Sunday, May 23, 2010

On The Road to Mandalay

Theo Underwood searches out the mysteries of the Orient on a luxury cruise on Burma’s Ayeyarwady River

Published: 22/05/2010

The spectacular Ananda Pahto temple, Bagan

IT’S more than 100 years since Rudyard Kipling painted a famous portrait of the East in his poem, Mandalay – and when you sail down the Ayeyarwady River in Burma on a luxury cruiser, you feel that little has changed since then.

It is hardly, of course, a coincidence that the boat we are travelling on carries the same name as Oley Speaks’ later song adaptation of the poem.

The 300ft Road To Mandalay carries 82 passengers in old colonial grandeur and five-star cabins. To catch the boat, you fly to Singapore and on to Yangon before catching the rackety plane which hovers above dense green jungles with Burmese military men taking all the front seats.

After that, the creature comforts of The Road To Mandalay are a soothing surprise.

A £4million refurbishment has created an elegant restaurant with teak wall carvings from Amanpura. Also, 34 new state and deluxe cabins have en-suite bathrooms with Burmese jade wall tiles and walk-in showers.

Now we can sit on deck as Kipling’s vivid vision of dawn breaking like thunder and temples shimmering in the sunlight comes to life before our eyes.

Children splash in the shallows, playing tag among themselves while their mothers wash the family’s longyis – traditional Burmese robes – in the river’s thick, khaki-green water.

Fishermen, armed only with bamboo sticks for rods and the bottoms of plastic bottles for goggles, hunt their daily catch from long-tail boats.

On the river’s eastern bank, small villages of rickety bamboo huts have sprung up to house workers dredging for sand, which will be turned into cement. Their cargo is pumped on to half-sunk barges sitting below the waterline, their engines gurgling under the weight of their load.

Beyond the river’s banks, hundreds of pagodas – some made of red sandstone, others gilded with gold leaf – are scattered across the rice fields.

Burma, for much of the time, seems to have missed out on the 20th century – or perhaps it is a trick of the strange, ethereal quality of the light.

Before setting sail from Mandalay, I took a rowing boat out on Taung Tha Man lake. The light at dusk broke through the teak struts of U Bein’s bridge – a 1,300m long skeletal structure rising from the water.

Ghostly forms appear beneath the surface of the water, creating an eerie calm which is punctured only by the sound of creaking oars and the light chatter of villagers crossing the 200-year-old man-made causeway.

However, one of the most exhilarating experiences which Burma can offer awaited us 120 miles downstream.

A hot-air balloon whisked us 2,000ft above the ancient city of Bagan for a breathtaking view of its 4,000 temples, stupas and pagodas.

The city itself no longer exists, but its shrines to Buddha, built over hundreds of years on a stretch of delta the size of Manhattan Island, appear one by one at sunrise to form an intricate, crimson patchwork on an ochre landscape.

Our bumpy landing eased by champagne, we joined a bicycle tour for a close-up view of Bagan’s temples.

Many are adorned with frescos telling the story of Buddha and, although most have decayed into ruin or are awaiting restoration following the devastating 1975 earthquake, there are a few murals worth seeing – thanks to the intervention of Unesco.

Ananda Pahto, on the north plain, stands out from the others. Besides its brilliantly colourful frescos, it also has four 31ft gold Buddhas – which sit facing outwards from the temple’s inner sanctum and date back to the 11th century. The most recent icon was, however, built just 60 years ago.

Bagan has few visitors, so it was easy to find solitude on one of the pagoda’s west-facing terraces. The spot offered a perfect vantage point to watch the sunset – giving Bagan’s temples a chameleon-style quality of constantly changing colour.

It is easy to be overawed by spectacular monuments to Buddhism in Bagan. While a temple, stupa or pagoda can be found at every turn, Burmese people deeply respect the religion and the monks – even if they are not committed Buddhists.

In Yangon, many monasteries teach English and visitors can be accosted by football fans in orange or crimson tunics keen to discuss the English Premier League. Many monks can be seen studying the football results in one of six weekly newspapers dedicated to the game in Europe.

Their accommodation is sparse. As many as six monks share one room in which they study, sleep and eat without electricity or running water.

During your river voyage – the company’s billing of river “cruise” hardly does it justice – you can try on your own longyi and have your face painted with Thanakha – a traditional yellow-paste made by grinding the Thanakha tree against sandstone.

It is still widely worn by women and children and, as well as protecting their skin from the sun, it supposedly bestows a youthful complexion on those who wear it.

The Governor’s Residence, in Burma’s capital, Yangon, where you stay on the first and last night of your trip, is a match for both the boat and the best hotels.

The old colonial mansion – made entirely from teak – comes into its element at dusk as you sit by the pool with a G&T to watch bats skimming the water’s surface.

Chef Olivier Guilman finds the best local ingredients for menus, combining western classics with variations on Burmese favourites.

Anything with seafood is worth trying, especially after an afternoon’s sightseeing around the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and the reclining Buddha – the latter close to where monks held peaceful demonstrations against the military government in summer 2007.

Given the tense political situation, many travellers avoid Burma. However, Orient-Express argues that its involvement preserves jobs – about 150 on the boat and 110 at The Governor’s Residence.

Square your own conscience before you depart. Repression may enable Burma to preserve the mystery of the Orient lost beneath tourist hordes in other parts of south-east Asia.


Theo Underwood was a guest of Orient Express, which offers the five-night journey in Burma from £1,960, including return flights Bangkok-Yangon-Bangkok; two nights’ B&B at The Governor’s Residence in Yangon and three nights’ full board in a superior cabin on The Road To Mandalay; a half-day sightseeing tour in Yangon, and all internal flights and transfers.

Orient Express reservations: 0845 077 2222 and

International flights costs extra, from about £745 return.

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