Down the Ayeyarwady: Serenity, heritage and many, many pagodas

By Aparna Pednekar

Sandwiched between Asia’s top guns, Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, has much more to offer than an Indo-Chine identity crisis, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and gemstones you’ll never be able to afford. Hopping on a serene cruise from Yangon to Bagan reveals many facets of Southeast Asia’s dark horse, a cheerful lyongi-clad creature with a lilting song on its lips and big dreams in its eyes.

Just over a month after Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide victory, signaling Myanmar’s tryst with democracy, I land at Yangon International Airport not sure of what to expect but very excited. My young, only-Myanmar-speaking cabbie sets the mood with pop music, either Burmese or Thai, at top volume. Erstwhile Rangoon’s landscape skips lazily between malls, dense ‘chawls’, a sudden burst of greenery, a spot of charming colonial architecture and grimy markets. The country follows a quirky rule of right-hand drive on the right side of the road, a fine example of its 50-year-old military government’s slapdash management style. My hotel, the Belmond Governor’s Residence, an atmospheric restored teak mansion, is a leafy oasis of old-world luxury. That evening, I exchange bon mots with a French gemologist at The Kipling Bar. She whispers seven-digit numbers, “crazy prices” on Myanmar’s precious gemstones, especially the highly coveted ‘pigeon-blood’ Mogok Burmese Ruby.

Ayeyarwady river

Ship to Bagan

It’s the sort of gargantuan money talk that I forget to convey to my New Jersey-based sister who Whatsapps me at night while I’m snoring on a four poster bed with a gecko singing on the (outer) walls of my room. She wants to know if the eight-night cruise I’m taking from Yangon to Bagan bears the swanky promise of multiple decks, glitzy restaurants, and Hollywood-sized 24-hour family-entertainment. I wake up the next morning and head for Jetty to thankfully discover that the Belmond Orcaella is nothing of the sort. It's a cozy ship – smaller than its older cousin, Belmond’s Road to Mandalay — with 26 en-suite cabins. There’s no skimping on the good things in life, from Bvlgari toiletries in the bathrooms and whiskey sours with fried butter beans flowing at the bar to cheerful housekeeping staff prone to popping up with watermelon smoothies just when you need them. Outside my cabin windows is the Ayeyarwady (the British called her Irrawaddy), a river so calm, you almost believe she has nothing to say.

But Myanmar’s charms unfold softly. As we set sail up the river, on Day Two, the ship moors at the town of Danuphyu, where the first Anglo-Burmese War had sparked off in 1824. A trishaw ride takes us to the sprawling but derelict Pali University, where a statue of Burma’s bravest general, Maha Bandula, stands quietly in a verdant corner of the property. The young monk students are just setting out for morning alms, and we follow them out to the noisier part of town for chai and samosas. Myanmar women and children have thanaka paste slapped on their (enviously unlined) faces. Ground from a local bark, thanaka is the Burmese anti-ageing secret, a natural sun block.

The men meanwhile chew relentlessly on tobacco. Next to us, workers slurp down bowls of mohinga (rice noodle fish soup, a breakfast staple); I suppose it’s because the chai - evil cousin to Mumbai’s sweet cutting - is bitter to a fault. Back on the Orcaella, we sink into our Thai chef’s multi-course Southeast Asian delights. My first meal is an instant hit; full fried snapper accompanied by Burmese green tea leaf salad.

The placid river life

The Orcaella isn’t a Burmese Disneyland on water, but there’s much languid pleasure to immerse oneself in, when not plunging into the swimming pool. Our afternoons are educative – lectures on culture, politics and Myanmar’s ethnic clashes – and evenings are spent partying in lyongis, (the national dress) releasing paper lanterns in starlit skies, and tearing up watching The Lady, the 2011 Michelle Yeoh-film based on Aung San Suu Kyi’s life (everyone calls her The Lady or Mother Suu).

The staff – specifically 20-somethings Thet and Than at the reception, Nan at the bar (“My name means kiss,” he informs asap) and our on-ground guide Win Myint, are bundles of fun. An entire day is spent only on-board, but that afternoon, we pass the stunning 19th century limestone cliff carvings at Akauk Taung. Locals wave, bereft of the ingratiating/bored tactics of people who’re weary of tourists.

On Day Four, we visit the Gwechaung Fort in bullock carts, with theatrical clouds of blonde dust billowing around. This 1860 fort, built with the help of French and Italian architects, was intended to protect the Royal Myanmar army from the British. The panorama is scenic and a lone human, a skinny farmer with his two bulls, follows us as Win narrates how Burma’s uber-wealthy royal family — King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat with their four daughters — was exiled to Ratnagiri where they stayed in abject isolation for 30 years.

Despite the heat, the silence is mesmerising and the stories cut close to home. To set the mood, Win browses his playlist for Sinatra’s controversial rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s original poem, Mandalay. Of course, Kipling, a Rangoon regular, never visited Mandalay, another reason for us to spar with the Brits in our group. We have Chilean, Portuguese and Canadian company, but no Americans, so the bulk of ribbing is cheerfully borne by the Brits.

Is my Buddha taller than yours?

Before our last stop at Bagan, there are two lovely destinations: Magwe and Salay. By the time we take a thumping tuk tuk ride through Magwe, we’re steeped in the country’s lavish pagoda culture. Nonetheless, the Myathalaon Pagoda impresses us. It’s bigger, more golden, glossy and glitters brighter than the last one we saw, the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay. Salay, delightfully off the tourist map, is Instagram heaven. A 19th century trading village, it’s now got massive abandoned villas, cherubic babies, grumpy little monks, Mohawk-sporting teens tearing through in old trucks blaring heavy rock and the Yoke-Sone-Kyaung Monastery, now a museum with quaint treasures.

On our last day, Bagan proves to be every bit the tourist attraction, yet hardly as crowded as the Angkor Wat. A sunset tonga ride through its pagoda- and temple-dotted landscape is as quixotic as it gets, even if my gabby ‘driver’ insists on talking politics, education (his), age (mine) and all topics in between. (He speaks non-stop in English, his horse is called Madonna and the only Hindi word he knows is nahin.) With the bulk of its 2000-odd monuments under restoration after Myanmar’s 1975 earthquake, Bagan has repeatedly grasped for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but has been let down by shoddy administration. Status notwithstanding, Bagan is beautiful and laidback. The hippies trundle around town on mini mopeds, and there’s a never-ending supply of Buddha statues, each taller than the other, lurking beatifically at the end of dark caves and up steep staircases. My favourite – at the Sulamani Pagoda, although the glittering nine meter-tall ones at Ananda Pahto are awe-inspiring – sports pink nail paint!

It’s the image I’ll carry back from Myanmar. That, and the sunset at Bagan, the sunrise at Salay, cherubic babies, cheap street food, four-course dinners on board, the tranquil Ayeyarwady… you get the drift.

Things to Know

  • Yangon is just a 1.5 hour flight from Bangkok which makes it an ideal spin-off from your nth Thai vacation. Bangkok Airways flies Mumbai-Bangkok-Yangon, with lounge access for all classes at Suvarnabhumi Airport as a perk.
  • English isn’t widely spoken in Myanmar. Thus, a basic knowledge of the language will endear you to the locals. Mingalaba = Hello, Thwa do me = Bye, Kyezu bar (pronounced Jay-zu-ba) = Thank you, Ya bi = It’s okay. The last is useful while dealing with zealous salespeople.
  • The best time to visit Myanmar is during the dry season from November to April. Cruises don’t ply during rainy season, from May to September.
  • Carry DVDs of latest Bollywood films as thank-you gifts for youngsters. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan are hot favourites.
  • Don’t inconvenience locals by tipping in US dollars. The currency is difficult to exchange and is being discouraged to stabilise the Myanmar Kyat.

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Updated Date: Jan 09, 2016 23:02:11 IST

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