Up the Irrawaddy: glamour and grit on a Myanmar river cruise

Villagers fortify walls of the Irrawaddy riverbanks in Bagan, Myanmar.
Villagers fortify walls of the Irrawaddy riverbanks in Bagan, Myanmar. THE WASHINGTON POST

The driver swerved around pedestrians, motorbikes and mules as our hired SUV sped through Mandalay on a hot July day. Riding in the back seat, I gripped the headrest in front of me and hung on for dear life. Dust swirled as we pulled off the pavement and came to a stop on a dirt path. Nearby, families sat on the ground weaving large sheets of bamboo, and cows foraged in the piles of garbage strewn about the banks of the Irrawaddy River.

“Is this the right place?” I thought to myself.

Then the driver eased behind a tall wooden wall, and chaos gave way to sophistication. The dust settled, along with my nerves, as I gazed at the antique European river cruiser that stretched before us in the latte-colored water. A local woman in a tailored sarong and a blond man wearing a sport coat stood smiling at the top of the gangplank, holding glasses of fresh-pressed mango juice to welcome me and my husband, Brian, on our three-night luxury cruise aboard the Road to Mandalay.

Drink in one hand and luggage in the other, we stepped over the threshold of the 333-foot vessel’s entrance and set off a barrage of hospitality. Greeters whisked away our bags and replaced them with wet jasmine-scented cloths to soothe our hands and faces. A polite stewardess showed us to our compact but plush cabin overlooking the Irrawaddy.

With an hour to spare before setting sail, Brian and I changed into the soft white bathrobes hanging in the closets and wasted no time booking our first activity: a 90-minute spa treatment complete with Himalayan salts.

Minutes later, a petite massage therapist was sinking her oil-softened hands deep into my shoulders. And the peace inside the tiny teak-trimmed cabin was disturbed only by the welcome hum of the engines and the sound of water lapping against the hull as we pulled away from the shore.

While my fellow cruisers set sail from the sun-drenched top deck, waving to bamboo merchants along the riverbanks, I departed on my journey from two decks below, in a dimly lit, floral-scented well-being room, my eyes shut and my thoughts turning to the forthcoming adventure.

Brian and I had booked this cruise to pamper ourselves and to reconnect far from distractions back home in Florida. But you don’t travel across the globe to a country emerging from decades of isolation just to sip champagne and read George Orwell’s Burmese Days by the pool. You cruise Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) because you want a little dust on your feet, bitter tea leaf salad in your belly and a holiday with some gumption.

Luxury hospitality brand Belmond, formerly Orient Express, has offered glamour and grit on the Irrawaddy River since 1996 with its 50-year-old German river cruiser Road to Mandalay. The atmosphere on the long, slender boat reflects a decidedly vintage but also eclectic mix of Burmese, British, modern and traditional styles. Polished teak flooring and molding give the boat a rich, timeless appeal. Fine Asian fabrics accent the furniture in the common areas and the bedding in the cabins.

The sprawling observation deck is the showpiece, with its scalloped canopy, dipping pool, cocktail bar and outdoor-living-room lounges. A fitness room, nightly entertainment, spa rooms, world-class cuisine and an attentive staff round out the luxury.

The boat carries up to 82 passengers, offering a posh oasis in a nation of thatched-hut villages, rice paddies and thousands of Buddhist pagodas. Despite the opening up of the economy in 2012 and growing numbers of tourists, cellphones and motor scooters, Myanmar’s a country where villagers still bathe in the river, pull water from wells, live in houses made of bamboo and plow their fields with oxen.

Aboard ship, some of Myanmar’s best old-world culinary traditions commingle with new-world flavors in the dining room, which is decorated with oil-lamp sconces and white tablecloths. For our first lunch, we sat at a table overlooking the rolling river and ate medleys of local salads, sipped spicy soups and sampled curries off the buffet.

“Ah, mangosteens,” Brian said, returning from a dessert run with a pile of golf-ball-size, maroon-colored fruits on his plate. “You know these are illegal in the U.S.” Well, not technically anymore. Although they were once banned for harboring Asian pests, irradiated mangosteens can now be imported into the United States. But strict regulations make the criminally delicious fruit a rare, pricey find.

Brian carefully peeled away the fruit’s tough skin, revealing a glistening white nugget, and offered it to me.

“Nectar of the gods,” he said, as sweet juice burst from the soft cushion in my mouth.

Not long after lunch, we docked a few miles upriver and disembarked for a tour of Mandalay. Sixteen of us, from countries as far-flung as Canada, Egypt and New Zealand, split into small groups and climbed into minibuses that would ferry us to various heritage sites and Buddhist temples.

Our group’s Belmond guide, Thet, explained that we should remove our shoes when entering pagodas, out of respect for Buddhist tradition. Then he led us on a barefoot stroll through Kuthodaw Pagoda, with its long rows of 729 white domed stupas, each containing a marble slab inscribed with ancient Buddhist scriptures. They’re collectively known as the world’s largest book, Thet said.

Next we traipsed through Shwenandaw Monastery, the only remaining original structure from Mandalay Palace, which was destroyed in World War II. With no guards or signs keeping tourists at bay, I explored the intricately carved rooms made of teak covered in gold leaf, which is fading now, thanks to the thousands of visitors who carelessly touch the walls, altars and pillars.

I saw only one warning at the monastery: a small plastic sign propped on the stairs leading to the main Buddha statue. “Ladies are not allowed to enter,” it read. Eye-rolls from some of the women in our group quickly turned to chuckles when one of our fellow cruisers, 19-month-old Jasmine, picked up the sign and toddled around the gilded room.

After Jasmine’s peaceful protest, a la Aung San Suu Kyi, our band of sightseers headed to the city’s marble quarter, where artisans carve large blocks of rugged stone into shiny cross-legged Buddhas.

The Buddha count rose with each place that soft-spoken Thet, who wore a black longyi, or sarong, took us to. Throughout the afternoon he told us about royal dynasties and Burmese generals and monks. He talked about architecture and explained the meaning of the Buddha’s hand gestures. He showed us gold-leaf, silk-weaving and lacquerware workshops, where the conditions are rudimentary at best and ancient crafts are forged by hand. But by the third hour, I’d reached the guided-tour saturation point.

At our last stop, the U Bein Bridge, our group scattered. Brian and I wandered along the 200-year-old teak boardwalk that stretches three-quarters of a mile over Taungthaman Lake. The smell of fried fish wafted from waterfront cafes. Packs of children hawked jade necklaces. Fishermen waded in the lake, and tourists snapped photos of the sun sinking lower in the sky.

On Day 2 of the trip, Brian and I slept late in our cozy stateroom, skipping a photo op with monks collecting alms near the ship’s berth. We were ready to change course, cruise down the river at 12 knots toward Bagan and settle into the cushioned chaises on the sunny observation deck. We’d actually expected more than one full day of sailing, but with only 115 miles of waterway separating Mandalay and Bagan, there isn’t much distance to cover.

Once we shoved off, I whiled away the six-hour trip lounging by the pristine pool, looking at the villages along the riverbanks, reading local English-language newspapers and having my fortune told by the onboard astrologer, Sayar.

I sat with the white-robed mystic at a small table outside the ship’s piano bar. As he frantically scribbled lines, dots and tic-tac-toe boxes in his notebook, I blocked out Brian’s warning that this was a sham. I hoped that Sayar was the real deal.

“Ah, you are a liberal woman,” he said, raising his index finger and peering over his dark-rimmed glasses.

Good, he’s on to something, I thought.

“You have a sister,” he said.

Well, that didn’t last long.

“No,” I said.

“A brother?”

I nodded and cracked a sideways smile, a bit deflated. According to Sayar’s calculations, I was born under the sign of the Tiger, giving me “the courage to face any of life’s challenges.” Then he warned me to stay away from skiing, dogs and electronics — easy advice to follow on a boat in the tropics with no Internet access.

The rest of his predictions boiled down to health and prosperity, which inspired a wish that I made later that night after dinner, as we sipped Burmese brandy and released miniature hot-air balloons from the boat’s top deck, a tradition from Myanmar’s festival of lights. Two paper lanterns, fueled by flames and a swift wind, carried 16 wishes off into the sky.

Anchored in Bagan for our last day, we ditched the afternoon group tour to go bicycling with Road to Mandalay’s manager, Steve Locke, a New Zealander who’d first visited Myanmar in 1995. Perched atop a well-worn mountain bike, I pedaled down sandy paths winding through Bagan’s peanut and bean farms.

Red-brick pagodas with pointy bell-shaped stupas appeared in every direction. Some pagodas towered like Burmese castles with sweeping archways leading to ornate chambers holding golden Buddhas, while others squatted by the roadside looking more like small kilns than places of worship.

With reddish dust flying from our tires, Brian and I followed Locke as he zipped up a pathway and hopped off his bike in front of a large, vacant pagoda.

“Right. Up there,” he said, pointing a beam of light up a narrow, dark, crumbling staircase. We ascended the steep passageway one at a time to an opening flooded with sunlight.

A stunning 360-degree vista greeted us at the top. A summer breeze blew off the Irrawaddy in the distance. Thousands of centuries-old red-brick domes rose out of an untamed wilderness of low acacia trees as far as we could see.

Instinctively, I reached for my camera, but it was on the boat.

“You'll just have to take a picture with your mind,” said Locke, placing his finger against his temple.

And so I stood near the edge of the brick terrace, looked at the horizon and made a memory I'll never forget.

Myanmar cruises

Belmond, 800-524-2420; Luxury holiday company offers river cruises in Myanmar from January to April and July to December. Three-night cruises between Mandalay and Bagan start at $2,520 per person. Seven- and 11-night itineraries, exploring Myanmar’s ancient cities and sailing through gorges and teak forests, start at $3,600 and $4,000 per person.