Reading Time: 5 minutesA leisurely trip through unspoiled country along the Irrawaddy is an enchanting experience
“If you want to hear the sounds of real Burma, understand its history, culture and lifestyle, then experience the Irrawaddy River, its lifeline”, said a Burmese guy I met in India sometime ago. Burma has been called Myanmar since 1989.
I found the essence of his comment absolutely true while cruising down the nation’s largest waterway from up north beginning at the historical town of Prome, to the former capital city of Mandalay.
This 8-day expedition was on offer by Pandaw River Cruises that, in the 90s, introduced waterfaring in this river-dominated land, following the vestiges of the former Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. During the British colonial period, this Scottish company operated hundreds of boats, as there were no other means of transportation from one destination to the other.
Pandaw’s fleet comprises of several luxury boats, each hand-finished in brass and teak by traditional craftsmen, preserving their bygone colonial character. Compared to others, our vessel the RV Kalay was small with five air conditioned staterooms not overly spacious, but adequate with comfortable twin beds, en suite bathrooms, and hot and cold water round the clock.
As the voyage began, a mystic landscape of rolling hills, lush green fields and sandy riverbeds unfolded before us. Breathing fresh air, we sailed past small villages and towns where men worked in the paddy fields with oxen-driven ploughs, perhaps not be seen anywhere else in the world, cattle grazing, women washing and bathing in the river, children playing around their shabby huts and elders sitting in the shade of a large riverside banyan tree, smoking cheroots and leisurely waving at us. The moving panorama kept reflecting visuals of a simple and laidback life where time seemed to have stopped. Absorbed by the peaceful scenery, the passengers seemed lost in thought.
On each day there were shore excursions which introduced us to the history and culture of the land. We visited the ancient archaeological site of the Pyu civilization, forts at Minhla built by the Italians to save the Burmese Royals from the invading British, locations of historic Anglo-Burmese Wars and dilapidated buildings holding legacies of the British Raj. However the most interesting part of these excursions was encounters with the friendly locals. We met them at markets, shops, wayside eateries and monasteries. The language barrier didn’t stop us from sensing their welcoming nature.
At a village where clay pot making was their specialty, we watched in amazement as the villagers maintained their traditional trade with no modern facilities. We also visited a primary school built from donations from Pandaw passengers. On seeing us arrive, hoards of giggling children stopped their study and sprinted out of their classrooms to greet us and pose for our cameras. Once the picture was clicked, they would urge us to show them the result, and would see their image on the screen as if it was a wondrous happening.
A highlight of the cruise was the stop at Bagan, the nation’s greatest architectural site where visitors are often bewildered by the array and diversity of countless red brick pagodas, temples and stupas all freely scattered across the arid and dusty plain spreading out from the banks of the Irrawaddy. “The whole, as seen from the river might pass for a scene in another planet, so fantastic and unearthly”, commented Scottish writer Henry Yule in 1855. I couldn’t agree more when this silhouette first appeared before me.
Bagan was established in the 10th century as the capital of the Burmans who came into this land from North East China. Its fame and power peaked in the 13th century when Buddhism became the state religion with over 6000 Buddhist monuments built across the landscape. Famous explorer Marco Polo described them as ‘towers of stone’, many destroyed by later earthquakes and wars. Fortunately around 2000 still remain and have been aptly placed on the World Heritage listing.
It is impossible to see all of them; we only sampled the famed ones, the 11th century built Ananda Temple that ranks at the top of the list. With its shimmering gold tower at the top of the sphere, this active shrine with its four statues of the Buddha is highly revered among the religious-minded Myanmar population. Frescos and murals on its walls depict stories from the life of Buddha and appealed to me as poetry on stone.
Myanmar is often referred as the ‘Land of Golden Pagodas’ and it is said that if you are standing somewhere and don’t see a golden pagoda, you are not in Myanmar. This cliché is right. We kept spotting pagodas of different size, scale and design everywhere and regularly shored in to see a few, gorgeous enough to drop our jaw at first sight.
However nothing compares to the breathtaking experience of glimpsing the mighty gold-draped Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, where I spent a few days prior to the cruise.
The thriving metropolis of Yangon can be pictured as a counterpart of Kolkata if chaos, crowds, cosmopolitanism and colonial vestiges can be compared. Formerly known as Rangoon, this nation’s largest city was built by the British in the 19th century after they annexing the land on behalf of the British Indian Empire. Today, European styled buildings, traditional shop houses, crumbling jazz-age mansions and lots of pagodas dot the clumsy city-fabric, intermittently weaved with tree-lined avenues, green parklands and lakes.
The towering Shwedagon Pagoda, referred by ancient mythmakers as the ‘Mountain of Gold’, undoubtedly rules the city’s skyline. During the day, its golden facades glitter brightly. Then as the sun sinks into the west, the gleam gradually reflects magical shades from orange gold to crimson red. With evening lights, another appealing manifestation occurs.
The size and scope of the entire temple arena is huge and is always packed with mesmerized visitors taking photos, ardent devotees praying with flowers and incense sticks, monks chanting and children ringing bells with wooden sticks. The entire atmosphere is so magical and engaging that one can’t afford to leave Yangon without experiencing its golden vista.
Currently the tourism world touts Myanmar as a gem of a destination; it is one of those few remaining green-field places, untouched by the commercial approach to tourism. I was please to notice helpful people, honest taxi drivers, hardly any flaunting by locals, not too many souvenirs shops, and products not priced artificially high to be bargained down.
Most unfortunately, this nation remained cut off from the rest of the world for more than half a century under a strict military regime. However things are now rapidly changing with the government trying to restore democracy. Restriction on press has been relaxed, as a result of which several newspapers are on display at newsstands. Most significantly, photographs of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi can be seen in every nook and corner of the land, possibly proclaimed as an emblem of liberty. These are inspiring a sensational rise in visitor numbers, making tourism a major catalyst for private investment, more jobs and a better economy.
I will keep myself alerted to what ultimately happens to this pristine land which the celebrated novelist Rudyard Kipling once referred as ‘Quite unlike any land you know about’.
Getting there: Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) have flights from Bangkok to Yangon and Mandalay. This boutique airline offers lounge facilities even to economy class passengers in Bangkok which can be easily reached from Australia flying Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com).
Where to stay: InYangon, centrally located Traders Hotel (www.shangri-la.com/Traders/Yangon) is popular among business and leisure travellers.
Irrawaddy River Cruise – Check Pandaw River Cruises (www.pandaw.com) for details
Visa –Check with Myanmar Embassy (www.mecanberra.org ) in Canberra for details.