The new Golden Myanmar and Alluring Irrawaddy itinerary offers a variety of excursions, such as a trip to Shwezigon Pagoda. // © 2016 Kenneth Shapiro
Feature image (above): Avalon Waterways brings visitors to a relatively little-visited section of the Irrawaddy River. // © 2016 Kenneth Shapiro
It was clear from the reactions of the townspeople that Western tourists were rare in this region of Myanmar. Just about everyone we passed stared at us, while others pointed. Some tried out their limited English by yelling “Good morning” as we walked by, even as we replied back in Burmese with “Mingalaba!” One group of teenagers took photos of us with their phones, while we stood on the other side of the road taking photos of them — two cultures examining each other curiously.
We were in Bhamo, in northern Myanmar, about 40 miles from the Chinese border. While tourism to this country has grown immensely in the past few years since diplomatic relations with the U.S. have thawed, most tourists have yet to make it this far north. Our group of experienced travelers was amazed to find a place so welcoming to visitors and so far removed from the typical tourist trail. Such a unique area that has yet to be altered by the inevitable forces of tourism is a rare find these days.
We were onboard the new Avalon Myanmar river cruise ship on Avalon Waterways’ 14-day Golden Myanmar and the Alluring Irrawaddy itinerary, which includes 10 days on the Irrawaddy River traveling from Bhamo to Bagan (or the reverse). This new itinerary offers passengers the opportunity to be a part of the first wave of tourists to visit this remote stretch of river.
“Guests on this trip are going to have access to places and interact with locals that don’t see Western tourists,” said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon. “When we go into a market, the locals are not trying to sell you souvenirs — they are selling the fish they caught that morning to other villagers.”
Our trip began (and concluded) in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, where many in the group participated in a day of city sightseeing that included Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important religious site in Myanmar and an iconic symbol of the country. After an overnight at the luxurious Sule Shangri-La, we took a two-hour flight to Bhamo, where we boarded our ship.
Avalon Myanmar was built locally and is designed specifically to travel the shifting waters and sandbars of the Irrawaddy. It is virtually the only modern riverboat that attempts to navigate this stretch of the river.
“It’s one of those trips where you can go and experience something truly unique, and there are just not a lot of itineraries like that left in the world,” Clark said. “Seeing this area along the river is really the only practical way to experience it. The infrastructure, in terms of roads, is just not there for a land tour or FIT trip. Let alone trying it in the wet season.”
Days on the river are leisurely, with a morning excursion, followed by afternoons spent sailing. Evenings include a cocktail hour, dinner and sometimes a movie or activity — and more cocktails — in the lounge.
Because there are so few boats on this part of the Irrawaddy, the river was amazingly quiet, with just a few fishing boats gliding past us throughout the day. And because river cruising is still a new phenomenon here, locals along the banks constantly stopped what they were doing to wave at us as we sailed by.
The itinerary emphasizes cultural education and local interaction, and we stopped at several villages to learn about the local way of life. We visited markets, a school, a Buddhist nunnery and a monastery, and we met with a number of local craftspeople. At the monastery, we gave alms to the young boys who were going to school there and provided lunch for the senior monks. At the school, we were entertained by an enthusiastic class of kindergartners. Wherever we went, we found people to be as interested in us as we were of them.
On one special excursion, our group visited an elephant camp outside the town of Katha. The Myanmar government recently restricted teakwood harvesting, so former lumber camps — many of which utilize elephants to help with the labor — are facing an uncertain future. Avalon reached out to this particular camp and is helping them transition from a working lumber camp to a tourist attraction.
At the camp, we fed the elephants, watched them get a bath and rode them. It was definitely a highlight of the trip. Happily, since Avalon is emphasizing the humane treatment of elephants, there were no demeaning shows or stunts performed by the animals, as you sometimes find in other places.
The final days of our trip were spent in the more touristy areas of Mandalay and Bagan, and we definitely experienced the difference when we were hounded by street peddlers at every turn. Still, there are amazing experiences to be had in these areas that are well worth the effort.
In Mandalay, our group watched the sunset at U Bein Bridge, a three-quarter-mile-long bridge built in 1783 from reclaimed teakwood from the old royal palace. The bridge is still bustling, as locals and monks use it to cross Taungthaman Lake, while fishermen and farmers go about their daily work below. We relaxed in sampans, sipping on sangria and taking in the exotic flavor of the scene as the blazing orange sun slipped below the horizon.
In Bagan, we watched the sun rise over the valley that contains more than 2,000 Buddhist stupas and temples. It’s an awe-inspiring sight when the large and small shrines slowly emerge from the morning mist as hot-air balloons drift silently overhead.
Despite all the amazing experiences to be had on the Golden Myanmar and the Alluring Irrawaddy itinerary, the trip is not for everyone. First, there is virtually no Wi-Fi access to be had outside Yangon, no satellite television reception or in-room movies and not a lot to do onboard the ship, so passengers have to be okay with quiet relaxation. Also, the trip itself is adventurous and active (although not overly strenuous), so seniors with mobility issues might have trouble at times.
However, for those travelers with a strong sense of curiosity who are looking to get far off the beaten path and experience a mysterious and relatively untouched part of the world before it changes, Avalon’s new offering is the best — if not the only — way to go.