A river runs throught it in Myanmar

Elissa Richard

Myanmar has been making waves of late on the global tourism circuit, with this sought-after Southeast Asian nation serving up a fascinating frontier for boundary-pushing travelers (see our "Five Reasons to Go to Myanmar Now"). For the time being, the lot of the new arrivals have stuck to circling the well-trodden travelers loop between the crumbling old colonial capital of Yangon, the temple-speckled landscape of Bagan, the magical floating villages of Inle Lake, and the spiritual and cultural hub of Mandalay. But for a chance to deviate a bit off-the-beaten path, travelers can opt to explore a road, or rather a river, less traveled on an Irrawaddy (aka Ayeyarwady) River cruise.

This lifeline for the Burmese, essentially splitting Myanmar through the middle, offers travelers a chance to feel the country’s pulse from alongside its mightiest river. Here, in a world that has largely escaped exposure to the modern world, the riverbanks reward travelers with seldom-seen glimpses of local villagers going about their quotidian routines, and encounters with unsung highlights of Myanmar’s historical and cultural heritage.

I recently sailed aboard locally owned and operated Paukan Cruises’ four-night Royal Myanmar itinerary aboard the brand-new RV Paukan 2012, cruising the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Bagan and accessing remote regions of the country that, given Myanmar’s limited infrastructure, would be difficult to reach by any other means. Here, isolated villages are animated by locals who portray life very much the same as it has unfolded for centuries—children frolicking on the sandbanks, men fishing for the day’s catch, women fetching water and washing along the riverbanks.

Setting sail from Mandalay, the seat of Myanmar’s last monarchy in the late 19th century, and a city rife with talented craftsmen and maroon-robed monks today, our first day’s exploration includes a visit to nearby Amarapura, an old royal capital famous for its nearly mile-long teak footbridge, jutting out across Taungthaman Lake. Then, it’s onto another ancient capital at Ava, where a bumpy horse cart ride takes us to sites like the teak-crafted Bagaya Kyaung monastery, and the nearly two-century-old Me Nu Ok Kyaung monastery.

We’re welcomed back on deck for our first night aboard the 34-passenger, three-deck RV Paukan 2012, a veritable floating boutique hotel, and are greeted by a smiling welcome committee—only a segment of the 25 Burmese crew members aboard. The stylish new ship shows off teak paneling and Asian-inspired accents, offering an intimate yet uncrowded ship flow. The dozen or so cruisers aboard our sailing quickly take to engaging conversation and communal meals, gathering over tasty East-meets-West fare doled out in the dining room, or over cocktails on the sundeck, when not relaxing back in our well-appointed rooms. For our first evening’s entertainment, an energized traditional Myanmar dance and drama performance is brought to us by young talent from an area arts school.

The next day, we’re off for the lengthy two-hour drive to Monywa, where the Hpowindaung and Shwebadaung caves come adorned with Buddha statues and murals dating back to the 12th century; then it’s on to ogle the more than 500,000 Buddha images at the Sambuddhai Kat Kyaw pagoda.

Sufficiently satiated with our temple intake, the following day brings us to a duo of small and humble villages, so devoid of modern markings that they alter our sense of time and place. One is known for its pot-making, the other for its palm sugar production, and villagers here are hard at work: Women, faces smeared in traditional “thanaka” paste scurry about transporting bundles atop their head, while men attend to their trades, breaking only to chomp away on betel nut or puff away on a cheroot.
The locals are welcoming, allowing us to amble about, observing them at work and peeking into their simple teak and bamboo dwellings. For the children, we are an endless source of amusement—a schoolmaster allows us to disrupt his classroom to the delight of the curious pupils; on a village square, an impromptu children’s choir is assembled to perform a traditional Burmese folk song for our audience. Their loveliness lingers with us still.

The sailing winds down in majestic Bagan, where we survey a small sampling of its 2,000-plus Buddhist temples, dating back to the 11th century. Crowd-pleasers include the golden Shwezigon Pagoda and almost-mythical Ananda Temple, before we ascend atop the terraces of the Shwesandaw Pagoda for the best show in town: a rose-hued sunset over Bagan’s haze-drenched spires.
Paukan Cruises, managed by the Ayravata Cruise Company, operates a series of one- to 10-night sailings aboard their three ships; cruises run from October through April; rates start from $1,920/person for four-night sailings aboard the RV Paukan 2012, including lodging, meals, transportation, entrance fees, basic tour guide services, and airport transfers; www.ayravatacruises.com.