Sit back and take a luxury river journey to Mandalay
"The country is so different from what people tell
us," said one American couple to Myanmar Times. "It’s not what
we expected. ...The rural people we see are poor, but everyone seems
happy, smiling... when I see poverty elsewhere in the world, the
people are grim, angry, and look as if they resent we tourists."
They had been touring the country a few days before
they joined the Road to Mandalay cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River,
from Bagan to Bhamo. The guide sitting with us laughed and said it
is something he hears from every first-time tourist: "Its not what
we expected!" Usually the cruises are from Pyay or Bagan to Mandalay,
and Bhamaw cruises are possible just near the end of the monsoon. Once
a year, when water levels permit, the ship goes up the Chindwin, another
great river that flows into the Ayeyarwaddy near Monywa. This cruise
ship has been operating since 1995, part of the Orient Express chain
of hotels, luxury trains and ships. Although this is a luxury ship,
the guests are not kept in a bubble of isolation: they get to see
the country side and visit villages even when the ship is not at anchor.
Fast boats ferry the passengers to small villages, historical sites,
or places of interest such as the famous pottery works of Kyauk Myaung.
Charlie Turnbull, the manager who has been on board
for four years and by now moves and acts like a well-brought up Mandalay-born
Myanmar girl, was away on leave. Stuart Gramelle was filling in for
her this trip, with the assistance of a new arrival, Yovanka Grueso
Fillon who after five weeks in the country, dressed as Charlie in
Myanmar costume, is already beginning to move as decorously as a Mandalay
girl. "I lived in Paris two years before I come here," she stated firmly.
"I hate cities. I love this." "With individual travellers, those who
do not belong to one company or association and who are holidaying
together, we prefer to limit our guests to around 80 at most," Stuart
explained, "although we can accommodate 120. Its better for them."
Lectures are held on board on culture, history and ecology, and there
are performances on some nights such as ethnic dances, marionettes,
acrobatics, snake charmers, and elephant dancers: not real elephants
but men in costume from the town of Kyauk-se where it is a local tradition.
The upper deck with boards covering the swimming pool makes a good
stage and presumably a dance floor, but Yovanka told me that the
entertainment offered to the guests is strictly about the culture
of the country: so, no tango.
With the 76 staff on board, she said by now they
are like one big family. Captain Ba Nyan ably steers the ship. Aung
Htwe Lin, a sweet-faced young man working on the top deck setting
up chairs around the swimming pool said he came from Mandalay. There
is Sui, who is from the Chin Hills. A few of the waiting staff come
from Yangon. They were trained at the Strand or the Sedona Hotels and
some guests remarked that their dazzling smiles must have been one
criterion in hiring them. The observation lounge offers a good view
of the river, and the piano bar next to it is a cosy place for evenings
or afternoon teas. For a glutton like me, the roomy and beautifully
set up dining room is the place of destiny: not only for the décor
but for the marvelous fare provided by Executive Chef Michael Perry.
Lunch is always a buffet, starting out with Myanmar on the first day,
and going through Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Fusion, Italian
and more, as long as the trip lasts. The Village Lads’ Chicken served
the first day, apart from about twenty other dishes including desserts,
was delicious and authentically Myanmar. Shy Michael looked paralyzed
with horror when I wickedly told him that truly authentic Village
Boy’s Chicken and Gourd needs the ingredients to be stolen.
"But," I hastened to add before he toppled over in a faint, "yours,
in spite of being legal, is excellent."
Evenings were spent in agony choosing between the
choice of two starters and two mains, with a cheese plate and dessert,
and Belgium chocolates with coffee. The last night’s
dinner, when I chose succulent duck breast as a starter and Rainbow
Trout as the main, was one of the best meals I have ever had. I asked
Michael about the ingredients. "The vegetables we buy locally, and
the prawns we bring from Yangon or buy on the river from up North.
We get beef and lamb from Australia, Rainbow Trout from New Zealand,
salmon from Chile, and chicken from Belgium. The chickens are pretty
tired by the time they land on the deck," he added mischievously. "On
a personal level, Myanmar is a most impressive country. The people
are incredible, one of the most unspoiled people I’ve met – most welcoming
and friendly." He hoped people would come here, and then goes back
and talk in their country about how wonderful Myanmar is.
"Coming here, we see how unnecessary is the life
we have back home, full of material things, which have monetary value
but little else," said a lady who lives in Chicago. "At Malai, that
small village we visited, the children are so sweet! So bright, too,"
said a pretty blonde who resides in LA, and who is a neighbour of
Sting, Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks. "If I say a phrase in a foreign language
they repeat it after me, word perfect, I swear." She had earlier asked
me in some bewilderment if French and Spanish were taught in our
schools, as she has heard children talking correctly in these languages.
"They couldn’t have learnt it just by listening to tourists!" A fast
boat carried passengers into the first defile as far as it was safe
to go, as the ship docked in Bhamaw. The first defile of the Ayeyarwaddy,
just above Bhamaw is the most narrow, with white waters and jagged
rocks, but with towering jungle lining the banks, quiet except for
calls of birds. A train ride into the forest took us to Naba, a small,
tidy town where the guests ambled and marveled at the wooden houses.
An elephant camp was just a short bus ride away from Thabeikkyin.
The five elephants eagerly chewed away at the sugar cane fed to them.
One bigger one with an air of importance showed how he pulled logs,
but refused to stay for a photo shoot. One sunset coincided with the
river turning westwards: it was a magical time, with the sunlight in the
river in front of us, as if we were sailing into the sky. Get to know
the Ayeyarwaddy, and you come to love it like a live entity. From
the staff on board the Road to Mandalay ship is not just a ship....
it is their pride and joy, and the magic of the Ayeyarwaddy seems
to have worked its spell on them, as it has for a great many others
through the centuries.