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14 February 2011
Journey to Myanmar's Far North Gorges
Cruise through the distant reaches of the Ayeyarwady in Upper Myanmar, passing through dramatic gorges en route to the Chinese border. Samuela (Sammy) Bottari, Hotel Manager on board the Road To Mandalay, recounts the adventures of the most recent voyage.
Setting out from Mandalay
I am often asked what makes the annual Road To Mandalay river cruise to the far north of Myanmar so special. My answer? I feel sure there is nowhere quite like this stretch of wild scenery anywhere else in the world. The remote, jungle-covered river banks, dotted with isolated villages, capture the imagination and hark back to decades past, when only the most adventurous pioneers penetrated these landscapes. Little has changed for centuries, and their beauty and culture remain intact. This unique cruise is all about the excitement of discovery, and the chance to gain a privileged insight into the local way of life.
Samuela Bottari and a small friend.
We make many stops along the Ayeyarwady River, each more exciting than the last, as we cruise to Bhamo, the largest northern city and a major gateway to China. The first is the ancient town of Mingun, with its imposing pagoda and the world's largest functional bell. Many a Road To Mandalay guest picks up the wooden clapper and rings it out for all the town to hear. Our journey has begun.
Burmese Days: Now and Then
We continue up river to the pottery-making town of Nwe Nyein, its streets dotted with massive furnaces and piles of clay urns. Then comes a village with a fascinating market, where our on board GP, Dr Hla Tun, escorts us to a school supported by Orient-Express. Many guests find this incredibly rewarding and several have made repeat visits to continue helping communities such as this.
Next stop is the historic town of Katha, the British outpost once home to George Orwell, author of 'Burmese Days'. As we jump into trishaws to ride around the streets, it is as if we are transported back to 1942. British-style teak houses with what are now wild jungle gardens sit alongside a rather uneven tennis court once enjoyed by the Raj. One guest had just read Orwell's description of this court and was delighted when the local instructor was kind enough to give him a quick lesson and game. Further along is magical Shwe Paw Island, with a highly venerated pagoda and monastery, and gardens with amazingly well-kept vegetable patches.
Into the Jungle Gorges
From here, the landscape changes dramatically. We cruise into dense jungle, like a deep green carpet on the increasingly mountainous terrain. It is exceptionally beautiful as we sail through the second defile, a massive gorge that opens up the way to Bhamo. Champagne is served as everyone gathers on the top deck to spot the famous Parrot's Beak, a rock painted as a rudimentary navigation aid.
We alight at the Thein Pa Thaung Meditation Centre, a place of quiet contemplation. The view from this hilltop retreat is breathtaking: the Ayeyarwady winds through thick jungle and on towards Bhamo. And there, in these wonderfully wild surroundings, sits the Road To Mandalay, waiting to welcome us home after a long day's exploration.
Bhamo is unlike any other town in the area. A hub of trade activity, its markets are bursting with produce carried across the nearby Chinese border. After roaming its fascinating backstreets we return to the main thoroughfare where the Road To Mandalay team is waiting at the local bakery. The aroma of bread and pastries surrounds us as ice-cold bubbly is served at tables set up on the sidewalk. There could hardly be a better way to end a day in the tropics than to sit with fellow travellers, enjoying a tipple and sampling shortbread straight out of the oven as the sun goes down.
Champagne by the Chinese Border
A day trip to the foot of the Yunnan Mountains is not for the unadventurous! We board local trucks and journey beyond Bhamo, past paddy fields and women washing clothes in streams, and out into the countryside. The final destination is a stunning hidden plain with a cool brook, its backdrop a rugged mountain range covered in mist. After morning tea in a rustic hut, we cross a wooden bridge and follow a jungle path until it opens out to a magnificent river scene. And waiting on the bank is that familiar table… as one guest observed: "even if the ground was opening up, you can always count on these guys to be there with their white tablecloth and a glass of champagne".
Back on board to celebrate the achievement of reaching our northernmost point, Executive Chef Tony Mak and his team put on a marvellous spread of Chinese cuisine. All lunches and dinners on board feature dishes from Myanmar and other Asian countries, as well as Western fare.
A Mingun taxi, Nwe Nyein pottery village and an elephant refreshment break
Horses, Trains and Elephants
We start our return south, making our second stop at Katha. This time we jump into horse carts and head to the train station. Boarding a private locomotive, we roll through magnificent teak forest to arrive at a remote village, where everyone comes out to see us. We stroll its streets and then girls in tribal costumes provide entertainment for both us and the local residents, side by side.
Our next stop sees us travelling into the jungle outside Thabeikkyin. We arrive at a clearing where six elephants, employees of the local teak foresting organisation, are waiting to give us a ride. We then watch as one hauls huge teak logs into a small river and pulls them up the other side, flinging them about like matchsticks.
Sailing back towards the Mingun Pagoda, we recall highlights of our journey while enjoying cocktails on the top deck. Myanmar has taken hold of us, and there is not a single person on board who has not been touched by the scenery, spirituality and overwhelming friendliness of the people.
South from Mandalay and on to Bagan
But the journey is far from over: in the next few days we visit Mandalay and Bagan, rich with culture, history and local crafts. Mandalay is Myanmar's spiritual capital, and its many monks and nuns pursue their studies alongside the most intact record of the Buddha's teachings, carved in stone on 77 tablets. Our itinerary also includes the Golden Palace and Mahamuni Temple with its impressive statue of the Buddha, covered in thick gold leaf.
Cruising down to Bagan, there is the chance to relax and enjoy the view of the surrounding dry plains (such a contrast to the scenery four days ago) and to take a quick dip in the pool. Around our last bend in the Ayeyarwady comes the awesome sight of the 2,000 pagodas of Bagan. We disembark to explore this great world heritage site, and it is on this high note that we finish our journey.
A cocktail party with traditional dancing is the last of many cultural shows held on board during the cruise. It is the perfect way to say 'goodbye' to new friends made during the past 11 days. Crew members gather to say farewell, headed by Captain Myo Lwin, who guides our vessel through the ever-changing river channels and invites everyone to join him on the bridge to learn about the Ayeyarwady. And Ground Operations Manager Sis Naing and his team, who know every bridge in the jungle, landing point, afternoon tea hut, local dance troupe, horse cart and trishaw. These are the people whose dedication and genuine desire to share their culture creates those memorable moments that make this trip unique.