A Junior Suite features a king-size bed and a balcony. // © 2017 Belmond
Feature image (above): Bagan is the last stop on Belmond’s Jewels of the Ayeyarwady itinerary. // © 2017 Getty Images
As we rounded a bend in the river, I spotted a pyramid-type structure in the hazy distance. Spires appeared, followed by stupas and temples.
We were nearing Bagan, the final destination on Belmond’s Jewels of the Ayeyarwady sailing in Myanmar along the Irrawaddy River. The early Burmese kingdom flowered during the 11th and 12th centuries; its pagoda-strewn valley is now one of the most photographed places on Earth. We would spend the entire next day exploring the archaeological site, weaving through the old city in horse-drawn carriages for the first hour.
At the beginning of our weeklong journey, I had embarked on the 50-passenger Orcaella in Yangon, not far from the Andaman Sea. This bustling city, formerly named Rangoon, is the capital of Myanmar and has changed considerably since I was here five years ago. After 60 years under military rule, Myanmar is now governed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and improvements and expansion (and traffic congestion) are evident. But Myanmar’s charming and welcoming people have changed little, still wearing "longyi" cloth skirts and yellow "thanaka" makeup and chewing "betel" gum (which turns teeth red). However, they also check text messages and take selfies on newly acquired mobile phones.
As our ship moved out from its mooring into the silt-heavy water of Twante Canal, it vied for space with every type of ocean- and river-going vessel imaginable, from colorful wooden fishing boats and container vessels to commercial junkets and mighty tugboats. Sailing west, we join the Irrawaddy River and continued north through the Delta region.
Embarking in the town of Danubyu, we used "trishaws" (three-wheeled vehicles with pedals) as transport to reach the nearly deserted Pali Buddhist monastery. We also visited a bustling local market and enjoyed the town’s charming gardens. The local "cheroot" (cigar) factory is fascinating to observe, as the dexterity of the workers is phenomenal.
Once we were again underway, the lush jungle changed to rice paddies, and soon, the sandy shores and sandbanks were evidence that we had arrived in the arid midlands. The shoreline was dotted with villages and, of course, the requisite gold pagodas. We took a wooden oxcart to reach the hilltop, 19th-century Gwe-Chaung fort.
On the elegant, three-story, teak- and antique-decorated Orcaella, 25 cabins can be found on the first two decks, while the Observation Deck boasts a pool, two bars, the bridge, an indoor-outdoor lounge, two spa treatment rooms and a small gym. Each spacious stateroom features an incredibly comfortable bed, a desk area, a large television and a small walk-in closet. The bathrooms are enormous by river cruise standards, and Wi-Fi access is available in the reception area.
Each day, our talented Thai chef prepared buffets for breakfast and lunch, and an a la carte menu for dinner. Dishes included a mix of Indian, Thai, Burmese and European cuisine. The service from the 58-member crew is beyond exceptional and very intuitive.
The passengers on my cruise ranged from those in their 30s to middle-aged travelers; many were Brazilian, Australian and British, and all were high-end vacationers.
There is much to do onboard Orcaella. Because the ships sails in a part of the world that promotes well-being, yoga classes are offered early every morning, and tai chi is taught every afternoon. I enjoyed a Metta massage with my therapist, Moy, who pummelled every inch of my muscles and sinews into submission.
The cruise director (who was also one of our tour guides) delivered daily lectures on topics that included the Burmese language and politics. A local astrologer came onboard to read fortunes, and we were treated to a marionette performance — a 500-year-old tradition.
The eight-night sailing from Yangon to Bagan includes excursions, all meals, local wines and house beers. Flights from the ship to Bagan are additional and can be booked through Belmond. Guests also have the option to stay at Belmond Governor’s Residence, Yangon pre- and post-cruise.
Our crew and those welcoming us onshore were, for me, a highlight of the trip. Myanmar is now embracing tourism, and Belmond, which has invested in the country for 20 years, is well-positioned to help clients learn more about the destination.