Rudyard Kipling wrote the words. Frank Sinatra sang them:
“On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder
Out of China ‘cross the bay.”
And I for five days lived them.
The Ayeyerwady is the Road to Mandalay
In 1852, Britain annexed the country they called Burma and readily recognized the value of the magnificent river that bisects the country north to south, the Ayeyerwady, as a ready means of people and cargo transport. Especially important was a stretch between the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, a stretch they dubbed “The Road to Mandalay.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- This long-closed land intrigues you and you want to visit.
- You want to experience travel Orient-Express style.
- Riverboats allow the movement of travel without all that packing and unpacking bags mess.
Four years later, the first of what was to become a fleet of 602 Glasgow-built vessels known as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. steamed its way up and down the Ayeyerwady. The greatest river fleet on earth was scuttled in the wake of the 1942 Japanese invasion.
Orient-Express Ventures into the Long-hidden Land
In 1996, a quite different steamship began to ply The Road To Mandalay. Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises, taking notice that the Union of Myanmar was gradually allowing tourism to peek through its doors, ventured into the long-hidden land with a riverboat they named appropriately, Road to Mandalay.
My December journey aboard the Road to Mandalay took me on a winding 185 km course of the 1,348 mile waterway — Bagan to Mandalay.
Pagodas and Golden Temples
The most usual way of traveling about Bagan, locals and visitors alike, is via horse cart. So it was that the clip-clop of hoofs delivered me to Bagan’s jetty and to the luxury of Orient-Express’ riverboat.
Most other guests, however, were met by an air-conditioned bus at the Bagan airport for transport to the river. My more rustic arrival was due to a decision to arrive in the country for ten days of exploration before stepping aboard in Bagan.
The Road to Mandalay began life in 1964 as a Rhine cruiser in Germany. With Orient-Express’ purchase in 1994, the ship underwent major refurbishment. A year later it arrived in Yangon, via the English Channel and the Suez Canal, and set sail on the Ayeyarwady.
In 2008 the catastrophic cyclone Nargis hit southern Myanmar, damaging the ship. Out of commission for a year, the Road to Mandalay re-launched on the Ayeyarwady as a remodeled version of its former self. Guest capacity was reduced from 108 to 82.
Exploring the Ship
First things first, an exploration of the ship. The buffet lunch in the restaurant could wait while I explored the riverboat’s three lower decks — the fitness and beauty spa, dining room, reception, library, piano bar. Outer stairs took me to the well-named Observation Deck.
Well named, as the Ayeyerwady offers fascinating observation. A parade of colorful river craft pass by: Double-tiered ferries, cargo-laden barges, small fishing boats, even smaller skiffs carved from a single log of teak, bamboo rafts with little thatched huts precariously perched on top. Along the banks, clothes are washed, ox carts back down so that drums of water can be filled, farmers hand-tend their crops on fertile flood plains, children splash about.
For guests wishing to splash about, a swimming pool centered the deck surrounded by deep-cushioned chairs from which to view the Ayeyerwady’s timeless flow.<
A True Burmese Experience
As I made my away around the vessel, choice of décor enhanced the true Burmese experience promised by Orient Express. Intriguing antiques, Myanmar sourced, were placed here and there, as were commissioned pieces of art contributed by Burmese artists.
Should I have wished a consultation, a resident astrologist was on hand; throughout the country, auspicion is commonly sought as a factor in important decision making.
The Burmese experience continued in the dining room. Along with western choices, a “Flavors of Asia” menu was available at every meal. Should it be the succulent roast rack of New Zealand lamb, or the red curry with duck breast served with Jasmine rice?
Ship Attracts an International Mix
On-board, seven Burmese guides, chosen for local knowledge, personality, and language fluency led shore excursions, all of which were included in the tariff.
The ship attracts an international mix – on my voyage Britain, the United States, Australia, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and China were represented. An air-conditioned bus for each language spoken awaited for morning and afternoon tours. I happily followed English-speaking San Phjp Aye who stepped aboard the Road to Mandalay as a guide in 1996 and stayed.
While docked at Bagan’s jetty, tours took us into the sun-baked plain where some 2,200 pagoda structures remain of the some 33,000 built by eleven kings during Burma’s 1044-1283 Golden Age. Shan led us through cave-like halls where magnificent Buddha statues hold forth, his flashlight revealing remnants of glorious frescoes that once covered interiors
Then into the village to a workshop where the fine lacquer ware for which Bagan is noted is created, before arriving at Thattbyinyu temple in time to find “bleacher” seating on a high level of the temple’s exterior to watch the sun set over the pagoda-studded plain.
As days on the Road to Mandalay progressed, I followed San’s measured footstep to view the intricate carvings of a teak monastery, the produce-crowded aisles of a village market, a temple covered in gold, a silversmith shop, a village dedicated to the making of pottery water vessels, a nunnery to observe the pink-robed nuns go about their daily tasks.
We watched the sun set behind the teak, U Bein pedestrian bridge over Lake Taungthaman, and another sunset from Sagaing’s mirror-encrusted Soon U Shu pagoda.
We stepped aboard one of the Ayeyerwady’s double-decked passenger ferries for a trip to Mingun to see what was commissioned to be Myanmar’s largest and most grandiose pagoda, left standing to molder before completion. We clanged the Mingun Bell, the world’s largest, and climbed the stairs of the white, seven-tiered Hisinbyume “wedding cake” pagoda for incomparable views.
A Ritual at Dawn
The Road to Mandalay’s dockage at Mandalay is at the village of Shwe Kyet Yet, a few miles outside the city. Early one morning, passengers willing to rise at dawn walked into the village to watch the procession of saffron-robed monks walking barefoot through the village, as they do every morning, each carrying an alms bowl to receive gifts of a spoonful of food from householders waiting for them along the way. When at dock, the ship prepares trays of rice and stewed chicken to be ladled into the monks’ bowls as they pass in front of the village school that the ship has funded.
While traveling on the Ayerwady, in addition to watching the life of the river sail by, guests took part in a cooking demonstration, learned how to put on a longji, the “skirt” worn by both men andwomen throughout the country; and viewed the mixing and applying of thanaka, the pale-yellow paste made of the wood of the thanaka tree with which women decorate their faces in intricate patterns.
All too soon is was time to say goodbye to the Road to Mandalay. Bags were collected and sorted with departure orchestrated with the same attention to detail and graciousness of service experienced throughout my five day voyage.
While sailing Rudyard Kipling’s “road,” I’d not seen “flying fishes play, or the dawn come up like thunder ‘cross China cross the bay.” No matter. I’d seen far more. Remarkable, indelible images, forever memorable of this long-closed Golden Land.
- Money matters: Bring a supply of brand-new US dollars with you, enough to cover every eventuality. Only crisp, new bills are accepted. ATMs cannot be used and credit cards are not accepted, other than on the ship. Although dollars are accepted almost everywhere, a supply of local currency can be helpful for small purchases and tips. Best exchange is NOT at the airport.
- Crime against tourists is all but non-existent throughout the country.
- Be prepared to take off your shoes and socks when entering a pagoda. Pack a supply of wipes to clean your feet before putting your shoes back on.