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Luxury river cruises in Myanmar (previously called Burma) are becoming very popular. For tourists, the Belmond (formerly Orient-Express) ship, Road to Mandalay, was the first cruise line on the Irrawaddy River (also called the Ayeyarwady).

Road to Mandalay cruises on Irrawaddy River.
Road to Mandalay cruises on Irrawaddy River.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Where is Myanmar?

The size of Texas, Myanmar's population is 60 million. Bordered by India, Bangladesh, the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea on the east and China, Laos and Thailand on the west, Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia.

How long is the Irrawaddy River? It is 2,170 kilometers (1,348 miles) long. Bisecting Myanmar in half, it flows from the northern borders with India and China to an extensive delta that empties into the Andaman Sea.

As Burma's lifeline, the Irrawaddy is a source of water, food, irrigation and transport. Traveling along the Ayeyarwady River is the best way to feel the country's pulse and absorb its history.

Cruise routes

The Road to Mandalay is not as well-known as the Belmond hotels and trains, yet its service and food are of equivalent high caliber. Regularly scheduled trips range from three-to-eleven nights. Shorter cruises travel between Bagan and Mandalay (distance: 190 kilometers or 118 miles), while the longest cruises go to Bhamo and the forested northern gorges near the Chinese border.

The pilots of the 102-metre-long ship are all river men, familiar with the Irrawaddy's capricious nature. (Channels can change overnight and sandbars shift within hours.)

Irrawaddy river boats

A steady stream of traffic makes navigation challenging and cruising endlessly fascinating for the 82 passengers. Double-tiered ferry boats scurry from bank-to-bank, loaded with passengers, produce and livestock.

Tugboat-pulled bamboo raft with thatched huts on Irrawaddy River. Myanmar.<
Tugboat-pulled bamboo raft with thatched huts on Irrawaddy River. Myanmar.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Fishermen cast nets from traditional high-sterned wooden hnaws with ornately carved prows. Small teak boats, laden with bags of rice, tack across the river as wind billows their sails.

Without a doubt, the most fascinating craft are the massive bamboo rafts, carrying teak logs and pottery jars tethered underneath. Pulled by tugboats, they are manned by entire families who live in thatched huts aboard the rafts. After four weeks, they reach the Irrawaddy delta, where they dismantle the raft and sell the bamboo as well as the cargo.

Golden temples

Like a magic carpet, the Road to Mandalay brought us on a time-trip through a land that has changed little over the past century. Every morning, we drew back the curtains in our cabin, eagerly anticipating the view.

Woman, with thanaka leaves on her face, sells marionettes.
Woman, with thanaka leaves on her face, sells marionettes.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We gazed in awe at emerald hillsides studded with golden temple domes, glimmering in the sun. After a bountiful breakfast buffet, we made our way to the observation deck to sit in comfortable rattan chairs by the pool.

Timeless vignettes of riverside life scrolled by like a biblical epic. Oxcarts lumbered by, while people carried baskets of vegetables hanging from shoulder poles.

Burmese sunscreen

Our sleek, white Myanmar cruise ship was an impressive sight to villagers, who inevitably stopped their activities to watch us glide by. We were surprised to see that the faces of many women and children, and some men, were painted with a pale yellow paste made from thanaka wood to protect their skin from the sun.

Our cruise was an enlightening one, thanks to the 87 Myanmar guides and staff who traveled with us. Wearing longyis, the national dress, they took great pleasure in introducing us to their culture.

One afternoon, for example, Yin-Yin Htwe prepared thanaka by rubbing a chunk of Murraya thanaka wood on a circular stone tablet, adding water to form the paste. She then painted it on passengers' cheeks in the shape of bodhi-tree leaves. Its scent resembled sandalwood.

Lunch buffet dish on Road to Mandalay
Lunch buffet dish on Road to Mandalay
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Burmese cuisine

The open-seating meals were also an education. As we dined at candlelit tables, covered with crisp linens, musicians played traditional Burmese harps, xylophones and drums.

Four-course dinners and buffet lunches featured not only Western, European, Indian and Asian cuisines, but also Burmese food. We tried pan-fried butterfish from the river, served with cognac and lemongrass sauce, and specialties of Myanmar's ethnic groups, such as the Shan people who live in the northeast.

We especially enjoyed mohinga, noodles with fish broth, seasoned with ginger, garlic, chiles, shrimp paste, fried shallots, fresh cilantro and lime juice. Also delicious were the Burmese curries, coconut rice, laphet thoke (tea-leaf salad) and tropical fruits.

Bagan tour

Life off-ship merged seamlessly with onboard activities. Road to Mandalay cruises include shore excursions with guides who accompanied us into villages and temples.

Cycling past temple on Bagan UNESCO World Heritage Site
Cycling past temple on Bagan UNESCO World Heritage Site
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

While touring Bagan (formerly called Pagan), we watched horse carts, bicycles and oxcarts travel past some of the 2,200 temples and pagodas that dot the 42-square-kilometer (16-square-mile) UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Temples have entrances, but pagodas and stupas do not.)

During Burma's Golden Age, from the 11th to late 13th century, 13,000 monuments were built in this Buddhist center of learning and spirituality. (That works out to a new building every one to two weeks!)

Enclosed in a bend of the Irrawaddy River, each one was different. All were built from brick and stucco made from lime, sand, bael fruit, gelatin and palm sugar.

Some of the buildings were solid zedis (stupas). Others were hollow payas (temples). After 1989, villagers were prohibited from living in the temples, but they were allowed to work the land.

Bagan survived raids by Kublai Khan's Mongols, but later, many structures were damaged by looters and earthquakes. Although some are in ruins, others are gilded and filled with frescoes and enormous statues of Buddha.

Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan
Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ananda Pagoda

The next morning, some Road to Mandalay passengers visited local markets and the Moe-Moe Lacquerware Factory where artisans incised designs into red, blue, yellow, green and black bowls, plates and furniture, using techniques unchanged for decades. Burmese lacquerware is made by mixing thitsi tree sap with ash and applying several layers of the paste to woven bamboo, wood or horsehair. Each layer is dried and polished before applying the next.

We boarded two-wheeled horse carts for a ride to Ananda Pagoda. Well-preserved, it was built between 1090 and 1105.

Around the large central cube, people worshiped in front of four 9.5-meter (31-foot)-high standing Buddhas made from gold-covered teak. Gold hti (umbrella-shaped decorative tops) and chinthes (mythological half-man and half-beast creatures) adorned the pagoda.

Shwezigon Pagoda

At the gold-and-scarlet Shwezigon (Golden Plum Bush) Pagoda, we watched people light candles and ring enormous bells. Built by Bagan's first king in the late 11th century, it commemorates the establishment of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar. Locals believe that Shwezigon houses the collar bone of the Buddha.

Across the road in Nyaung U Market, women displayed chunks of thanaka wood, limes, vegetables and dried fish on fabric spread on the ground. Others sold pieces of sugar cane and custard fruit from rattan trays that they carried on their heads.

Amarapura arts and crafts

Each riverside town lured us with unique attractions. In Amarapura, located 11 kilometers (seven miles) south of Mandalay, shuttles and Siamese-style, four-heddle looms clacked while spinning wheels whirred in silk factories.

Apprentices carved wooden plaques under the watchful eye of their mentors. Craftsmen hammered designs into silver bowls and polished moulded brass statues.

Cyclist with baby duck on U Bein bridge
Cyclist with baby duck on U Bein bridge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

U Bein footbridge

The teak planks for the U Bein footbridge came from the dismantled Inwa Palace in Ava. Mayor U. Bein transported them here when the capital city moved from Ava to Amarapura in 1782.

Locals cross the 1.2-kilometer (0.75-mile)-long bridge to go to Taungthaman village. As we walked along the bridge, a woman noticed our cameras and stopping cycling long enough to show us the baby duck in her bicycle basket.

The 200-year-old teak bridge straddles a shallow lake. Men and women stood waist-deep in the water, catching tiny silver fish and storing them in woven rattan baskets slung around their necks.

Outside her thatched bamboo home, in Taungthaman, a young woman fried the battered fish in a star-like pattern in a blackened wok. Enticing aromas of frying garlic and spices drifted over from the cooking pot next door, in which her neighbour made fish stew. Down the sandy street, a grandmother played with a baby, jumping gleefully in a basket.

Cruise to Mandalay

Continuing our river cruise to Mandalay, we relaxed by the pool on the upper deck and observed life along the Irrawaddy. Mandalay is located 620 kilometers (400 miles) north of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

Ferry boats plied the placid waters. Women washed clothing in the river as their children splashed alongside. At Kywezun Jetty, in the thatched and stilted village at Buffalo Point, a man steered a team of water buffalo as they hauled heavy teak logs out of the river.

Father teaches son how to ring bell at Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay.
Father teaches son how to ring bell at Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mahamuni Temple

In Mandalay, merit-seeking devotees bought delicate sheets of gold leaf and plastered them on the 11th-century statue of Buddha at Mahamuni Temple. A local factory makes the gold leaf. Each 30 grams (one ounce) of gold is pounded into 10,000 gold leaf squares.

Outside the temple, we watched a father teach his young son how to strike a bell to symbolically spread the merits of his good deeds as it resounded.

Many of Mahamuni's stone Buddhas and chinthes were carved in Mandalay and other riverside towns. We photographed entire families chiselling enormous marble statues of Buddha on Stonecarvers' Road (Kyauk-sit Tan).

Traditional marionettes

There is a timeless quality to Burmese arts and crafts. Villagers boarded the Road to Mandalay after dinner to show us how they weave baskets and mats from rattan and how they roll tobacco into cheroots.

One night, we enjoyed a lively marionette show. The next day, we found similar hand-painted, sequin-costumed puppets in the market. Another evening, colorfully costumed performers demonstrated traditional folk dances.

Woman gains merit by putting rice in monk's alms bowl.
Woman gains merit by putting rice in monk's alms bowl.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shore excursions

On a tour of one Burmese village, we were fortunate enough to see burgundy-robed monks going door-to-door with their black lacquer alms bowls. Villagers gained merit as they filled the bowls with food.

At Yandabo village, where artisans make clay water pots, we photographed a woman carrying five pots at one time, stacked on her head. To our amusement, the tables turned. We gradually became the center of attention as curious villagers gathered around to observe us and our cameras.

Warm hospitality

Wherever we went, people were delighted to show us not only their crafts, but also their way of life. In busy local markets, vendors happily posed for photos in front of green onions, baskets of tomatoes and trays of lemons.

Never have we been welcomed with so many smiles. People were genuinely happy to see visitors. Tourism has not yet spoiled their warm welcomes.

Smiling couple with baby in Shwe Kyet Yet village.
Smiling couple with baby in Shwe Kyet Yet village.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shwe Kyet Yet village

This was especially true in Shwe Kyet Yet (Golden Chicken Scratching) village, where the Road to Mandalay docks below two 12th-century temples. Life unfolded as we walked through the streets.

Vendors beamed smiles from tiny shops. Parents held their babies for us to admire. Students carrying hand-woven shoulder bags shyly greeted us with mingalabar (hello). Even diners sitting at tiny tables in street-side restaurants nodded and smiled, between mouthfuls of noodles and vegetables.

Buddhism and ancestral beliefs

The common thread that stitches life together along the river is the palpable sense of Buddhist devotion. Although nearly 90% of Myanmar's population is Buddhist, many people still believe in astrology and animism.

Statues of nats (ancestral spirit gods) often reside in Buddhist temples, surrounded by offerings to keep them happy. Some Road to Mandalay trips include a visit to Mount Popa, known as the sacred home of nats.

Monk looks through camera. Sagaing Hills temple.
Monk looks through camera. Sagaing Hills temple.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Monasteries in Sagaing Hills

Nestled in the Sagaing Hills, across the river, are more than 600 monasteries and nunneries. The rising sun burnished the golden temple domes dotting the forested hills.

Umin Thounzeh (30 Caves Temple) contains 45 sitting Buddha images. We visited the uppermost temple, Shin Pin Nan Kaing, which overlooks the Irrawaddy River and offers panoramic views. Curious monks peeked through our telephoto lenses at the Road to Mandalay anchored beside Shwe Kyet Yet.

Burmese nuns

One evening, we entered Zayau Theingi Nunnery, high in the Sagaing Hills. Dozens of pink-robed nuns with shaved heads knelt on a wooden floor in front of a candlelit, flower-laden altar.

Nuns chant in Zayau Theingi Nunnery in Sagaing Hills.
Nuns chant in Zayau Theingi Nunnery in Sagaing Hills.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Their haunting voices chanting Buddhist scriptures, like all our experiences in Myanmar, swaddled us in a time warp—one that stopped in the last century. It remains a cherished memory to this day.

More than a luxury cruise

For us, our Irrawaddy River cruise was a cultural awakening to a way of life that few people have seen. We felt privileged to have experienced it.

Seduced by our captivating experiences, both onboard and off the Road to Mandalay, and pampered by the gracious crew, we didn't want to leave. Like many passengers, we extended our cruise with a tour of Yangon.

We were truly smitten by the Burmese people, culture and scenery. Cruising in Myanmar made us long to see more of this country. We resolved to return and cruise farther north to Bhamo.

Chindwin River cruises

Another Belmond ship, the Orcaella transports 50 passengers south from Bagan to Yangon, as well as along the northwest Chindwin River, a major tributary of the Irrawaddy, named after the river's dolphins.

Instead of checking Myanmar off our bucket list, we added three additional river cruises. Myanmar has more smiling faces and golden temples to discover.


Road to Mandalay

Malaysia Airlines (flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur with connections to Yangon)