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.
Before departing to Mandalay in the afternoon of the next day, my guests were guided through the myriad of temples and pagodas in Old Bagan. Bagan’s monuments were mostly built from the 11th to 13th centuries and included the heavily painted temple of Gugyaukgyi, AnandaPhaya, and TayokHpwe “sunset” temple. Shopping was possible everywhere, especially in the traditional antique and lacquer-ware shops. Some guests even opted to fly with hot air balloons over Bagan early in the morning, while others visited more famous temples, such as Shwesandaw, Dhammayangyi, Htilominlo, and Shwezigon.
The last visit in Bagan led us to the local Nyaung U market, where fruits, vegetables, betel nuts, and other goods were sold. The time for departure came. The “Road To Mandalay” started its river voyage upstream from Bagan to Mandalay. We passed places such as Pakokku, an old shipbuilding town, where a new bridge over the river is being built, and the mouth of the Chindwin River, which is Myanmar’s second largest river and joins the Irrawaddy on its western side. At sunset we reached Yandabo, where villagers use to produce big clay jars for keeping drinking water.
In the meantime, there was an opportunity on board to watch a “Longyi&Thanaka presentation as well as listen to a lecture about the Irrawaddy River. Even more, before the daily set menu dinner in the restaurant, a cocktail party was given.
After interesting presentations of humanitarian projects taking place in Myanmar and a brilliant cooking school, we finally arrived after lunch at the ShweKyet Yet landing place just behind the Ava Bridge built in 1934 by the British and rebuilt after the Second World War. Just a few years ago, a modern road bridge emerged, thus reserving the old one for the railway to Myitkyina in Kachin State. We still had two nights on the cruise ship, because we had to explore Mandalay, the last royal city of Myanmar, in the afternoon, while sacred places, such as Mingun and Sagaing, were visited on the following day.
First, our sightseeing buses stopped at the quarters of the white marble cutters, before entering the large compound of the Mahamuni Pagoda. This outstanding temple enshrines Mandalay’s most venerated Buddha image, which was brought over in 1784 from Rakhine State in the western part of Myanmar. Pilgrims after pilgrims plaster the bronze image with layers of gold-leaf, but only men are allowed to go up to the image. In a side hall of the temple, there are six original bronze statues from Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which are said to possess a wondrous healing power.
Next we visited the totally wood-carved ShweNandaw Royal Palace Monastery, which is the last remaining part of King Mindon’s Palace, which was destroyed by bombing during the World War II. Also, we entered the huge area of the Kuthodaw Pagoda, where 729 marble tablets inscribed with the Buddhist “Tripitaka” are housed - referred to as the world’s biggest book. On the way back to the ship, our guide explained the art of gold-leaf beating in workshops in Mandalay and made stops at the famous teakwood U Bein Bridge from Amarapura and a silk and cotton factory.
On the last day in Mandalay, guests could do “offering alms” to monks and novices from the village of ShweKyet Yet in the early morning, before driving to the Mingun Jetty to board a local boat to Mingun, which is 11 kilometers north of Mandalay on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River. There, about 200 years ago, King Bodawpaya had planned to build the largest pagoda in the world with a height of 150 meters. But when the king died, only an unfinished monument remained and was further destroyed by an earthquake in1838. In the late afternoon we visited the old Shan capital Sagaing, which is directly located across the river from the ship’s mooring at ShweKyet Yet.
Nestled amidst a series of lower hills there are more than 600 monasteries overshadowed by glittering pagodas with panoramic views into the surrounding countryside. We climbed the highest hill pagoda and also visited the impressive Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda featuring bronze statues of a rabbit and a frog. In a nearby monastery for Buddhist nuns, we learned about the simple life of Myanmar people. After making a last stop at a silversmith’s workshop for shopping, we returned to the “Road To Mandalay” to enjoy dinner and a performance of Burmese puppets. Our voyage had come to an end.
On March 2 early in the morning, we left our floating hotel for good and my tour group was transferred to the faraway Mandalay International to continue our last leg of the voyage through Myanmar with a 30- minute flight from Mandalay to Heho Airport in Shan State. From there, we drove by bus to the famous “Aythaya” Vineyard Estate east of Taunggyi, where the Director of Technical Operations, German Hans-Eduard Leiendecker, gave an introduction into the art of winemaking. Also, a nice wine tasting experience was possible together with a rustic lunch.
In the afternoon we had the best chance to visit the big and busy market in Nyaungshwe that is held every five days throughout the year, before embarking on a boat transfer to the Inle Princess Resort, where we stayed for two nights. A full day sightseeing boat tour across Inle Lake brought us to a colorful floating market, presenting three long-neck Padaung women, and to the village of Indein, where leg-rowing Intha people lived at the foot of the sacred Shwe Inn Tain Buddha Pagoda Mountain. Lunch was taken in a small restaurant near the famous PhaungDaw U-Pagoda, where five gilded sandalwood Buddha statues are venerated. The Intha, numbering approximately 70,000 people, have for centuries adapted to a semi-nomadic life-style, building their houses on long stilts and cultivating home-grown gardens on artificial islands in the lake. The Intha women have also produced some intriguing silk and cotton weavings.
On March 4, we left Inle Lake very early in the morning to board the “Air Bagan” plane again back to Yangon, where one part of my group left on the same day back to Bangkok and beyond, while the second part enjoyed another hotel night in the Strand Hotel. Thus, on the last day of the tour, we revisited Shwedagon Pagoda, where every foreigner has to pay US$5 for a “donation.” But this is nothing compared to the spiritual gain every tourist receives, when visiting this pagoda.
Without doubt, the Union of Myanmar is becoming more and more the emerging tourist destination in Southeast Asia.