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Intrepid travelers who prefer five-star accommodations over iffy guesthouses should put Myanmar at the top of their must-visit list. A trip can be arranged in complete comfort thanks to a growing number of high-end cruise ships plying the destination’s major waterway, the Irrawaddy River. One of the newest vessels there is Scenic’s all-inclusive Scenic Aura.
The active, thoughtful 11-day Luxury Irrawaddy itinerary is aimed at clients with a passion for little-known cultures — and who don’t mind a bit of rough travel (think: horse carts; creaky, leaky ferry boats; and removing shoes upon entering pagodas).
Guests are encouraged to interact with locals through people-centric shore excursions; engage with the onboard National Geographic Expert; and even give something of themselves, as when they’re invited to serve sunrise breakfast to Buddhist monks sworn to poverty.
Passengers can go hot-air ballooning over the temple-strewn plains of Bagan and barrel down the side streets of Magwe in a trishaw bike. They can also board a wooden boat in Amarapura for a sunset champagne toast beneath the world’s longest teak bridge, as well as meet artisans who craft the region’s distinctive pottery and delicate lacquerware.
Most staterooms on the 44-passenger, all-suite Aura are in the Deluxe Suite category (344 square feet, with a private full-length balcony, a foyer, a separate sitting room, a bedroom and a roomy bathroom). A pair of similar, 301-square-foot suites are on the Jewel Deck, while two 430-square-foot Grand Deluxe Suites and two 753-square-foot Royal Panorama Suites (with private terraces and outdoor Jacuzzis) occupy the Diamond Deck.
Public spaces and cozy nooks include the Sun Deck, a library, a bar, a gym, a salon/spa, a laundry room and a 20-foot-long swimming pool. And Bamar Dining Room — offering Western, Burmese, pan-Asian and vegetarian dishes — provides contemporary elegance without stuffiness. (No shorts are allowed in the dining room at dinnertime, but otherwise, the shipboard dress code is casual.)
A caveat: The cruise is not appropriate for children — the average age of the clientele on my journey was late 40s through late 70s — nor those with limited mobility. The ship has no elevator; the cabins are not made for wheelchairs; and getting on and off Aura often requires narrow ramps and steep climbs up sandy riverbanks.
At the end of the day, the passengers on my sailing were pleased by the onshore experiences and the onboard comforts. And if you were to climb to the Sun Deck at dusk, holding an icy Myanmar lager, watching the passing bamboo-walled fishing shacks, gold-topped pagodas and miles-long sandy beaches, it wouldn’t be difficult to understand why an upscale, adventurous traveler might smile and let loose with a small, satisfied sigh.