12 Burmese Days

Cruising the Ayeyarwady River into Myanmar’s past

Text and images by James Pham

Myanmar is a land of fascinating contradictions. Known also as Burma, the country has seen periods of aggressive expansionism and extreme isolationism. It’s been the richest country in Southeast Asia and one of the poorest. It’s seen flourishing kingdoms under great rulers as well as humiliating losses brought on by despotic tyrants.

To better understand Myanmar’s complicated past, I board Heritage Line’s Anawrahta, an ultraluxe river vessel resembling a British colonial paddle steamer, on a 12-day cruise heading upriver on the Ayeyarwady between Yangon and Mandalay. Originating in the Eastern Himalayas and emptying out into the Indian Ocean, the banks of the Ayeyarwady have been home to practically all of Myanmar’s great kingdoms and royal capitals.

One of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups are the result of three mass migrations from Central Asia and Tibet. Just outside of Pyay, I find myself standing on a mound of earthy-colored bricks, barely visible in the dry grass, the remains of the walls of the ancient Pyu city of Sri Ksetra. Flourishing for over 1,000 years between 200 BC and 900 AD, the Pyu were the earliest recorded inhabitants of Myanmar, establishing some of the largest and longest-lived urbanized settlements in the region. Once the largest walled city in Southeast Asia, UNESCO-listed Sri Ksetra must’ve been breathtaking in its time, nicknamed “the One-Day City” for how long it took to walk around its massive gated walls surrounded by moats, an extensive network of roads and canals, and towering religious structures.

I gaze at the Phayagyi Pagoda, an unadorned mound with little tufts of grass sprouting from between the bricks, ‘rising from the plain like the breast of a supine giantess’, as George Orwell put it. Together, the Pyu city-states would leave a lasting footprint on modern-day Myanmar, influencing its calendar, script and religion as the first permanent footholds of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

We continue north, days of blissful ennui spent cruising past lazy pastoral scenes of beautifully monotonous fields of green occasionally broken up by streaks of white from flowering feather reeds, flashes of gold from gilded stupas partially hidden among the palm trees or bursts of firecracker red from mounds of chilies drying on the sandy banks. The soundtrack of the cruise is provided by the gentle hum of the boat, the buzzing of longboats and the occasional furious smack of laundry being beaten against the water.

Along a bend in the Ayeyarwady, just before it meets the Chindwin, we explore the fabled city of Bagan, home to one of Myanmar’s greatest rulers, Anawrahta, our boat’s namesake. Ruler of the kingdom of Pagan in the 11th century, Anawrahta conducted military campaigns over 33 years in every direction, finally succeeding in unifying the Ayeyarwady Valley under a single sovereign with borders which closely resemble today’s Myanmar.

One late afternoon, we climb the Shwesandaw Temple, built by Anawrahta in 1057, to watch an unforgettable sunset over the plains of Bagan with its thousands of religious monuments, testifying to the might and riches of the Pagan Kingdom. After Pagan fell to the Mongols towards the end of the 13th century, the former capital city slowly diminished to a small village and its many royal artisans and craftsmen left for the area around Mandalay, with only the craft of lacquerware returning. We observe with admiration the skill and patience of the Bagan artisans working at this time- and labor-intensive process involving up to 12 layers of lacquer followed by intricate designs engraved completely freehand with a metal stylus and colored with fine stone powder.

Myanmar’s next expansionist leader was King Bodawpaya, ruler of the Konbaung Dynasty in the late 18th century. His ambitious armies invaded Siam to the east and conquered the kingdoms of Arakan and Assam in the west, extending his borders all the way to British India. We visit Mingun and the gigantic 170-foot base of the Pa Hto Taw Gyi Temple built using thousands of Bodawpaya’s prisoners of war. Had it been completed, the temple would’ve been almost 500 feet, as high as the Great Pyramid of Giza. To go with his massive temple, Bodawpaya also had a giant 90-ton bell cast, and we watch with humor as people give themselves a bout of self-induced tinnitus by standing under the Mingun Bell while friends give it a mighty whack with a big stick.

Bodawpaya’s grandson, King Bagyidaw, shared his grandfather’s grand ambitions, sending his army to defend the western lands his grandfather conquered, bringing war perilously close to British India. What followed was the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars. At Danuphyu, the sound of a thousand angry bees turns out to be young monks reciting scripture at the Pali University. On the grounds, we visit the memorial to General Maha Bandula, the commander-in-chief of the Royal Burmese Armed Forces. A beloved national hero for standing up to the British during the First Anglo-Burmese War, Bandula’s courage would prove no match against British technology – Congreve rockets and the first steamship ever to be deployed in wartime.

We head ashore at Yandabo, a single-craft village known all over the country for its water pots made from porous local clay which allows for slow condensation, keeping the water naturally cool. Throughout the village, the men work the clay with their feet while the women use a variety of wooden paddles to shape the pots and then imprint them with a trademark starburst pattern.

The rhythmic sound of their paddles reverberates in the still air, recalling the Burmese proverb: If you want a well-behaved child, you should beat them like a pot.

Just 50 miles south of the then capital of Ava, British troops amassed in humble Yandabo in 1826, forcing King Bagyidaw to sign the Treaty of Yandabo. The first Anglo-Burmese War ended with Burma having to pay a large indemnity of one million pounds sterling and ceding Assam (now in northeastern India) to the British along with other western lands.

A second, briefer Anglo-Burmese War would follow in 1852, started by a trade dispute and ending with Britain annexing all of Lower Burma. Just outside of Pyay, we sail past the historical border between Upper and Lower Burma and the “tax mountain” of Akauk Taung where boats had to stop and pay tolls between the two territories. When stuck waiting for favorable weather, the sailors whiled away their time carving hundreds of Buddha images into the rock face. No divine help, though, was able to prevent Burma from being swept up by the age of colonialism which would see a fifth of the world’s landmass subject to colonial rule. For the first time in a thousand years, the long line of Burmese kings was about to end.

By the late 19th century, France had already occupied Vietnam and was controlling Laos and Cambodia. Britain responded by annexing all of Burma after the Third Anglo-Burmese War, thereby limiting France’s expansion while gaining an overland route to China and access to all the rich, natural resources of Burma. In his book Burmese Days, based on five years spent as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma, George Orwell exposed the dark side of colonialism. While admittedly bringing a certain sense of order and technological improvements, Orwell’s tortured protagonist admits to living a lie, “the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them”, unleashing the scourge of “Pox Britannica” instead of Pax Britannica.

While Britain gained control over Burma’s oil, precious metals, gems, teak and world-leading rice production, the “pox” thankfully left Burmese society largely alone, treating the country much like a “Cinderella Province” – beautiful but ignored.

Throughout the country, we see faint vestiges of the British Raj – in the cups of tea mixed with condensed milk and dusty colonial-era buildings, oddly out of place with their ornate, dilapidated facades sprinkled amongst plain, tin-roofed, wooden homes. After independence, Myanmar would wipe out most traces of British rule, changing over 600 place names back to the original Myanmar, resulting in Yangon instead of Rangoon, Myanmar instead of Burma, and a reversion to right-hand driving. Any remaining links are tenuous at best, romantic notions made rosier by time.

In the dusty town of Thayet Myo, we ride horse carts to the Thayet Golf Course, proudly “affiliated to st. Andrew’s golf club of scotland”.  Founded in 1887, the country’s oldest golf course is mainly used by government officials, much like it was under the Raj, and a 9-hole round costs less than a dollar. Over champagne and nibbles, the manager tells me that only one person has taken advantage of the USD 300 lifetime membership so far which promises member privileges at lofty St. Andrew’s, seemingly an empire away from these local fairways where stray cows graze.

Our last stop is Mandalay, home to Myanmar’s last king, Thibaw. The city is known for its many craft workshops including weaving, wood and stone carving and gold-leaf beating, producing the incredibly thin gold leaf used to apply to religious images. At the Mahamuni Temple, we see the revered Mahamuni Buddha image, purportedly one of only five images made in the likeness of the Buddha during his lifetime. Only men are allowed to approach the image which is now bubbly with thick layers of gold leaf applied by the faithful.

We travel up to Mandalay Hill for panoramic views of Myanmar’s second largest city and notice a large green square of forest where the royal palace once stood, almost completely razed by allied bombing in WWII against Japanese occupation. On the last afternoon of the cruise, we make our way to the nearby U Bein Bridge. With 1,086 pillars, it’s the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Champagne glasses in hand, we drink to what has been an unforgettable cruise into the fascinating history of Myanmar.

With the bridge beautifully silhouetted against the dying orange sun, I think about the final Burmese days under “the empire on which the sun never sets”. After more than a century of British rule, Myanmar would finally regain independence in 1948. However, those happy days would be short-lived with the country trading a foreign oppressive ruler for a homegrown one. The true fight for freedom was just beginning.

Life Aboard the Anawrahta

River cruising can be a leisurely, luxurious yet surprisingly efficient means to travel, especially in a country like Myanmar, where road infrastructure is lacking and where many of the sights are conveniently located close to the riverbanks. It also means unpacking just once, and paying one price up front for almost everything on the cruise: food, accommodation and tours.

Heritage Line’s Anawrahta is an elegant 214-foot-long vessel featuring three spacious decks and 23 luxurious cabins with the highest staff-to-passenger ratio on the Ayeyarwady. In contrast to most larger ocean-going vessels, river boats typically feel much more spacious, especially the cabins. My Deluxe cabin measured a very generous 344 square feet with a spacious bathroom, giant picture window with banquette where I spent many an afternoon with a good book, and a balcony to enjoy the early morning cool, coffee in hand. Three larger suite-type rooms are also available, ranging from the 517-square-foot Junior Suite to the colossal Royal Suite with 926 square feet of space including a 312-square-foot balcony with private Jacuzzi. Finishings throughout the ship were stunning, including polished lacquer, intricately carved woodwork, shining brass and original artwork.

The days generally followed a similar pattern, starting with a buffet breakfast with live egg station, pastries, fresh fruit, yogurt, smoked salmon and hot items. Most days saw us taking morning shore excursions, with all logistics meticulously pre-arranged, including various forms of transport, from private coach to horse carts to tuk-tuks. Many of the small towns we visited were blissfully untouched by mass tourism, meaning the locals were almost as excited to see us as we them, always with winsome smiles and friendly waves. After every excursion, we were welcomed back on board with a cool towel, chilled juice and shoe-cleaning service.

In addition to religious monuments and historical sites, we had many opportunities to observe the simple, unembellished country life of the majority of the Myanmar people – farming, trading in the local markets, washing clothes in the river and hand-making everything from Burmese cigars wrapped in corn husks and paintings from stone powder to pounding razor-thin gold leaf and hand-grinding peanut oil. The Myanmar people are exceptionally warm and open, making portrait photography a real treat. In addition, having the two able guides permanently stationed on the ship was a blessing, as we could always ask more questions on what we saw on the excursions.

While the cruise is not billed as a gastronomic cruise, the food certainly rivaled 5-star hotel cuisine. Buffet lunches offered a beautiful mix of Myanmar and international dishes making use of fresh, local products as well as premium imported ones. One curry meal was particularly memorable, featuring all sorts of Myanmar curries, gritty with fragrant spices, highlighted by river shrimp the size of my fist. Fresh salads were also phenomenal, often showcasing Thai, Chinese and European flavors. Four-course dinners were served a la carte, with gourmet offerings like Seared Scallops with Avocado Salsa and Soft Shell Crab Curry as well as Rack of Lamb, Imported Steak and Seared Atlantic Salmon. Meals were taken in the Hintha Hall Restaurant featuring white tablecloths, gleaming glassware and the most attentive of wait staff who greeted everyone by name and quickly learned our preferences, all in a beautiful setting of floor-to-ceiling picture windows, polished wood and intricately-carved floor and ceiling panels.

Afternoons were often spent relaxing on the pool deck or participating in interesting lectures and demonstrations on everything from religion and culture to local customs and practices like how to tie the ubiquitous longyi (sarong), apply thanakha paste (a natural cosmetic preferred by women and children) or prepare tea leaf salad. Kipling’s Bar, open on both sides to the river breezes, proved the ideal place to while away the afternoon hours with daily tea or happy hour cocktails. This and the pool deck above with loungers under canopied tents were the best places on the ship to easily see and photograph both riverbanks.

Many evenings were spent in the lovely Mandalay Lounge with its polished wood floors and cozy rattan chairs, watching after-dinner performances by local artisans brought on board to showcase traditional puppetry, music and dancing. The evening’s final touch was a thoughtful gift waiting in the room – a brass bell, a lacquer box, a woven scarf – often related to a destination we visited that day or would visit the next.

Sailing days were exercises in the brilliant art of doing nothing. My initial panic at seeing no TV in the cabin (there’s Wi-fi on board, but spotty especially away from larger towns) was replaced by hours of languid reading and the dreamless sleep of an exhausting life of leisure, the kind Orwell called ‘the deep mid-day sleep of chloroform rather than a lullaby’. With hardly anything taller than a palm tree, the Myanmar sky felt enormous and I often sat watching it turn from rosy pink in the early morning to burnt orange in the late afternoon. That, or watching the river widen and narrow while sparkling like diamonds in the sun. By the end of the day, I always wondered where the hours had gone, in between reading, sleeping, watching the ever-changing scenery and trying unsuccessfully to be hungry again by the next meal. Other facilities on board include a pool deck with 360 degree views, a small gym and the Thazin Spa with three massage beds, manipedi stations and a steambath.

River cruising usually does not come cheap, especially aboard a ship that is likely one of the newest, most luxurious in Myanmar, but the trade-off is a holiday that’s relaxing, educational and completely worry-free, where every whim is looked after by some of the warmest and most professional staff you’ll ever meet.

In addition to the Anawrahta which plies the incredibly scenic Chindwin River in northern Myanmar as well as shorter cruises on the Ayeyarwady between Bagan and Mandalay, Heritage Line also operates luxury cruises in Halong Bay and in the Mekong, between Saigon and Siem Reap, Cambodia. For more, including seasonal specials, visit Heritage Line Cruises.

This article first appeared in Oi Vietnam magazine.
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