Myanmar’s River Road

Gentle people, charming smiles and ancient ruins hint of riches slowly revealed

By: Judy M. Zimmerman

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Myanmar’s temples are
a highlight of the journey.
I love you very much. I will never forget you,” said Daw May Lwin Zin, headmistress of the village school of Kindat, Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is now known). Before we parted, she showered me with gifts of limes, pomelos and green jade earrings.

We strolled arm in arm down the main, muddy thoroughfare of Kindat, as the headmistress proudly announced to curious onlookers in their houses on stilts that I was the representative of the Road to Mandalay who had just presented the school with much-needed school supplies.

“We ask ahead of time what is needed,” said crew member Terry Kyaw Nyunt, who managed the school fund for eight years.

Our Road to Mandalay river cruiser visited remote villages along the Ayeyarwady River, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Mandalay,” when he described Burma as “quite unlike any land you know about.”

What was once Southeast Asia’s most secretive and mysterious country is now slowly opening up to the outside world to reveal a rich and glorious cultural heritage and breathtaking natural beauty. Those concerned about safety in light of last fall’s violent anti-government protests, should know that the U.S. State Department currently has no Travel Warnings or Alerts pertaining to Myanmar.

My journey began with a tour of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Our group stayed at the Orient-Express-owned Governor’s Residence, a teak mansion set in a quiet residential area. The following morning we boarded a plane for the short flight to Mandalay, a huge kind of Oriental bazaar of artists and craftspeople at work.

The luxurious 108-passenger Road to Mandalay was transported to Myanmar from Europe in 1995. Local craftsmen added decorations such as woven-cane furniture, Burmese antiques and traditional carvings. Each spacious cabin enjoys a view. And recent refurbishments include a new gym, health and beauty center and main restaurant which offers both Asian and European-style menus.

Throughout our journey, the magic charm of Burma wove a spell, with something new appearing at every bend. Entire villages turned out to greet us. Excited children ran along the riverbanks, waving. We saw creaking ox carts cultivating fields; fishermen casting their nets and ancient temples shrouded in mists. In the distance, we gazed at teak forests, virgin jungles and snow-capped mountains.

During the day, onboard lectures helped us understand Myanmar’s culture. Each evening, a pianist entertained. And we were treated to colorful performances by local Burmese dancers.

Our tranquil river journey ended in eerie old Bagan (formerly Pagan) where the mysterious ruins of more than 2,000 temples dot the landscape. Once the ancient center of a glorious kingdom, Bagan is an inspiring scene at sunset.

As we said our good-byes, tears glistened in the eyes of two shy staff members. In respectful prayer positions, they murmured to me, “We will miss you always.” And I, them.

THE DETAILS

Road to Mandalay will sail three-, four- and seven-night cruises weekly in 2008, with four 11-night cruises this summer. Price per person for the seven-night sailing begins at $2,210 (double occupancy) and includes flights within Myanmar, transfers and scheduled sightseeing.
800-524-2420
www.orient-express.com

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