Burma – Road to Mandalay
“I love you. I love you very much. I will never forget you,” said Daw May Lwin Zin,
headmistress of the village school in Kindat, Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is now known). Before
we said goodbye, she showered me with gifts of limes, grapefruit and green jade earrings.
We stroll arm in arm down the muddy main street of Kindat, while the esteemed
The director proudly announced to the onlookers in their teak houses built on stilts that the Camino
a Mandalay had just delivered much-needed school supplies to the school.
Perhaps the crew had chosen me to represent the ship’s passengers at this moving and formal event.
school ceremony because I really enjoyed playing and singing together with the precious children from other villages.
For the first time last September, our Road to Mandalay river cruise traveled along the
Chindwin River, visiting remote villages in the heart of the old Burma. The Chindwin is a
tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, which was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “On the road to Mandalay where the flying fish play…” over a century ago when he described
Burma as “very different from any land you know”.
What was once the most secret and mysterious country in Southeast Asia is now slowly becoming
opening up to the outside world to reveal a rich and glorious cultural heritage, impressive
natural beauty, and people who have a genuine endearing charm that seems to transcend time.
A thoughtful note from the ship’s captain appeared on our cabin pillows the first
day. “We know of your kindness in wanting to give money and other items to the children,
but it is not good, (because) they can become too binding in this way of giving. Instead, can I
we suggest that you join us in…arranging for school supplies to be brought in for the benefit of all
Chief Engineer Terry Kyaw Nyunt, Principal Trustee of Road to Mandalay’s School
Fund, said, “Five years ago, I collected $1.00 from every crew member we presented to the
Shwe Kyet Tet school in the hometown of the river cruise. Since then, we have built an annex for
the school and bought a multimedia system for a school in Bagan with the money of the passengers
donated Normally, we do not give money, but ask in advance what is needed.
“Most of the tourism industry in Myanmar is doing similar charitable projects. It is our
responsibility to preserve the culture of Myanmar,” said Charlie Turnbull, manager of Road to
Mandalay Hotel Services.
My journey in Myanmar began with an Abercrombie & Kent tour in Yangon (formerly
Rangoon, Burma). We stayed at the Grand Strand Hotel, built during the British colonial era.
Half of the people on the tour bus had already traveled the highway to Mandalay in the past.
two years. Why, I wondered, would they return so soon? there must be something very special
about this trip.
Nearby, the shops in the huge, closed Scott’s Market were well worth a serious look.
rubies, sapphires, jade and various beautiful Burmese works of art.
Yangon is most memorable, however, as the site of Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the
holiest Buddhist temples in the world. A golden spire dominates this religious and
all around you. Winding through hundreds of pavilions, shrines and statuary images,
you begin to learn a lot about Theravada Buddhism, which is fervently nurtured as the
national faith. It is truly a spectacle that appears, in the words of Somerset Maugham, “like a sudden
hope in the dark night of the soul”.
The next morning we boarded a plane for the short flight to Mandalay, a city
it presents itself as a great sort of oriental bazaar of artists and craftsmen at work. Of wood
mallets strike the precious metal in gold leaf, which is found everywhere in Myanmar, since the faithful
place it on buddhist images for good luck and karma.
The market stalls are lined with sticks from the thanaka tree. young women and children
grind these into a smooth sandalwood paste and apply to their faces as beauty marks and
On the waterfront, creaking oxcarts, a rickety boardwalk, and old wooden boats carry you
back to a Southeast Asian trading post straight out of a Joseph Conrad book.
Before boarding the Road to Mandalay, we stop to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery,
home to several thousand novice monks. Long lines of saffron-robed monks with shaved heads,
most of them small children, they cradled their begging bowls as they stepped out into the open air.
The luxurious Road to Mandalay is the latest addition to Orient-Express Hotels,
Trains and Cruises. Originally built for cruises along the Rhine River, she was completely renovated and transported to Myanmar in 1995 for cruises on the country’s main Ayeyarwady River. Local artisans added elegant decorations and accessories, such as woven cane furniture, Burmese antiques, and traditional motif carvings that reflect a colonial atmosphere. The new ecological sewage system neutralizes all effluents before leaving the ship.
Burma’s magical allure weaves its spell as something new appears around every bend.
The time stops. It feels like we slip through a secret journey into a hidden world.
The whole town comes out to greet us. Excited children run along the banks of the river, waving
and shouting their welcome. Ox-drawn carts till the fields, leaving a trail of clouds of dust. The fishermen cast their nets. Ancient temples shrouded in mist, majestic white and gold pagodas illuminated by the sunset, teak forests, virgin jungles and snow-capped mountains are all part of the enticing adventure.
The frankness with which the proud people of each town receive us is manifested first in
their warm and genuine smiles. Bright-eyed young girls with longyis hugging their hips stay for
for a while and smile as they balance baskets on their heads. Laughing children splash on the shore
shallow water with their mothers who are doing the family’s laundry.
But after every fascinating visit to a town, it’s always a welcome reprieve to return to the ship.
to plunge into the pool or sip a refreshing drink to quench your thirst at the canopied bar on the upper deck.
During the day, lectures and cultural discussions on board help us to better understand
Burmese culture. There’s also time for a relaxing massage or body treatment, all great values.
Each of the 56 air-conditioned cabins enjoys a view and, in addition to a spacious
main dining room and observation lounge, a pianist entertains at a bar on the main deck. Each
At night, there are colorful performances by local Burmese dancers, puppeteers and acrobats such as
as well as television house movies.
Our leisurely river trip ended in haunting Bagan (formerly Pagan) where the
Mysterious ruins of more than 2,000 temples dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Bagan,
once the ancient center of a glorious kingdom, it is Myanmar’s remarkable architectural equivalent
of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Previous visitors have advised that the ruins are best viewed when a fine mist hangs over the sun-kissed plain, but I prefer the inspiring scene at sunset.
As we said goodbye aboard the ship, tears shone in the eyes of two shy staff members.
members In respectful prayer positions, they murmured to me “We will miss you forever.”
Should you visit Burma? If informed tourism helps or hinders the restoration of
Human rights in Myanmar are the subject of ongoing debate, but the local Burmese that Orient-Express staff come into contact with say they do not want to see an end to tourism in Burma. The company believes that this interaction between ordinary people can be a catalyst for long-term social change.
John Hinchliffe, COO of Road to Mandalay, said: “Although corruption in Myanmar remains a problem, our employees certainly DO get their money. In fact, our Burmese crew are our greatest asset. They are great!”
As for me, Burma has cast an irresistible spell. I’ll be back soon to see how these friendly people fare in a world that isn’t as friendly as they are.
IF YOU GO
o For more information and reservations, www.orient-express.com [http://www.orient-express.com/web/luxury/luxury_travel.jsp] (800) 524-2420
Ask for the brochure “Great Voyages of the Orient-Express”.