|We cruised down the Irrawaddy from|
west of Sagaing to Pagan (Bagan)
Our boat pulled up alongside the Road to Mandalay, and we were enthusiastically greeted by the crew as we boarded the ship. The reception area was quite posh, and after a day of buses, hot and dusty weather, and a support boat that was more industrial than luxury, walking into the spacious reception area of the cruise ship was like a soothing balm for the soul.
|The classy Belmond Road to Mandalay|
(photo courtesy of Belmond)
|State Cabin class on the Road to Mandalay|
|Satellite TV, a writing desk, and plenty of natural light|
|The shower and vanity in the bathroom|
|The vanity and collection of Bulgari|
bath goodies, restocked every day
|Thick, fluffy towels and a jade-tiled wall|
After enjoying a beautiful sunset from the observation deck, I returned to my cabin to shower and get cleaned up for our first dinner onboard. Like most cruises, dining on the ship was always an enjoyable experience. The dining room, which spanned the full width of the ship, was fairly indistinguishable from a land-based fine dining venue with its crisp white tablecloths, high-quality cutlery and stemware, and artfully rendered napkin origami! The à la carte dinner menu offered a number of choices for each course, so we were able to put together sort of a "customized" set menu. Wines and beers were complimentary, and for the wines, we always had a local option and an imported option for both red and white. Dinner was delicious and enjoyable, so we were in no rush, and afterwards, I explored the ship a little bit, then headed back to my cabin for some reading. The turn-down service was exemplary, with the robe and slippers laid out perfectly, and everything prepped for sleeping. I was also given the option to request morning coffee or tea, delivered to my cabin at the requested time. I usually did this to have a nice hot cuppa while getting ready to go up to the dining room for breakfast. The shipboard breakfasts were quite good, though nothing jaw-dropping. There was a nice-quality buffet supplemented by cooked-to-order eggs, so it's about like you would expect in a fine hotel.
|The fiery sunset over the Irrawaddy, our first evening onboard|
|Our inaugural dinner on the ship was a winner,|
accurately foreshadowing plenty of delicious meals ahead
|A Burmese dish, Pe Kyazan Patoon Kyaw|
loaded with massive chunks of succulent
river prawns... this was super tasty!
|Cheers! My group toasts our first shipboard meal|
|Like virtually everything onboard, the nightly turn-down service was|
exemplary... slippers and robe ready, bed perfect, everything just right
|Morning coffee service, delivered promptly at the requested time|
|The breakfast spread... not overly extravagant, but it hit|
virtually all the expected high points
|Deli meats, fresh cheeses, and smoked butterfish... yum!|
|The lunch buffet was different each day|
|Some of the various salads – the one at the bottom of the plate is|
a tea leaf salad called lahpet thoke, a big hit with my dining group
|Fresh veggies were a staple of every lunch|
|This was my favorite lunch: the river prawns we had were huge and|
absolutely delicious; the Basmati rice was cooked to perfection, too
The first shore excursion was to a small village called Myinmu, about 30 miles west of Amarapura. Here, the Irrawaddy River flows from east to west, and Myinmu is the last settlement before the river curves back around and flows generally southward again. We took an enjoyable ride through the village, each of us getting our own trishaw and "driver" and visited a large morning market, a riot of activity, color, and sound. One point of interest was a pile of what looked like petite logs of firewood. In actual fact, it was Shwedo thanaka wood, and the bark is pulverized and mixed with water to form a beige-colored paste. The thanaka paste is a cultural cosmetic in Myanmar, and its use dates back some 2,000 years. It's used by women and men alike – mostly on the face, but also the arms – for its cooling sensation, delicate fragrance (similar to sandalwood), and sun protection characteristics. It's also believed to promote smooth skin, and it was extremely common to see this on the faces of Burmese people wherever we went.
|Colorful boats along the riverbank|
|Setting out on our trishaw tour|
|A couple of guys in Myinmu, baby in tow, one guy with his|
hair dyed for the upcoming Thingyan festival... there surely must be
a story behind this photo, but I can only guess what it might be!
|Ladies near the market, selling Shwedo thanaka wood|
The market we visited was quite expansive and definitely fascinating. Dried chillies, mounds of powdered spices, a vast array of bewildering fruits and vegetables (some we recognized, others we definitely did not), flowers, greens, sprouts, fish, you name it. We spent probably an hour here, milling around, interacting with the locals, dodging puddles from the recent rain, and pelting our guide with a flurry of questions seemingly at every turn. In time, we mounted our trishaws again, and got pedaled to a bamboo and teak factory, which was amazing. So much of the work was done by hand. Much like the silk weaving place, the work seemed quite segregated. Men and boys had certain tasks (mostly involving moving the immense bamboo poles and teak lumber), while the women and girls had others. Watching the women work was mesmerizing. One woman would use a cleaver-type blade to strip foot-long cylinders of bamboo into thin pieces, working with a speed and confidence that spoke to considerable experience handing the knife. An older woman nearby deftly wove these strips of bamboo into a octet of long guide strips, walking along the woven panel as she went, tightening, adjusting, pressing flat. When completed – a task she carried out at a breathtaking pace – the completed panel would be set aside and the process begun again on another panel. These panels are then used as building material for fences, walls, and roofs.
In a nearby area, a small group of men were guiding long beams of teak through a large circular table saw, cutting it into strips which were peeled away as the teak progressed along the table. Needless to say, not a hint of anything even vaguely resembling safety equipment was anywhere to be found.
We were then pedaled back to the jetty, where we saw women doing their laundry at the river, laying out the colorful longyis to dry in the sun. (The longyi is a traditional garment worn by the Burmese, similar though not identical to a sarong.) For some reason, I always found these little vignettes of river life to be endearing and fascinating, scenes from a river-dependent human subsistence that have doubtlessly played out much the same here for scores of generations.
|Fruits... nearly everything was familiar|
to me at this particular stall
|Bowls and bags of colorful spices|
|Fish, eggs, veggies, and more... an amazing spread of food|
|I recognized only a few of the greens on offer|
|I love all the colors and shapes here|
|Weighing the bean sprouts,|
|Bamboo poles being moved and rotated during the drying|
process; the poles ranged from 20-30 feet in length
|At the bamboo factory, girls expertly and quickly cleave uniform|
strips from cylinders of cut, dried bamboo
|Here are the sections of cut bamboo, each about a foot long,|
each yielding (I think) nine strips; extra bits are discarded
|Weaving the strips into a long panel|
|The ladies' lunch pails... I love this photo!|
|Over on the men's side, power tools do the serious work of slicing|
long beams of hard teak wood into strips
|The bamboo boss lady, left, along with our guide|
|Heading back to the jetty... again, note the general lack of litter anywhere|
|Riverside laundry, with the Road to Mandalay|
waiting patiently in the background
Once back on board the ship, I got cleaned up and had an informal tour of the various cabins and rooms courtesy of the ship's director of operations, Kyu Kyu (pronounced "Choo Choo" – ky in Burmese transliteration is pronounced as "ch"), a 19-year veteran with the company. Even the small cabins were quite nice, but seeing them certainly gave me a swell of appreciation for being in the larger State Cabin. We also saw the premier Governor's Suite. There is only one of these rooms, and it's impressive indeed. Most of the difference was down to a separate living room area, a second TV, and two sinks at the bathroom vanity. Otherwise, it was much the same as my cabin. Oh, the Governor's Suite also had its own dedicated Wi-Fi router. For the rest of us, the satellite-based Wi-Fi service was generally limited to the forward half of the ship on the main deck, so when we were itching to check our emails or chat a bit with friends back home via WhatsApp, we'd go sit in the observation lounge or in the piano bar for a few minutes and get our smartphone fix. It was nice to have Wi-Fi onboard, but it was equally nice that it was confined to only certain areas, as it kept everyone from being tethered to their devices all the time. Also on the tour, I got to see the spa rooms – really just small cabins which had been converted for massages and manicures – the gym (which I used a couple of times, too). Most of the other areas were quite public, and I had seen all those already!
|One of the several "spa rooms" – this one obviously|
used for massage
|The small but very well-fitted gym, which I even used twice!|
|This is the living room area of the lone|
Governor's Suite cabin on the ship
|In the piano bar on the main deck... nice place for afternoon tea or, even|
better, evening cocktails (that's the when the pianist was doing his thing)
|Topside on the observation deck with a|
bar and lounge, a small swimming pool,
and a large covered sitting area (behind me)
|On the second night of the cruise, there was a sunset cocktail hour on the|
observation deck, which was followed by the nighttime launch of
hundreds of lanterns onto the dark river... quite a nice moment
I got to meet some really interesting people, and since there were only about 35 passengers on our cruise, we all saw each other quite regularly and there was a really nice, convivial atmosphere – I suppose you're not often going to find too many miserable people on a cruise. Later that day, I spent a little time up on the top deck enjoying the sun and having drinks at the bar while talking with some of the other passengers, one who looked almost alarmingly like my mother (I had a couple of momentary starts when glancing at her) – exactly the same age, too.
It was a leisurely cruise, the ship rarely maintaining a straight-ahead course, but rather zig-zagging back and forth across the Irrawaddy's considerable breadth, seemingly indiscriminately, but in reality doing so at the guidance of a spotter ahead, who was taking depth measurements downriver with a long pole. Avoiding sandbars is a crucial component of skillfully piloting these big ships down a river whose course and depth changes seasonally, and the captain and crew of our ship did a fantastic job.
And all the while, those endearing river life scenes would play out briefly as we sailed by. Of course, the Belmond Road to Mandalay enjoys a bit of a reputation along the Irrawaddy, so the locals know it well. They'd often stop what they were doing to watch the big cruiser drift by, waving and smiling at the strangers from distant lands, each party curious about the other. Of course, it's not lost on the Burmese that it's a luxury cruise ship plying their river's waters. I was chatted up by an opportunistic boy at one stop who had cooked up a story about his house-bound mother needing shampoo, and could I please please please bring some from my cabin when we came back that evening. This went on for some time and I never agreed to it or committed to anything, but expressed mounting incredulity that I could be getting a real shake-down for shampoo, of all things. Later, it all made sense as the guide explained that the local kids were well aware of just what was stocked in the passenger cabins on the Road to Mandalay. High-end Bulgari shampoo from a well-known cruise ship in the area can easily be sold for a tidy sum, so the boys have come up with a clever little scam to get sympathetic tourists to part with their cabin's toiletries. Can't really fault them, of course... such things are born of genuine need, and you have to tip your hat to their resourcefulness and inventiveness.
|Built in 1964, the Road to Mandalay spent its earlier years as a|
Rhine cruiser in Germany, not making its way to Southeast Asia
until almost 35 years later, where it was extensively refurbished
|The stairs leading up to the observation deck;|
to me, this photo illustrates the quality of the
fit and finish onboard the ship
|A modest riverbank family dwelling with its residents watching us|
pass by... note the boys' brightly dyed hair, a common thing in Myanmar
ahead of their new year festivities in mid-April
|I'm not sure if this is a "permanent" home or just a fishing hut (it was|
on a sandbar island), but I rather hope it was the latter
|A small group of tourists being returned to our cruise ship; we came|
behind, with only four of us, plus our guides
|Longtail boats moored in the river|
|This snapshot captured a lot of local river life, with people, their|
homes, boats, and an ancient pagoda standing as a sentinel over the
small cluster of dwellings
|I'm not sure whether this dwelling – little more than a lean-to – is|
charming in its simplicity or just a sad commentary on how truly little
so many people in the world really have, but I tend to favor the latter
Time went by quickly – always seems to when you're enjoying yourself – and before long, we had reached Bagan, where we spent a full day and night exploring. We took two separate shore excursions there, one in the morning, another in the afternoon and early evening. This is the Myanmar of postcards, the sprawling plains of Bagan littered with thousands of pagodas, temples, and monasteries, some in much the same condition they must have been during their glory days, others in decay and ruin. I'll let the photos do most of the talking here, but will add that to get most of the shots, I had to climb four flights of steps up the side of Shwesandaw Pagoda that were incredibly steep... but the view was worth it. The impressive and imposing pagodas called Ananda, Htilominlo, and Thatbyinnyu really stood out, mostly because of their sheer size, but no less because of their stunning designs.
|I'm not sure what this temple was, but it was different|
than most of the Buddhist stupa-style temples we saw;
with its multi-tiered spires, it resembles the basic
design of Hindu-inspired temples on Bali
|With a series of steep steps on each of its|
four sides, Shwesandaw Pagoda is the place
to go for a sweeping view of the Bagan landscape
(photo courtesy of Jason Eppink)
|About to haul myself up the steep steps|
of the Shwesandaw Pagoda
|Some of the many pagodas on the Bagan plains|
|Thatbyinnyu temple, built in 1144|
|It's pagodapalooza! Everywhere you gaze, pagodas aplenty|
|More pagodas... I tried to find the name of the one in the middle,|
but gave up after five minutes of looking at tiny little pictures online
|The lovely Ananda temple, built in 1091|
|The grand Thatbyinnyu temple once again|
|Most of these pagodas were built during the 11th and 12th centuries|
|Heading back down!|
|Thatbyinnyu, up close|
|Though the hoopoe is a common bird throughout Asia (and is also in fact|
the national bird of Israel), this was the first one I ever saw!
|Exploring the pagodas|
|The detail of the bricks of a pagoda built|
nearly a thousand years ago... amazing
|This area's pagodas were built in the 12th century|
|There's a pagoda in my pagoda!|
|This group of pagodas had placards dating them|
between 1113 and 1125
In between the pagoda visits, we also went to a lacquerware, or yun-de, factory. There are doubtlessly low-quality versions of this stuff churned out of factories in far-flung places, but what we saw was all made meticulously by hand, and the craftsmanship was astounding. (The art is called Pan yun in Burmese.) Ribbons of thin bamboo reeds, which have been softened for malleability, are carefully woven or otherwise formed (using molds) into the desired shape, a process that even if it ended here, would still be rather impressive. After that, the lacquering begins. The resin from the Thit-si tree (Melanorrhoea usitatais, also called the varnish tree) mixed with ash to form the lacquer, called thayo. This shiny resin has strong adhesive qualities, and soon renders the bamboo it coats impermeable. The number of layers of lacquer applied contribute to the finished product's quality, and most pieces receive a minimum of seven layers, all applied and smoothed by hand. After a layer of lacquer is applied, the piece must be allowed to dry in a suitable environment, usually underground to ensure sufficient humidity and a fairly constant temperature. Each layer takes one week to dry and cure, so even creating the most basic piece of lacquerware will take at least two months from start to finish, usually closer to three months. Larger, more elaborate pieces can take considerably longer.
After each layer dries, it is then washed and polished, once again all by hand. The polishing is carried out with a fine mixture of ground ox bone to ensure no fingerprints are left in the lacquer. Colored lacquer is created by mixing various powders into the thayo. Once the final layer is applied and dried, a final polishing is carried out by hand using an ash made from ground petrified teak wood. Then, the pieces are engraved and decorated.
|Using a reciprocating motion with her right arm, the worker rotates the|
spindle fairly rapidly, while using her right hand to smooth and
polish the piece using teak ash
|Intricate engraving reveals the black lacquer under the final colored layer|
|The focus these workers exhibited was incredible,|
even with a small throng of fascinated
visitors pressing in for a closer look
|Using the stylet and guiding it with his thumb, the worker engraves|
freehand patterns in the lacquerware
All the engraving is done by hand, free-form, usually from memory, using nothing but a sharpened stylet (looks a bit like an X-acto knife) and brush. This is meticulous, painstaking, and time-consuming work, and the craftsmanship (as well as the patience and steadiness of hands) was truly incredible to watch. Interestingly, an American far more famous than me also visited this particular lacquerware factory last year... see the photos. In the end, I bought a piece off the "seconds" shelf. I couldn't find any problems with it; some of the seconds had obvious flaws. This one, I don't know... looked quite okay to me, and was only US$14, a pittance considering the four months of work that likely went into making it. Along with a necklace of jade stones that was given to me by the crew of the Road to Mandalay as a memento of the cruise, the beautiful lacquerware bowl was my only real souvenir of my trip to Myanmar. Well, that, a bottle of wine, and some 850 photos I snapped, more than a handful of which are shared here!
|President Obama apparently got himself|
some Burmese lacquerware when he visited
Myanmar in 2014
|I got the shop's proprietor to pose with the photo|
of him and President Obama; this gentleman is
well-known for his mustache, so much so that the
lacquerware shop's slogan is "Look for the mustache!"
|And here's the piece I bought... my sole souvenir purchase from Myanmar!|
(Unless you count the bottle of wine I got in Yangon...)
We also visited a small village and met several people there, including a group of children. This was a nice moment for our little group, and it was a charming look into a very simple Burmese village life. It felt like stepping back in time 200 years. Everything seemed to be made from stone, bamboo, wood, and metal. Children played in the tidy dirt roads between bamboo-thatched houses. A horse-drawn carriage plied the path to a nearby pagoda. Young men worked up a sweat splitting piles of firewood to sell to their neighbors. A boy with his hair dyed and spiked for the upcoming Thingyan water festival – the Burmese new year – hung over a bamboo fence and chatted amiably. It was a particularly enjoyable visit, and it's the moments like this, rather than being carted around to one tourist site after another, that really make travel special.
|Like most bamboo and thatch structures in Myanmar, these dwellings|
have to be rebuilt every few years
|A huge clay pot for water storage|
|Chopping firewood using a handmade ax... difficult work considering|
how hard this wood obviously was
|Not sure why some of the homes were elevated,|
but it might have to do with keeping wild animals
out while sleeping at night
|Some of the children in the village from whom I bought little|
postcards they had colored in
|In the run-up to the Thingyan new year|
water festival, held in mid-April this year,
the wilder the hair, the better
|A village boy with his homemade push toy|
|A horse-drawn carriage and the village's|
small temple in the late afternoon sun
As the sun sank ever lower in the sky, we paid a brief visit to the grand Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U, not far from Bagan. The late afternoon sun on the gilded surfaces of the temple and its surrounding structures was pretty amazing, and of course, plenty of Buddhist ceremonies were going on there, too. Following that, we clambered aboard our bus to go back to Shwesandaw, the same pagoda we had climbed up earlier in the day. The sunset return to Bagan and the pagodas was an entirely different experience, as we had been forewarned. In the morning, it had been rather quiet and serene. Climbing to the top to look out over the plains brought a nice moment of introspection and reflection. We were very nearly the only ones there. By late afternoon, with hopes of an impressive and photo-worthy sunset over the pagoda-dotted landscape, throngs of camera-wielding tourists had descended like locusts, and Shwesandaw, also known as the "sunset pagoda" (with its frightfully steep stairs), was overrun with people. Rather than let this ugly spectacle dissuade me from joining in, I took the opposite approach and clambered gleefully up the hair-raising stairs to join the party.
Alas, the sunset was a bust, the sun sliding behind a horizon-hugging cloud bank with a whimper rather than going out in a fiery blaze of glory. Still, the landscape was evocative, and it was surprisingly easy to "edit" the people out of both my photos and my actual experience, making this a distinctly memorable moment from the trip.
|Young monks near the entrance of|
|The various spires and temple buildings at Shwezigon|
|The main stupa at Shwezigon Pagoda,|
which was completed in 1102
|The late afternoon sun illuminating the gilded surfaces at|
Shwezigon Pagoda was beautiful
|I'm not sure this photo effectively conveys the|
hordes of people crowding the "sunset pagoda,"
but it gives a small glimpse
|A bit dusty and windswept, but still enjoying the Bagan experience!|
|Dhammayangyi pagoda, left, dominates this particular view|
|It's not straight down, but it's pretty close|
After the sun's last gasp, I made my way back down the stairs and we meandered back to the jetty and returned to the ship. I rested a bit, showered and got cleaned up, and joined my new friends for our final dinner aboard the Road to Mandalay. We had gotten to know our servers as we had the same handful of guys taking care of us over the last few days, so we got some pics of them at our last meal, along with Kyu Kyu, who was making her rounds to talk to all the passengers.
|Tables set and festooned with flowers for our final dinner|
|Chloe, center, from my group, along with our|
favorite two regular servers, T.J. and Zin
|Here's me with the ship's boss lady, Kyu Kyu|
We hated to leave the ship, of course, but the next morning, after eating breakfast and seeing a small fleet of hot air balloons rising above the plains of Bagan at sunrise, we were shuttled to the little Nyaung-U airport and flew Yangon Airways back to Yangon. After enjoying the languid peacefulness of rural Myanmar along the Irrawaddy River, along with the refined elegance of the cruise ship, dropping back into Yangon with its urban trappings and millions of residents was like a slap in the face.
|Operated by Eastern Safaris and called "Balloons over Bagan," a|
number of hot air balloons rise gracefully along with the morning sun
|A fate-tempting slogan? Fortunately for us, not this time... we had|
a smooth and easy flight from Nyaung-U to Yangon
We returned to the Belmond Governor's Residence, where we were graciously welcomed back. We were able to relax in our rooms for a while, then had a Burmese cooking class and lunch that was more of a cooking demo than an actual class. Still though, it was pretty interesting, and the food that it yielded it was absolutely delicious. That afternoon, we went on a fairly uninspired tour around Yangon, including a stop at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, a gilded stupa that rises 344 feet (105m) over the city, and the Chaukhtatgyi Temple, which houses one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in Asia (215 feet long!). Though the pagoda was a good stop (with its separate gender-specific metal detectors providing a glimpse of the truly absurd), it's pretty safe to say this half-day runaround was not my favorite part of the overall trip, though there were a couple of cool points here and there, and I always enjoy just riding around and seeing the sights in an unfamiliar place. Still, I was glad to get back to the hotel.
|Different room, just as lovely and spacious|
|Chef Stanny at the Governor's Residence,|
showing us how to make some tasty local salads
|We did all our cooking over traditional|
|Shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric... this was never|
going to end poorly!
|A decidedly more urban novitiation ceremony... perhaps not as|
grand and colorful as those we saw in the big temples, but still fun
nevertheless. The boys sure seem to be enjoying themselves!
|The main 325-foot gilded stupa at Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the|
most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar; The crown is tipped with
a staggering 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies
|Various temples surrounding the main stupa|
at Shwedagon Pagoda
|Another of the many Buddhist ceremonies that are carried out at this|
venerated pagoda regularly
|The mind boggles at what sort of cultural taboos|
could possibly inspire separate, gender-specific
|The big Buddha has some big feet! The 108 symbols depicted|
on the feet corresponds to the 108 lakshanas, or auspicious
characteristics of the Buddha
|Flowers left as an offering at Chaukhtatgyi|
Temple, home to the giant reclining Buddha
|A street scene near central Yangon|
|I couldn't resist snapping a picture of this... I probably haven't seen an|
actual, removable pop top from a soda can since the late '70s!
|The clock tower of the Supreme Court|
of Myanmar in Yangon
|A smattering of gilded pagodas against a fairly austere urban landscape|
|Another busy street scene, with a vendor guiding|
a trishaw with coils of rope through the alley
|The view from our table at dinner was definitely nice,|
but it kind of went downhill from here
|My final breakfast in Myanmar before heading|
off to the Yangon Airport
Next up is a relatively brief week-long visit back to Denver at the end of April, followed by my first trip to Japan. I'll be spending what will undoubtedly feel like a very short two nights in Tokyo... looking forward to the introduction to Japan, and I'll be sure to post some photos of that trip, too.