It came like a bolt of lightning! Just in the time when the infamous military government of the Union of Myanmar metamorphose into a civilian one, I got an assignment to lead two German tour groups on a river voyage through the Golden Land – an ample metaphor for a country, which is well known as “Burma” – an English expression - but is officially called “Myanmar” since 1989.
Stationed and living in Chiang Mai as a media travel consultant and tour director, it was relatively easy to get a sudden tourist visa for Myanmar in Bangkok for a stay of 28 days. Also, I booked a return air ticket with Bangkok Airways that regularly flies from Bangkok to Yangon two times a day. I remind you that Yangon is no longer the capital of the country but newly built Naypyidaw instead, located far more inland compared with the busy port city of Yangon near the Bay of Bengal.
Having chosen the afternoon flight on February 23, I was lucky that for the first night in Yangon I was accommodated by Director General U HtayAung, Directorate of Hotels & Tourism from the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism, to stay at the Governor’s Residence. This outstanding place is an historic “colonial-style” teakwood mansion from Myanmar’s Kayah State that is now one of Yangon’s finest hotels. There I surprisingly met with Swiss Philippe Bissig, who is Regional Managing Director Asia of “Orient-Express” - the company that runs the “Road To Mandalay” river cruise ship, which I intended to board on February 26 sailing the mighty Irrawaddy River.
My first visit in Yangon was to the worldfamous Shwedagon Pagoda by night to meet old friends and marvel at one of the cultural wonders of the world. More than 100 meters high the huge golden “zedi” enshrines eight hairs of the Buddha and dates back more than 2,500 years - a living symbol of strength and serenity.
On the following day, the arriving tour members stayed at the Strand Hotel, which was originally built in 1901 by John Darwood and then acquired by the rich Armenian Sarkies brothers, who also owned the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel on Malaysia’s Penang Island. From the beginning “The Strand Hotel” was regarded by Europeans as the finest hotel east of Suez and patronized by royalty and distinguished persons, such as George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and David Rockefeller among others.
During the full day sightseeing tour through the colonial garden city of Yangon, which has nearly 6 million inhabitants, we visited the hollow Botataung Pagoda at the Yangon River, the centrally located Sule Pagoda downtown, the inspiring National Museum with a showroom of the many National Races of Myanmar, busy Scott Market, as well as the modern Kabar Aye Pagoda and - last not least - Shwedagon Pagoda for a bright sunset.
On the morning of February 26, we departed from Yangon to fly with the domestic airline “Air Mandalay” to Bagan and were transferred from the airport directly to the “Road To Mandalay” cruise ship. The luggage was kindly delivered to the cabins about one hour later, as the first opulent lunch buffet was offered to all the boarding guests. It was up to the special interests of the guests on what to wonder at first: the elegant ship, the mighty Irrawaddy River or the old ruined city of Bagan.
Actually, the cruise ship “Road To Mandalay” is a luxurious floating hotel, where we had four upcoming nights to spend. Italian Hotel Manager Sammy Bottari did her best to heartily welcome my guests from Germany to mingle with other international guests on board. The Rhine River vessel was built in Germany at Cologne in 1964 and then transported in the mid-90s to Myanmar. Captain MyoLwin took over as “Master on Board” in 2006 having mastered many adventurous cruises on the mighty Irrawaddy River - mostly on the 185-kilometer stretch between Bagan to Mandalay and vice versa.
Only during high water levels in August and September each year, the 43-cabin ship is able to reach Bhamo in Kachin State up in the northern part of Myanmar. A flat tummy is essential to negotiate the shallow waters and shifting sandbanks during the high season months from October to March each year, when the difference between high and low levels of water can be up to 12-15 meters. May to July is off-season.
The Irrawaddy River is one of Southeast Asia’s great river systems and flows through Myanmar’s dry heartlands offering high biodiversity as well as high vulnerability to ecological pressures. At approximately 2,170 kilometers long, the river is Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway and the lifeblood of the nation.
The Irrawaddy originates at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’MaiHka Rivers up in Kachin State and then runs through three amazing gorges down to Mandalay, Bagan and further south. Downstream, the delta of the Irrawaddy consists of a large fertile rice plain, while the lower part of the delta is a fragile ecosystem of mangrove swamps and tidal estuaries. Like its counterpart the Mekong River further east, the mighty Irrawaddy is now threatened by dam building activities high up in northern Myanmar.
The Irrawaddy is a very lively river. Villages, whitewashed monasteries, some gilded pagodas, fishermen’s camps, transport boats and small canoes, loaded bamboo rafts, also local people bathing in the river or doing their laundry, animals - all can be seen from the “Observation Deck” of the ship, which also boosts a bar and a swimming pool. .....................