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We reached the confluence of the two rivers in the evening, six hours after leaving Mandalay. Downstream stretched the Irrawaddy, one of the great rivers of Asia. To the right, across a snaking sandbar, was the Chindwin, a river where navigation becomes trickier, the guide books thinner and cruises are still relatively rare.
We seemed to be at the centre of a huge flood, almost 7km wide. Despite the expanse of water, the ship slowed to a tiptoe, feeling for a channel in which to make the sharp turn north. On the bridge, Capt Aung Nyein, a small man whose jet-black hair belies his 64 years, scrutinised the current for the eddies and ruffles that would betray the topography of the riverbed.
Captains know where the different channels lie but, because the sandbanks keep shifting, they can only gauge which one to follow by reading the water. Capt Nyein, who has worked on the rivers for 42 years, called for a sailor to take soundings with a 6-metre bamboo pole. “We have an echo sounder, but sometimes we feel more comfortable with the old ways,” he told me.
In Myanmar, a country which was only readmitted to travel’s mainstream two years ago, the upper Chindwin remains a tourist backwater. It’s only navigable by a handful of cruise ships when river levels rise during the summer monsoon, from May to mid-October. I was making my fourth visit to the country to take an 11-day cruise up the Chindwin, a voyage of more than 1,600km, on a new ship, the Orcaella. Sailing from Mandalay, we headed southwest on the Irrawaddy before following the Chindwin northwards for eight days, as far as it is navigable by cruise boats. On the return, riding with the current, it took three days to reach our final destination, the fabled temples of Bagan.
Orcaella is the second boat in Myanmar to be operated by Orient-Express, the group which runs luxury hotels, trains and boats around the world, from Venice to Machu Picchu. The first, launched 17 years ago, was a converted Rhine cruiser; the new vessel was purpose-built in Yangon, the former capital. It’s 31 metres shorter and draws less water, enabling it to navigate remote waterways such as the Chindwin which, even at their deepest, are too shallow, and their turns too tight, for the bigger ship.
Not that you would realise this from looking at a river that is a good 450 metres wide. Nor, from the Chindwin’s rugged little boats and simple villages, would you guess that you are in a land undergoing one of the most extraordinary metamorphoses of any country in the world. The cars, advertisements and shopping malls of the new Myanmar stop well short of the banks of the Chindwin. Here, the guides’ behaviour is the most obvious evidence of change. Once forbidden to discuss politics on pain of jail, and given a list of “answers” should the subject come up, they now openly mock their former leaders.
Myanmar – patient, put-upon, smiling, impoverished, mesmerising – has to be among the most welcoming of countries to the traveller. It is surpassingly photogenic. The landscape is prickled with eruptions of Buddhist temples, their spiky stupas like countless gilded teats offering spiritual sustenance. Men wrestle with wooden ploughs drawn by bullocks; buffaloes haul carts with wheels big enough for medieval siege engines.
Villages of bamboo houses, raised on stilts of teak, jostle at the water’s edge between the colossi of acacia trees; tugs haul trains of barges loaded with oil drums and timber. Small freighters and rapid wooden passenger boats with sagging gunwales advance, horns trumpeting, their deafening engines battering the air with noise.
The scarcity of western tourists meant we were as curious to Chindwin villagers as they were to us. Everyone was willingly photographed; not once on the Chindwin were we hassled by beggars or hucksters. Even at the tourist hotspot of Bagan, where the cruise ended, there were only kids trying to sell postcards.
Monywa is the first place of any size on the Chindwin. We arrived on our second day. It was a full moon and thus a carnival day for families at the Thanboddhay Temple. But the crowds milling around the pagoda buildings, painted in garish, tutti-frutti colours, were as nothing compared with the tumult of Buddha figures populating the temple itself. Every surface swarmed with tiny Buddhas, more than half a million of them. Outside they are crowded into obelisks; inside they are perched all the way up the walls on skinny ledges. The large Buddhas, before which families were praying, had haloes of flashing lights radiating from their heads. “Buddhas from Las Vegas,” observed our guide.
The temple was constructed during the second world war. Despite the Chindwin being on the front line, the building was undamaged. When it was completed, the war ended, a conjunction of events auspicious enough for it to become an important place of pilgrimage. Nearby, the proliferation of Buddhas continues in a plantation of bo trees (Buddha attained enlightenment beneath a bo). In row upon row, identical Buddha figures, half life-size, sit beneath jaunty little concrete umbrellas. There are some 7,000 now; the target is 10,000. The Buddha explosion reaches its apotheosis in a single statue 130 metres tall, more than double the height of Nelson’s Column.
In the monastery at Mokehtaw on day three, we witnessed the initiation of 10-year-old monks, bewildered-looking boys whose heads were ceremonially shaved in front of the congregation. On the fifth day, in Mawlaik, once headquarters of the Bombay Burmah Trading Company, we ate dinner, prepared by the ship’s chef, in a colonial administrator’s handsome teak house. The Edwardian villa, beside an unkempt golf course, was what the expats from upcountry, who came for some R&R, called a “chummery”. The next morning we drove into the hills behind Mawlaik in the back of trucks to watch a demonstration of elephants working in the forest.
Orcaella’s excursions are enjoyable, though some stops have been trimmed from the original itinerary because the ship is slower than expected in the Chindwin’s currents. That means there are long, often monotonous, passages on the river with little happening on the ship. Of three lectures on board, one was on folding towels into animal shapes.
A fast launch accompanied us from Mandalay. At each stop, it ferried us ashore before speeding ahead to prepare for our next landing. At the gangplank, boys held bamboo poles as hand rails; on shore, there were refreshments and cold hand wipes.
The river cut through sandstone cliffs and twisted between wooded bluffs; forest tumbled to the water’s edge. Orcaella pushed against the stream, making lazy zigzags on water soupy with sediment to follow the invisible channel.
Like many river boats, Orcaella, which takes its name from a species of Irrawaddy river dolphin, could be first cousin to the Portakabin. The snub nose and boxy lines are nothing if not functional. The 25 two-berth cabins use traditional wood, wicker and fabrics. In four categories, including two forward-facing balcony suites, they are well thought-out, with individual air conditioning, hardwood floors and smart shower rooms.
Deluxe cabins – the lowest grade – have scant storage for two people over 11 nights, but the middle-of-the-range staterooms are attractive, being spacious enough for two armchairs and a walk-in wardrobe. Every cabin has a television, writing desks and floor-to-ceiling windows for a VistaVision view of the country. Wide sliding panes admit the steamy tropical air and the sights and sounds of the river.
The public areas are more contemporary. On the top deck is a small, fashionably granite-coloured swimming pool with 15 sunbeds but no parasols. Behind it are a spa, fitness room and air-conditioned bar.
More incongruous is the restaurant. Its white marble pillars and shiny chrome reminded me of the cosmetics floor of a department store. That’s a matter of taste. The same can’t be said of the windows, which are too small and in the wrong place. Sitting at a “window” table, you have to look back over your shoulder to see out.
These are early days for Orcaella – I was on its second voyage – and there are matters, untypical of Orient-Express’s normal high standards, which need attention. Many found the food disappointing. Menus were repetitive and the Thai chef seemed to have a surer touch with Asian dishes than she had with western. Service was provided with considerably more Burmese charm than training.
On the last night, when the company’s general manager was in the restaurant, there was a minor insurrection. One passenger marched out shouting that he had waited 25 minutes for his meal, “typical on this cruise”, his protest applauded by two tables of equally disgruntled French.
At Homalin, we turned round. Raindrops pitted the river and leached the colour from the sky. Water and clouds took on the same vaguely brown wash. Across the border, in India, rose the high peaks of the Manipur Hills, acolytes of the Himalayas. Homalin is an immigrant town. Shan from the east and Nagas from Nagaland in the north have settled there. Troupes from both groups performed in discreet yet dogged rivalry, the Naga in their quarter with spears and harmonies, the Shan, on the quayside, with drums and dancers.
In the afternoon, Orcaella scudded south on the Chindwin’s powerful stream. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” His words have never been truer. Myanmar, back in the international fold, will never be more distinctive than now.
Peter Hughes was a guest of Orient-Express and Cazenove and Loyd. Cazenove and Loyd offers 11-night cruises on the Orcaella from £5,870 per person including private transfers, full board, domestic flights, entrance fees and return international flights to Yangon from London with British Airways. In January 2014, a 14-night tour, including Yangon and an Orcaella cruise, will be accompanied by Robert Gordon, former British ambassador to Myanmar (from £6,158 per person)