MYANMAR: On the River from Mandalay

‘Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

-RUDYARD KIPLING

Any list of the world’s great rivers includes the mighty Irrawaddy (aka Ayeyarwady), the backbone and lifeline of the embracing troubled land once known as Burma. It snakes and meanders its 1240-mile course from upper Kachin State to the Andaman Sea, a wide brown pulsing artery that has drawn travelers for centuries, way back to Kublai Khan.

Irrawaddy River Scene | Photo: Hennie Brown

Long boats, barges, ferries, skiffs and canoes ply its relentless wide brown course, but there is one vessel on the river that glides with special grace – RV Strand, the new luxury ‘floating annexe’ of the famous colonial Strand Hotel in Yangon.

RV Strand | Photo: Jane Adams

Rudyard Kipling (who first coined the phrase ‘Road to Mandalay’) would have been in his element, sitting on the top deck of this riverboat in a peacock cane chair, as the fire-red setting sun ignites the cluster of golden stupors of Sagiang, once the capital of the Shan kingdom, now a magnet for Myanmar monks.

Strand Cabin | Photo: Jane Adams

This vista and the day’s earlier explorations of the sleepy village of Mingun and the stunning white stuccoed, multi-layered Hysinbyume Paya pagoda set the tone for the river trip. Horse carts, house cows tethered to trees, crumbling stupors, mossy solitary buddhas presiding over rice fields – and everywhere friendly smiling faces.

Horse carts to Ava | Photo: Jane Adams

Morning sorties start after perfectly cooked eggs Florentine, afternoon trips are sensibly preceded by light lunches – maybe the mix-your-own bespoke dressing mega-salad with seared sea bass.

There are 3000-plus 11th – 13th century monuments on the Bagan Plain, awe-inspiring structures that mark fundamental transitions in Buddhist beliefs. Brick, stucco, stone and ornately carved and gilded, these timeless edifices house countless imposing buddhas (seated, standing and reclining) and frescoes that preserve (except on crowded public holidays) a serenity that befits Buddhist beliefs.

Shwedagon panorama | Photo: Hennie Brown

The three-night Strand cruise is really just a prelude. So much more awaits in Bagan that a few extra days are recommended after disembarkation for deeper immersion. And the supplementary temple list should surely include Dhammayazika Paya for its delta vistas; the small jewel Nandamannya Pahto for its frescoes and resident artist with a powerful laser torch, and the nearby underground limestone cave monastery, Kyat Kan Kyaung.

The Strand crew curate each day’s sights to deliver powerful memories. Gilded buddhas, smiling buddhas, twin buddhas, buddha with reading glasses, buddha being tempted by sirens – all serene in their ancient temples, with allure for those leading harried lives.

Reclining Buddha | Photo: Hennie Brown

We also probe the market in Old Bagan where enthusiastic vendors will happily haggle over elephant print pants, puppets, longyi (sarongs) lacquer ware and myriad handicrafts.

Similar mementos also appear on your pillow nightly, when the RV Strand staff turn down your pristine white sheets, plump pillows and set out slippers, a robe and the next day’s itinerary.

Impeccable service and pitch-perfect meals go a long way to making memories. Flawless food covers a delicious Burmese repertoire (with highlights like fermented tea salad (laphet), smoked eggplant, choko tendrils and white pumpkin with pork ribs (wet-nan-yo); a Thai buffet – the homeland of the chef, and on the last night, a French degustation menu that would stand proudly in Paris. The intelligent warm caring and attentive personal care from the 90 RV Strand staff epitomizes Myanmar, where wide smiles carry the hopes of a nation emerging from its chrysalis.

SUITE DREAMS

RV Strand offers a range of luxury suites. Each cabin is fitted with squish-down king or twin beds, burnished teak floors, floor-to-ceiling wide, sliding doors to let the tropical breezes in, spacious marble-tiled bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour butler service and satellite TV.

If you seek a little more space and want to be lulled by lapping Irrawaddy waters, the Strand Cabin 101 (23sqm) with mini-lounge and relaxing tropical print sofa, is highly recommended.

Strand Superior Suite | Photo: Jane Adams

CRUISE TOP TIPS

  • RV Strand operates several themed cruises each season, including a musical relationship with the Orchestre De Paris.
  • Wa Wa ‘with magic fingers’ offers exemplary spa and massage treatments, and graciously provides cold drinks and towels after you have clambered over temples.
  • Barman Chico mixes a mighty margherita.
  • To maximize the pleasures choose the longer 4-night cruise upstream from Bagan to Mandalay.
  • All wines and cocktails are included. Top-flight French labels available too for a supplement.
  • The pool is small but the top deck is ideal for sipping sundowners.

Sun Deck Pool | Photo: Jane Adams

 

STRAND HOTEL

The RV Strand 3- and 4-night cruises can be coupled with a 2-night sojourn at the Strand Hotel, Yangon, either at the beginning or end of your trip. Once described as the ‘finest hostelry east of Suez’, this gracious colonial hotel dates back to 1901, the creation of the savvy Sarkies hotelier brothers (known too for Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Penang). It has recently been refurbished and offers seriously spacious rooms decorated with plush fabrics, lacquer ware and historic photographs. Luxury comes with a capital ‘L’ here and the vast Superior Suites (55m2) envelop even the fussiest traveller. The Strand High Tea is legendary. Sip and channel George Orwell, author of Burma Days.

The strap-on Strand cruise / hotel package also includes two internal return flights to/from Yangon to connect with the boat. Limousine transfers can be arranged.

Note: The current complicated political issues in Myanmar may deter some travelers from heading to the land of ‘The Lady’, as Aung San Suu Kyi is known in her homeland. Alternatively, you can go and engage with the immensely hospitable Burmese people, bringing outside perspectives to their attention.

Jane Adams

Jane Adams

Jane is an award-winning food and travel writer based in Sydney, and chair of the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association. Her perambulations of plate and place have appeared for over 20 years in publications including Gourmet Traveller, Cuisine, Qantas magazine and Selector. She has a passion for farmers’ markets, local food and old Asian teapots.
Jane Adams

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