Myanmar: Tests, rewards for the traveler

Luxury river cruise treats passengers to views of country's tourist-bare sites

Destination: Asia

April 25, 2004|By Barry Zwick | Barry Zwick,Los Angeles Times

We were passengers on a shore excursion on a luxury cruise, but, for the moment, we were not in the lap of luxury. We were in Bagan, Myanmar, climbing 70 jagged stairs in stark interior darkness in our bare feet, as Buddhist custom requires, to the top of a 12th-century pagoda to watch the sun set over 2,000 ancient temples and the Irrawaddy River.

We had chosen, despite appearances, an easy way to visit a difficult place. There are no ATMs in what used to be Burma, and credit cards and traveler's checks are not accepted. Public transportation is uncomfortable and unreliable. Few people speak English.

We were passengers on the Road to Mandalay, a 333-foot-long vessel owned by Orient- Express, the British company that runs posh trains in Europe and Asia. The gleaming white ship, fitted with teak, brass and marble and filled with Burmese antiques and vivid friezes, has been plying the Irrawaddy for eight years.

Orient-Express bought the ship in 1994, when it was a floating hotel on the Rhine, and refitted it, tearing out 98 small cabins to create 66 large and extra-large staterooms, all with picture windows. Standard rooms cost $2,500 per person for a four-day cruise; larger rooms cost $3,500 per person.

The Road to Mandalay sails upriver from Bagan, the nation's spiritual heart, every Saturday. Four days later, it moors at the sacred walled city of Mandalay, having traveled 128 of the river's 1,302 miles.

The Irrawaddy is fed by two crystal-clear streams in the Himalayas, picking up silt until it becomes a dark chocolate waterway bordered by steep, sandy banks, and finally plunging into the Andaman Sea. In the dry season, when I sailed, the river is a mile wide, shallow and filled with treacherous sandbars. During the summer monsoons, it rises 40 feet, overflows its banks and can extend four miles across.

The 57 passengers on my cruise were divided for shore excursions by language, 18 on the English tours and about 30 on the German ones. The rest of the passengers -- Russians, Canadians and Belgians -- had arranged for a private van. The English bus held five Americans, three French couples, a Chinese couple, a British couple and a German family who took the English bus because the German bus was too crowded.

We visited temples, pagodas and stupas, and walked through markets unchanged since medieval days. We watched monks and their tiny novices in rust-colored robes line up for food at a village the ship had adopted. We sailed in rowboats under a spectacular milelong teak footbridge and climbed endless staircases for unforgettable views.

Myanmar's distance from the modern world was evident at every turn. Few people wore shoes. Women and children painted their cheeks with thanaka, a bark paste they believe protects them from the sun. Trousers were rare; men and women wore lungis, sarongs tucked in at the waist. In village markets, old women in purple and gold headscarves sat cross-legged on rattan mats, smoking cheroots and selling beans and peppers. Frazzled mothers with children tugging at their lungis haggled over bloody pig livers and rat carcasses.

Every aspect of Burmese life is pervaded by Buddhism. In Bagan, the belief that the faithful would enter nirvana more quickly if they built holy places led to the construction of 4,446 shrines by the end of the 13th century. More than 2,000 survive.

The temples of Myanmar have been repainted and regilded, and they're filled with worshippers. In this nation where the average wage is less than $20 a month, people dressed in rags buy gold leaf at $1 per booklet to paste on statues of Buddha already heaped with gold. We visited a gold-leaf factory and watched pale 10-year-old girls at work, their lives dedicated to separating gold leaf into pages for the devout.

Life was good on board the Road to Mandalay. Before dawn, we rose to watch the sunrise on the pool deck, and cheerful members of the 70-person service crew brought us coffee and tea. Each day, we found fresh orchids in our rooms. I heard "Good morning, sir" more times during those four days than I've ever heard before.

We were taken on morning and afternoon excursions that ran like clockwork. We always arrived at our sunset destination precisely 20 minutes before sunset. Local children surrounded us to practice their English as we were touring, and none begged for money. If they were selling postcards or fans, we bought them for a dollar or two. The children were a highlight of our shore excursions.

Simon Griffiths, a British village locksmith, was our Pied Piper. "All the pretty girls are flocking to Simon," said his wife, Lindsey, a railroad executive. "They don't fancy him like this at home."

We tipped the kids for small favors, such as showing us to the bathroom or guarding our shoes at temple entrances.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.