“I love you. I love you very much. I will never forget you,” said Daw May Lwin Zin,
headmistress of the village school of Kindat, Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is now known). Before
we parted, she showered me with gifts of limes, pomelos, and green jade earrings.
We strolled arm in arm down the main, muddy thoroughfare of Kindat, as the esteemed
headmistress proudly announced to curious on-lookers in their teak houses of stilts that the Road
to Mandalay had just presented the school with much-needed school supplies.
Perhaps the crew had chosen me to represent the ship’s passengers in this formal, moving
school ceremony because I had so enjoyed playing and singing together with the precious children of other villages.
For the first time last September, our Road to Mandalay river cruiser journeyed along the
Chindwin River, visiting remote villages in the heart of ancient Burma. The Chindwin is a
tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, which was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “On the Road to Mandalay where the flyin’ fishes play….” over a century ago when he described
Burma as “quite unlike any land you know about.”
What was once Southeast Asia’s most secretive and mysterious country is now slowly
opening up to the outside world to reveal a rich and glorious cultural heritage, breathtaking
natural beauty, and people who have an endearing genuine charm that seems to transcend time.
A thoughtful note from the ship’s captain appeared on the pillows in our cabins the first
day. “We know of your thoughtfulness in wanting to give money and other items to the children,
but it is not good, (for) they may become too reliant on this form of giving. Instead, may I
suggest you join us in…seeing to it that useful school items are brought for the benefit of all the
Chief Engineer Terry Kyaw Nyunt, Senior Trustee for the Road to Mandalay’s School
Fund, said, “Five years ago I collected $1.00 from each crew member which we presented to the
Shwe Kyet Tet School in the river cruiser’s home village. Since then, we have built an annex for
the school and bought a multi-media system for a school in Bagan with the money passengers
donated. Normally, we do not give money, but ask ahead of time what is needed.
“Most of the tourism industry in Myanmar is doing similar charitable projects. It is our
responsibility to preserve the culture of Myanmar,” said Charlie Turnbull, Manager of Road to
Mandalay’s Hotel Services.
My journey in Myanmar began with an Abercrombie & Kent tour in Yangon (formerly
Rangoon, Burma). We stayed at the grand old Strand Hotel, built during the British colonial era..
Half the persons on the tour bus had already cruised on the Road to Mandalay within the past
two years. Why, I wondered, would they return so soon? There must be something very special
about this journey.
Nearby, the shops of the huge, enclosed Scott’s Market were well worth a serious look at
the rubies, sapphires, jade and various beautiful Burmese works of art.
Yangon is more memorable, however, as the site of the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the
most sacred Buddhist temples in the world. A golden spire dominates this religious fairyland and
everything around it. Meandering through hundreds of pavilions, shrines, and statuary images,
you begin to learn a great deal about Theravada Buddhism which is fervently nurtured as the
national faith. It is truly a sight that appears, in the words of Somerset Maugham, “like a sudden
hope in the dark night of the soul.”
The following morning we boarded a plane for the short flight to Mandalay, a city that
comes across as a huge kind of Oriental bazaar of artists and craftspeople at work. Wooden
mallets pound precious metal into gold leaf, found everywhere in Myanmar, since the faithful
place it on Buddhist images for good luck and karma.
Market stalls are piled high with sticks from the thanaka tree. Young women and children
grind these into a smooth sandalwood paste and apply it to their faces as beauty marks and
protection from the sun.
On the waterfront, creaking oxcarts, a rickety jetty and old wooden boats transport you
back to a Southeast Asian trading post right out of a book by Joseph Conrad.
Before boarding the Road to Mandalay, we stopped to visit Mahagandayon Monastery,
home to several thousand novice monks. Long lines of saffron-robed monks with shaved heads,
most of them young boys, cradled their begging bowls of food as they processed into the open
The luxurious Road to Mandalay is the latest addition to the Orient-Express Hotels,
Trains and Cruises. Originally built for cruises along the Rhine River, it was completely renovated and transported to Myanmar in 1995 for cruises on the country’s main Ayeyarwady River. Local craftsmen added elegant decorations and fittings such as woven cane furniture, Burmese antiques, and traditional motifs carvings that reflect a colonial ambiance. The new eco-friendly sewage system neutralizes all effluent before leaving the ship.
The magic charm of Burma weaves its spell as something new appears around every bend
Times stands still. It feels we are gliding through a secret journey into a hidden world.
The entire village turns out to greet us. Excited children run along the riverbanks, waving
and shouting their welcomes. Ox carts cultivate fields, leaving trailing clouds of dust. Fishermen cast their nets. Ancient temples shrouded in mists, majestic white and gold pagodas illuminated in the sunset, teak forests, virgin jungles and snow-capped mountains, all are part of the enticing adventure.
The openness with which the proud people of each village welcome us is first evident in
their warm, genuine smiles. Bright-eyed young girls with longyis hugging their hips linger for
awhile and smile while balancing baskets on their heads. Giggling children splash in the bankside
shallows beside their mothers who are washing the family’s clothes.
But after each fascinating village visit, it is always a welcome respite to return to the ship
for a plunge into the pool or a cool, thirst-quenching drink on the top deck’s canopied bar.
During the day, on-board cultural lectures and discussions help us to better understand
the culture of Myanmar. There’s also time for a soothing massage or body treatment, all excellent values.
Each of the 56 air-conditioned cabins enjoys a view and, in addition to a spacious
diningroom and main observation lounge, a pianist entertains at a bar on the main deck. Each
evening, there are colorful performances by local Burmese dancers, puppeteer and acrobats as
well as televison in-house movies.
Our tranquil river journey ended in eerie old Bagan (formerly Pagan) where the
mysterious ruins of more than 2,000 temples dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Bagan,
once the ancient center of a glorious kingdom, is Myanmar’s remarkable architectural equivalent
of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Previous visitors advised it is best to view the ruins when a fine mist hovers over the sun-baked plain, but I prefer the inspiring scene at sunset.
As we said our good-byes aboard ship, tears glistened in the eyes of two shy staff
members. In respectful prayer-positions, they murmured to me “We will miss you always.”
Should you visit Myanmar? Whether informed tourism helps or hinders the restoration of
human rights in Myanmar is the subject of on-going debate, but the local Burmese people with whom Orient-Express personnel come into contact say they do not want to see an end to tourism in Burma. The company believes that this interaction between ordinary people can be a catalyst for long term social change.
John Hinchliffe, the Road to Mandalay’s Director of Operations, said, “Although corruption in Myanmar remains a problem, our employees certainly DO get their money. Indeed, our Burmese crew are our finest asset. They are superb!”
As for me, Burma has cast an irresistible spell. I will return soon to see how these friendly people are getting on in a world that is not so friendly as they are.
IF YOU GO
o For more information and reservations, www.orient-express.com (http://www.orient-express.com/web/luxury/luxury_travel.jsp) (800) 524-2420
Ask for the “Great Journeys of the Orient-Express” brochure.