floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers and Bulgari toiletries.
While those in the deluxe category are compact, the 15 state rooms offer a chance to watch Burma roll by in supreme style.
I find it hard to love the décor of the bar and lounge, which has chunky red velvet sofas and monumental stools more appropriate to a Hong Kong night spot, but we all appreciate the spacious sun deck with its wooden loungers and swimming pool.
Other treats include a spa and fitness centre (both set, unusually, on the upper deck), while the 54-strong, mostly Burmese crew includes a cheery doctor who accompanies us for the entire voyage, with no charge for consultations.
As Somerset Maugham noted when he sailed to Bagan in 1922, “river travelling is monotonous and soothing”. A voyage aboard the Orcaella is undoubtedly the latter, with the engines so quiet at times I hardly notice we are leaving port.
This is a glide more than a cruise, and any fears of boredom are sent packing by an engaging programme of excursions, lectures and entertainment.
I have prepared for pagoda overload, but our almost daily ventures ashore are pleasantly varied. We visit the colossal Bodhi Tataung Buddha near Monywa and ride in the back of construction lorries to reach a jungle camp near Mawlaik, where elephants learn to haul logs. Heavy rain turns a 29 kilometre drive to Kalay into a bumpy 90-minute ordeal, while in Homalin, a rice wine-laced encounter with the Naga community ends in a lively conga.
Every excursion is meticulously planned by ground staff sporting walkie-talkies and red shirts emblazoned with “Logistics”, as if we are part of some grand presidential visit. Foreign tourists are still a novelty in this region, and the warm welcome we get at each stop is touching. Most memorable is an invitation to watch five boys aged from six to 10 being prepared for monastic education in Moktaw.
A luxury river cruise is surely the most stress-free way to tour a tropical destination now emerging from decades of repression and isolation.
Burma has a shortage of top-class hotels, and our excursions provide proof enough that travelling on its soggy, potholed roads aboard “best-available” buses can be wearying. Special permission is also required to visit a sensitive frontier region like this, with the Indian border just 30 miles away at some points.
While our trips ashore offer insightful adventures, they are marred by the variable quality of our Burmese guides, the withdrawn attitude of our lecturers and a general paucity of information about what we are visiting. Besides, in my view the deepest joy of a cruise like this comes from simply watching riverbank life unfold. “Who is entertaining who?” quips our sparkliest guide, Ko Win Myint, as we find a welcoming committee of onlookers awaiting us at every port, as eager to see us as we are them.
Meal times frequently present me with an inner tussle between grabbing the camera and tucking into the superb Asian dishes prepared by our highly talented Thai chef, Bann Nawisamphan.
Bann’s finest moment comes when she cooks up a spicy storm at a barbecue held at the charmingly neglected golf club in Mawlaik. Founded in 1936, the oldest course in Burma has seen better days, and today a round of its nine holes costs a mere 500 kyats (about R7).
An army of Orcaella cooks and waiters descends on the club’s overgrown lawns to create one of the best pop-up restaurants I’ve ever visited. We arrive in a fleet of tuk- tuks to find white, linen-covered tables laid out with candles, silverware and a feast of Asian dishes. The attention to detail is summed up in a plethora of protective polystyrene blocks diligently attached to the spikes of every yucca. As a xylophonist plays music-box tunes and the champagne flows all night, the consensus among our merry band is that it is hard to see how a high-end trip deep into backwater Burma could get much better.©The Telegraph