Cruising south on the Irrawaddy River through Myanmar is a lesson about the impacts of tourism. The farther south you go from remote Bhamo toward busy-but-beautiful Bagan, the closer you get to the more beaten track where souvenir sellers await and beggars line the paths to some of the most amazing temple ruins in the world.
Best travel plan: Get a good look at the Bagan temples at sunset, then head north.
Myanmar, which was off-limits to most travelers for more than 50 years, now is a travel priority if you want to arrive before tourism makes its inevitable marks, especially in the less explored northern region. The country formerly known as Burma has a newly elected government (headed by famed protest leader, former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi), and the country seems ready to reveal itself.
The best way to visit remote villages of the north is on a river cruise out of Bhamo, which is only 30 miles from China. It is the northern turnaround point for weekly journeys on the 36-passenger Avalon Myanmar between Bhamo and Bagan. You can also cruise in the opposite direction, but I recommend starting in the northern calm and moving south toward the more chaotic.
Villages that line the shallow, muddy Irrawaddy during the first three days floating south are a traveler’s delight — quiet and welcoming, with local markets that mostly serve residents, not tourists, full of people who are busy tending to their own business, not yours.
Bhamo, at the top, is not a tourist town, but an outpost, a collection of busy backcountry markets along unpaved streets, selling everything from food and dry goods to motorbikes. Once it was well known as a primary provisions stop on the old Burma Road link between China and a seaport in India, built laboriously through jungle and swamp by U.S. troops while under Japanese attack during World War II.
The town has a rustic, windswept, single-strip airport (with no indoor toilets and no flushing in the privy). Passengers are transported from town to the Avalon Myanmar on a well-worn water taxi. For at least the next three days, they are disconnected from the rest of the world, with no cellphone connection nor access to the Internet.
But that’s the extent of the deprivation. During your seven nights aboard the Avalon Myanmar, you are never far from the first-world bubble of fine accommodations and daily expert guided tours — the lifestyle that makes river cruising so popular. Life aboard the bright, airy, teak ship, which was Burmese built in 2015, includes plenty of creature comforts — a soft bed facing the river, wine and tasty Asian food (passengers should not expect a cheeseburger or steak).
A key to group travel experiences in remote parts of the world is expert leadership, and Avalon gets high marks for its cruise director and local guide. Their familiarity with the land and cultures and their abilities to share their insights make for a smooth and fulfilling journey.
The first few days were an eye-opener both for passengers and residents along the river. The impact of the casual, comfortable mixing of faces and races, lifestyles and cultures was not lost on either group. At various village stops, where we disembarked for several hours or more to visit markets and temples — in Kyun Daw, Katha, Kya Hnyat, and Kyauk Myaung — residents and travelers studied each other.
Ours was a dance of connections. We entered villages that had seen few Westerners. Some women appeared reticent and averted their eyes so as not to stand out, but others were outgoing and curious as we wandered around in our western clothes and extroverted style. I was a curiosity with my ample stomach, which, Buddha-like to their eyes, indicated great wealth, as most folks on the river do not have the means to eat so richly. My white hair drew wide eyes and shy smiles.
Katha was a highlight, both for its huge village market and the opportunity to head into the forest to visit a remote elephant camp where Avalon Waterways is contributing to a transition for elephants that have been the primary workers in hauling teak from forests. As the lumber industry is fading, the elephants are learning an easier task — providing rides for travelers under much less severe living conditions.
By day five of our cruise, our arrival at riverside villages was met with sellers of postcards and blankets on the path leading from the vessel into town.
When we tied up in Bagan, on day seven, the souvenir hawkers were riding motorbikes, and they zoomed ahead of our tour bus so they could wait for us at every site, selling the same goods they held in the morning when they had met us at the river. One young woman asked my name, and for the rest of the day I heard, from various women, “David, remember you promised,” which of course I had not.
In my notes, I called them my ladies-in-waiting.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.
Myanmar River Cruise
Monsoons drench Myanmar starting each May, which makes early summer an inopportune time for a river cruise. Most of the vessels that ply the Irrawaddy, primarily between Yangon and Mandalay, rest for several months as the river is swollen by rain and by snow melt from its headwaters in the Tibet region of the Himalayas.
Now is the time to plan and book a trip. Avalon’s year begins in September and ends in April. Dry season starts in November, with lower temperatures that rise again in February. Vessels tend to fill early because passenger capacity is small on each ship. Avalon Myanmar trips for 14 nights (7 on the river) start at about $350 a day, per person, for two people, not including airfare or tips. To contact a travel agent, see AvalonWaterways.com or call 877-797-8791.
Other river cruise companies also offer trips on the Irrawaddy, but most do not cruise as far north as Bhamo.