by Wallace Immen

Bagan_UNESCO World Heritage SiteNattanan726/iStock

Porters walk ahead on the beach balancing our luggage on their heads while other crew members hold red umbrellas to protect us from the unrelenting sun. Women are doing their laundry on the rocks along shore and supplies are being unloaded from ox carts onto our ship, which appears to have run aground on the sand.

AMAPuraCourtesy of Wallace Immen

Boarding AMA Waterways’ AmaPura for our journey to Mandalay is definitely the most exotic embarkation I’ve ever experienced on a cruise, but it’s the only way you can board a river cruise ship on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. There are no docks, so you board from a gangway lowered to the beach. No buildings are taller than a pagoda, and life along the river goes on as it has for centuries.

Irrawaddy – also spelled Ayeyarwady – means the great river for good reason. Running through the middle of the country, it’s always been the main artery for transportation, the source of food and water and the handiest place for cleaning clothes or to just cool off. In contrast to much of the rest of Asia, where cities seem to be growing exponentially, most of Myanmar remains rural and because until recently, its politics kept it cut off from the economic wave that’s swept across other parts of Asia, you’ll still see life as it’s been lived for a thousand years along the river.

Even the brand new AmaPura has the look of a colonial river steamer from a century ago. The 56-guest ship was locally built with decks and trim made of rich tropical hardwoods, but since this is going to be our home for the next 10 days, it’s good to know that AmaPura’s got all the modern conveniences, like air conditioning, spacious bathrooms and private balconies in the suites for viewing the fascinating scenes along the shore.

AMAPura_Sun deckCourtesy of Wallace Immen

Because the AmaPura doesn’t have to go through locks, it’s wider than river ships in Europe and that means the suites are quite a bit larger. Our suite has the extremely comfortable bed and high-quality linens you expect from AMAWaterways and contemporary furnishings with comfortable cane-backed chairs and a dressing table. My wife and I could have done with a bit more closet and drawer space. We’d packed for 10 days, not expecting to be able to wash our clothes; however, we send out laundry and it comes back the next day immaculately cleaned at a moderate price. A lesson learned: we could have packed lighter.  

Each day there are at least two complimentary shore excursions on offer. In a country that’s more than 90 percent Buddhist, religion plays a central role in life. Many of the outings include opportunities to experience the swirls of activity at dazzling temple complexes that feature enormous shrines and gilded statues of the Buddha. Many tours don’t even require coach rides and we walk into rural villages to browse traditional markets where all the produce is fresh picked from local farms and visit homes or tour workshops making local products or crafts.

Many crafts are specialties that are passed on from generation to generation. In one village, the entire population specializes in making clay water pots on foot-pedal powered pottery wheels. The pots are stacked in huge mounds and fired as they have been for centuries by covering them with thick piles of straw that are then set ablaze and which smolder for days to cure the clay. No one seems to worry about the fire hazard to their homes that are also made of thatched straw, but they do have a ready supply of water in the river and thousands of pots to carry it in if a spark were to start a blaze.

Burmese FarmersCourtesy Daniel Bendjy/iStock

Burmese Woman_cigar smokingOlyniteowl/iStock

In another town, the specialty is rolling cheroots – big cigars of rolled tobacco leaves whose filter tips are made from old newspapers. Interestingly, these big stogies seem to be most popular with women.

Other visits are to monasteries and nunneries and schools. Everywhere, the people welcome us with big smiles and are as curious about rare visitors from afar as we are about them and their lives.

A highlight of any visit to Myanmar is mystical Bagan (also known as Pagan) where we have two full days to explore a landscape whose very existence is difficult to believe. The broad valley is studded with over two thousand pagodas and temples, many of them over a thousand years old.

After watching a gorgeous sunset turn the sky over the ancient landscape into pastels, the AmaPura’s guests get a rare treat. We visit an ancient pagoda for a candle-lit ceremony, where we present offerings of rice and spices (provided by the ship) to the priest and receive a ritual blessing. I have to admit I can only mumble along when we are urged to repeat after the priest in the Sanskrit chants, but under the full moon this is a magical moment no matter what religion you call your own.  

Aboard the ship and on every visit to Buddhist holy sites we learn the ritual of leaving our shoes at the door before entering. In the temples, it’s a traditional sign of respect. On the ship, we doff our shoes for more practical reasons: to keep from tracking the dust from the beach onto the AmaPura’s beautifully polished hardwood floors. We change into other shoes while on board, where our touring shoes are immaculately cleaned by the staff so they’re ready for our next outing.

AMAPura_loungeCourtesy of AmaWaterways

In the evening, all the guests gather in the lounge on Deck Three for the drink of the day, which is complimentary during happy hour. There’s also a big open pool deck on this level, but on this cruise in the steamy days of April, it’s so warm outside that we welcome the air conditioned comfort of the big lounge with its bar, self-service coffee maker and plates of cookies and jars of delicious fresh local nuts.

With so few guests on this cruise, within a couple of days we all get to know each other by name and home town. Every evening becomes a dinner party and we quickly discover that people who take this exotic journey are a well-travelled and sociable lot.

The chefs on board are all Burmese, trained in the best hotels in Yangon and Mandalay. Even the simplest dishes are presented with artistic flair. In addition to gourmet western fare, the lunch and dinner menus regularly include Burmese specialties inspired by the many ethnic groups in the country and influenced by Myanmar’s neighbors. Specialties blend the curries of India, the noodles of China and complex spices reminiscent of Thailand.

Our voyage ends with two days of touring around Mandalay and a farewell lunch at that city’s top restaurant. As we head to the airport for a flight to Yangon and a return to a hectic life at home, I find myself instantly nostalgic for the delightful food and relaxing old-world charm of life on the great river aboard AmaPura.

Buddhist MonkOlyniteowl/iStock

For better or worse, the modern world is about to change the way people live in Myanmar. Already people are flocking from rural areas to the cities of Mandalay and Yangon, creating gridlock as cars, trucks and buses jam the streets. North American fast food franchises are rumored to be on their way.  

Now is the time to experience the traditional Burma on an Irrawaddy cruise.

If you go:

AMAWaterways’ AmaPura sails a 10-day Irrawaddy itinerary up-river from the city of Pyay, a seven-hour drive from Yangon to Mandalay or down-river with a reverse itinerary. Wine and beer are complimentary with lunch and dinner. While the ship has free wi-fi, reception is often unavailable in rural areas.

Shore excursions, generally each morning and evening, are included in the fare. Note that the tours require significant amounts of walking over uneven ground amd the ship has no elevator for wheelchair access. The river season in Myanmar runs from September through April.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2015 issue.

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