It was in Burma, after some of the most uncomfortable and yet memorable journeys of my life that I felt like a real traveler. Having seen northern Myanmar via accident-prone trains and leaky boats – and generally the only Western foreigner in sight – it was a very different experience to cruise the Ayeywarwady aboard Road To Mandalay, a German-built vessel that was shipped to Myanmar nearly two decades ago. During rainy season, when water is high, the ship goes as far north as Bhamo, the trading post just 50 miles from China.
Most tourists don’t go much further north than Mandalay – there are no lattes and pillow menus in this part of the world. The stars and the sunsets are incredible though, and Bhamo is a pleasant town with two Chinese-style hotels foreigners might comfortably stay in. One, the Friendship, I sampled three years ago. The guide book said it had plenty of hot water and it didn’t, but it was fine for a night of restless sleep before I boarded the government ferry next morning at 6am.
As for places to eat recommended by my popular guide book, the dumplings at the tea house were doughy and had been sitting around for hours, and the curried chunks of meat at the Indian restaurant were about as tender as an old bit of goat’s hoof. As literally the only Caucasian in town, I was something of a novelty. I feared for motorcyclists so busy looking at me that they forgot to look at the road or where they were going.
Passing through the second defile (gorge)
Road To Mandalay always had hot water, dispensed four-course meals from the daily menu in the evening (with cheese), afternoon tea, Bulgari toiletries, and even a small pool on the top desk where passengers were known to gather for drinks in the afternoon, or even nap while pretending to watch the scenery. RTM, part of the Orient-Express stable) is a floating boutique hotel and comfortable by any standards, and about 100 times more comfortable than anything ashore. You don’t get to have as many interactions with locals of course, but you get to see plenty. Westerners are a source of huge entertainment. One of the other passengers carried his small blond son on his shoulders through the local market and caused a sensation amongst the women (yes, everyone working in the market was female – I have no idea what the men were doing).
Whenever we went ashore for an excursion we never had to walk more than about 15 steps without the staff setting up a table with drinks and snacks. I think my only complaint would be that it couldn’t really be Burma without feeling hot and sweaty while bumping over a goat track for ten hours and fishing a piece of chicken out of a few inches of oil at a cafe along the way. (There isn’t much refrigeration, so the oil is a preservative. This isn’t an issue on the ship, which has refrigeration for food and air-conditioning for people.) For those who don’t enjoy goat tracks and repetitive meals, RTM is utter joy. The staff take such good care of you I wasn’t sure I would be able to travel again when I had to be responsible for my own belongings or go more than an hour without local delicacies, juice of the day or wiping my brow with a chilled towelette. My usual refreshment is lukewarm water sucked out of a plastic bottle.
The first day meant rising at 4am for an early, but fabulous breakfast (brie! parma ham! olives!) at The Governor’s Residence, Orient-Express’s hotel in Yangon. RTM’s maiden voyage in Myanmar was in January, 1996 – the company are not newcomers to Myanmar and have always had a steady clientele, though no doubt they will be even more successful now Burma is such a popular destination. OE offerings are not cheap, but if you want to see the country – especially the northern part – in relaxing comfort, you can’t go wrong here. Plus the food is great and really varied. There are Burmese staples to try like mohinga (fish or lentil soup, that most Burmese eat for breakfast), and tea leaf salad, but dishes from other parts of Asia and appealing Western food such as rack of lamb and foie gras as well.
Traveling around on my own I wasn’t overly inspired by what was on offer in the eating department. The street food, including intestines on sticks, is often covered with flies, and at cafes the choices were generally limited. Usually I ate the chicken set – curried chicken under a layer of oil, with some curried or pickled vegetables, soup and rice. There is a restaurant in Yangon called Monsoon and it serves well-crafted dishes in a heritage mansion – that was probably the best meal I had in the former capital. It’s recommended as a place to try good Burmese food in pleasant surroundings.
All-purpose river: Bathers on the banks of the Ayeyarwady
I’ve seen videos of foodie people extolling the joys of Burmese cuisine, but no one I’ve known who went – including one who was there last month – raved about the food. (I won’t talk about the cockroach eggs someone I know found in fried rice). If you are going to find good local cooking, it will be at lunchtime, apparently, when dishes are fresh.
In a video I saw someone helping themselves to a selection of cooked dishes at a kind of street restaurant, but I never saw a selection like that. In 2010 most people were very poor, and they ate poor people’s food, ie lots of rice and noodles. There probably is great local food but I didn’t find it.
Three years after my first visit, the Burmese did look better fed and the markets were full of produce. At the markets you will see items you won’t see anywhere else, including strange fruit that makes the Burmese feel unwell, though this isn’t enough to stop them eating it. I wasn’t tempted.
We flew to Mandalay and boarded the ship, then we went to the ancient city of Sagaing. This was a quick visit as we had to set sail up the river. The Ayeywarwady is also known as the “national highway” of Myanmar and to see the country by boat is to see it as the Burmese have seen it for centuries. Transport wise, it was the backbone of the country. In the Twenties the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was the largest fleet of river boats in the world, consisting of more than 600 vessels carrying some 9 million passengers a year.
The locals turned out to see the dancing girls and the strange tourist people when we arrived at Naba
We sailed north, stopping at Nwe Nyein village famous for its pottery, Kyan Hnyat village where OE supports a school, and at Katha, the town George Orwell was stationed at and described in his first book, Burmese Days. In Katha during two stops we saw Orwell’s house, the lively local market and took a train (90 minutes to go 15 miles) through teak forest to a small town where we were greeted with a band and dancing girls like we were a time-warped delegation inspecting a corner of the Raj-era Empire. There was coffee served in OE china at the station (very Raj) and a kind of cocktail service on the train going back. When I was on the overnight train three years earlier you had to buy a bowl of water at a train station if you wanted to wash your hands.
Then up to Bhamo and a walk around town to be surprised at a local bakery with biscuits, beer and sparkling wine. We stood in the street drinking the wine from flutes, taking photos of each other and all the locals who came to watch and it was quite surreal – in a good way. Big improvement on doughy dumplings.
Heading south we stopped at Katha again, admiring its golden pagoda shimmering in the water at night, passed through the gorges of the Second Defile, and pampered passengers got a taste of real Burma on rattly buses to visit some elephants. Hundreds of people turned out to see us and the elephants. Maybe it was mainly the elephants, but they were all along the riverbank when we went back to the boat and there weren’t any elephants there. We rode the elephants (better in a basket than just bareback), and I think the elephants had quite a nice time. Mostly they just stood there while a group of people fed them pounds and pounds of bananas and balls of tamarind and salt. Tamarind balls are like elephant candy.
Then it was back to Mandalay, Burma’s second city which is not as romantic as its name might suggest. Still, there are views from Mandalay Hill, the “craft” street where workers suck down lungfuls of marble dust sculpting Buddhas, and my favorite, the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, where the Buddha’s legs grow ever fatter from the gold pressed onto them. And of course in the afternoon we visited the U Bein Bridge, where we were greeted with chilled towelettes and sparking wine, which is a pleasant accompaniment to paddling by the longest teak bridge in the world. Last time I was there we spent more time here, walking the bridge and drifting about in the boat, but we had a lot of pack in that day. And as always aboard RTM, there was another large meal to pack in that evening.
By that stage of the trip I’d made some good friends, including an irreverent Australian couple who made me laugh over dinner most evenings. Our waiter “William” came to know us quite well and we had a good laugh with him too. His name wasn’t William actually, despite his gold badge. He eventually confessed when we remarked on the non-Burmeseness of this appellation that it wasn’t his badge but it was the only one he could find to complete his uniform. When he approached each night with two kinds of rolls and sesame bread sticks, we’d just say: “Sticks, William!” and then cackle like deranged parrots. He probably thought we were mad, but at least we were mad in a jolly sort of way. I looked forward to seeing his smiley face each night.
The staff were lovely. So helpful and courteous, and not in a sycophantic way. It appeared most of them genuinely loved working on this boat and you could feel it. Many had been offered promotions to work on OE’s new ship, the Orcaella, but most had refused.
After Mandalay we sailed to Bagan, number one tourist site in Myanmar. It was a photograph of its temples swathed in an otherworldly mist that inspired me to go to Burma in the first place. Last time I’d traversed the area in a pony cart drawn by a small, grumpy stallion called Rambo. This time we had an air-conditioned bus and our knowledgeable guide San pointed out many interesting features in the temples that I would have missed on my own. The smell I remembered from temples before was that of bat poo; some of these smelt much more pleasantly of jasmine. There were many golden images of Buddha to admire.
We did sunset at a temple I remembered from before; the steps were steep, but the views were worth it. Early next morning we went to another temple and saw a man ploughing a field with oxen. I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to see this beautiful place again. Later we visited Shwezigon Pagoda and the town of Nyuang U, and its busy market. Everyone looked very well fed, as we were on the ship before an optional trip to Mt Popa.
In 2010 I was watching TV in a crumbly hotel in a hill station near Mandalay, and it was like watching the BBC in 1975. There was a black and white soap opera I thought was made in 1974, except then I noticed the characters were using mobile phones (which are now much more readily available in Burma; they were really expensive in 2010).
Between programs there were panoramic shots of Myanmar, including a cork-shaped mountain with pagodas on the top. This was Mt Popa, a volcanic plug inhabited by spirits (or nats) with a lot of steps covered in monkey poo. It actually looks more impressive from a distance, and this time we didn’t go up, we went to a resort near by with excellent views.
That was the conclusion of the tour and that night was the farewell dinner, preceded by a cocktail party and an elephant dance on the top deck. I said “Sticks, William!” for the last time, and we had a lively meal, tinged with a little sadness. I always feel said at the end of a good trip, and this one I enjoyed almost as much for the gracious hospitality as for the opportunity to revisit Myanmar.