Road to Mandalay river cruisehops aboard the
THE BENEFIT OF travelling on Orient-Express Hotels’ Road to Mandalay journey hits me not when I arrive at the river-cruise ship but a few days earlier, while ploughing through hours of transcribed interviews in every effort to make our print deadlines ahead of my trip.
In any other instance, I’d be scouring guidebooks, scavenging the Internet and otherwise seeking travel advice. This time, I do nothing at all, save glance at the itinerary to see what time I need to arrive at Hong Kong International Airport.
To say that this is a trip for the unprepared is an understatement. If pre-planning is your shtick, then look elsewhere, but for the ultra-busy – for those of us who’d rather our journeys come neatly packaged with a bow on top – there is no greater luxury than a voyage devoid of any self-imposed groundwork.
And so I embark on this trip with no preconceptions, no expectations and certainly no guidebooks. With a three-hour layover in Bangkok, one of Asia’s most entertaining airports, I could easily find a Wi-Fi connection or bookstore to remedy the situation, but it seems a much better idea to indulge in a foot massage or a shopping spree.
When we arrive at Yangon airport, a chauffeured car has been deployed to take us to The Governor’s Residence, along with a chatty escort who’s eager to bestow upon us countless facts about his beautiful country. Some 30 minutes later, we pull up at the hotel, walking along a teak bridge, past pool and pond into the belly of the property, a two-storey structure whose lower floor encompasses an open-air lounge and reception area, the Kipling Bar, Mandalay restaurant and gift shop.
Through the other side of the main building is a courtyard, whose circumference is dotted with houses split into three levels, each floor accommodating two or three of the hotel’s 48 rooms.
My room, like the others, is an ode to teak: the wood is used liberally not only in the basic structure, but to form beds, cabinets, chair frames, tables and more. If it can be made out of teak, they’ve done it. The soft furnishings are selected to complement this warm wood: maroon runners, cushion colours derived from a selection of popular Asian spices: saffron, turmeric, cumin. Beyond that, I don’t discern much – after a long day of travel, the only other thing I notice is how soft the pillow is below my head, as the collage of browns and reds blurs before fading to black.
Morning descends, and I crawl out from under the covers to the sound of birdsong, pulling open the blinds as streams of sunlight pour forth to illuminate the room. It’s 6.15am when the knock on my door signals that somebody is there to pick up my suitcase, which will be loaded onto the bus that takes us to the airport. When I descend the wooden staircase, I’m struck by the languid calm of the property by day – so quietly bewitching, so leisurely and simple, that a panoramic glance cast by the naked eye recalls the tempo and texture of a Merchant-Ivory film.
The busiest the hotel gets is on departure morning, when river-cruise-bound passengers who’ve sought shelter at The Governor’s Residence converge on and overwhelm the utilitarian buffet breakfast. A bowl of cornflakes and a coffee later, we depart for the airport, eager as a gang of schoolkids, eyeing the fellow passengers who are to be our boatmates for the ensuing four nights.
Predictably, both Yangon and Bagan airports are devoid of the gleam and retail glitz that plague today’s more typical facilities. I won’t be so patronising as to suggest that this is refreshing or quaint in any way – suffice to say that Road to Mandalay passengers suffer few inconveniences thanks to an efficient arrangement that demands no lines at check-in counters, passport control or baggage-handling. In fact, since this is handled on every passenger’s behalf, all we need do is find the man raising the Road to Mandalay signage, give him our names and receive our boarding passes. Zero hassle.
A guide by the name of Win narrates the journey from Bagan airport to the cruise ship, evincing no small amount of pride about his country and the 2,000-plus pagodas and temples that dot the city (down from the 5,000-odd that existed before the earthquake of 1975). Pagodas are to Bagan what shops are to Causeway Bay.
Before the extravaganza begins, we board the ship. Mine is a Deluxe cabin, the more conservative of the room options, situated down the stairs from the reception and embarkation point. The room’s windows are set along one wall, almost exactly at the water level, so you can see the beach outside the glass, but with the Ayeyarwady River (formerly known as the Irrawaddy) lapping at the base of that picture in accordance with the gentle swaying of our floating home. View aside, it’s furnished with the essentials: twin beds, a desk, bedside table and dresser. The bathroom is hardly ostentatious, but opposite the conservative shower is a wall covered in mesmerising tiles of jade, the varying colours forming a serene tapestry that, ironically, ends up being viewed most when you’re sitting on the toilet.
The format of meals is constant on the Road to Mandalay: breakfast is a mix of buffet and to-orderentrées, lunch is a buffet, and dinner is à lacarte off a menu featuring one Eastern and oneWestern option for each course. We’ve arrived abit late for breakfast, but just in time for lunch:a better-than-decent mix of Asian salads,saucy meats, Westernised Chinese food (suchas “American fried rice”) and internationaldesserts, not to mention homemade breads thatsurprise on a daily basis.
It behoves me to say that tours of the ilk offered by this Orient-Express experience are not necessarily for repeat visitors to this town, or to seasoned travellers who prefer to navigate the sights and sounds of Myanmar at their own pace. You will get on a bus. You will have to listen to a tour guide, the kind who’s a strange hybrid of history teacher and standup comedian. You will be on a schedule. But if you don’t want to do the rigorous work of preplanning and painstakingly researching (and in a city like Bagan, it’s not merely a question of packing your Lonely Planet guide), then these are but negligible ills.
Because if you shave off the cheesy jokes from this monologue, you will learn plenty that isn’t readily available on Wikipedia. For starters, you won’t have to pick and choose which and how many of the temples are mustsees. This afternoon, we visit the one that Mr Win deems Bagan’s most beautiful: Ananda Temple. To a casual visitor, it’s a stunning external structure that houses a quartet of giant Buddha statues, but through melodic storytelling it becomes much more.
We also visit a local village, whose inhabitants seem oddly happy to stand around and pose for photos – I stop a moment to ponder if I’d be as pleased if strangers were to knock on the door of my Wanchai home. But to each their own, and it becomes slowly evident throughout the duration of the trip that the Burmese people welcome – even crave – foreign interest in their country and culture.
Equally willing to entertain is the team at a lacquer-ware workshop, where a man who resembles the Burmese equivalent of Mr Monopoly explains the tedious process of building a foundation, lacquering and polishing items to an exacting standard – the final process utilising no other raw material than the oil secreted by the human body, applied by simply rubbing the arm against the lacquered surface for hours on end. The demonstration is a savvy one, if only because it highlights reasons to dally in their shop – though street vendors plague tourists at every turn, offering bangles and other trinkets that start at just US$1, those products feature only two or three layers of lacquer, as opposed to the quality-controlled eight exhibited here. A little bit of warning goes a long way, and when our group departs, it’s with the faint rustle of plastic shopping bags, an aural cue signifying a successful retail experience.
The final stop of this tour and, it turns out, of most of the afternoon sessions, is a sunset-viewing spot: this time the landmark known as Bagan’s sunset pagoda, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Let it be said that the ascent to the top is no walk in the park – to achieve those sweeping views of Bagan set to the subtle blaze of a gradient sunset, we climb treacherous, thin and steep steps up, clutching the handrails as we go. Though a thick haze permeates the skies on the day we are there, once the vertigo dissipates, it’s a splendid sight, all trees and sand punctuated here and there by the tips of pagodas piercing the sky.
The following morning, others opt for a sunrise ride in a hot-air balloon across the ancient city, an experience I’m later told is unmissable – darn it. A couple of temples and a local market later, it’s 10.30am and time to set sail for Mandalay, a 165km cruise that will take us until just after lunch the next day. The Road to Mandalay isn’t bursting with facilities, but the ship does have the essentials – in the form of a top-deck swimming pool and enough deck chairs to seat each and every passenger, as well as spa rooms and a mini-gym. Only a couple of guests keep up their fitness regimens, so the pool is a popular choice. It’s where I park myself for the next eight hours, with lunch conveniently served poolside. Conversations between guests blossom, with the kind of intimacy that can only be achieved by being stranded on a ship with people you know you’ll never see again when it’s over. Close encounters are had with Karl from Austria, whose thirst for facts about Hong Kong seems near insatiable (and whose very brief swimming trunks leave much too little to the imagination). Then there’s Gordon, the film producer-cum-property investor who skips the tours to work on his first novel, about money laundering in the entertainment business, and who inquires as to whether having two bisexual protagonists is too fantastic. There’s the couple from Greenwich, Connecticut, whose tales about their cat of South African origin, Nelson (after Mandela), have others in fits of laughter. And the reticent father-daughter duo from England who’ve perfected that art of watching the world go by in relative silence, although this is their second journey on the Road to Mandalay.
Before we know it, another sunset is upon us, and the chatter slows to nil as the seemingly tangible lava fireball caresses the top of the mountains, seducing the horizon with the barest of touches before dipping below and robbing us of daylight. In silence, we watch its movement with the rapt intensity of voyeurs, remembering each moment of this beautiful mundanity with the click of our cameras.
It seems as if the energy has been drained along with the sunlight, so that when 9.30pm rolls around – the appointed time for us to report on deck for a “surprise on the river,” as instructed by our in-room itineraries – it’s been something of a struggle to stay up. We huddle at the bow of the ship, not because it’s cold, but due to the pitch darkness and complete lack of visibility ahead. In the distance, barely discernable, there seems to be a dotted line of Christmas lights strung against the darkness. As we approach, the proximity separates them into tiers of yellow, red and green. Minute by minute, the ship inches forward, plunging us into the midst of the galaxy, a system of colourful, Lilliputian constellations echoed in the sky by the stars. The silhouette of two small boats becomes barely visible, and hands snake out, placing lanterns into the water individually, breathing life into them and willing them into the colony of tiny fires.
The display is based on a ritual for Loi Krathong, the festival of lights celebrated annually in parts of Thailand, Laos and Burma. The candle rafts are placed in a gesture symbolic of releasing anger and grudges, letting go of one’s vices. In the middle of darkness, it’s easy to visualise our own worldly worries travelling down the river, swirling away with the current.
Whether it’s a result of the ritual, or just a full day without phone or Internet access, moseying down to Mandalay by boat, I arise the next day noticeably lighter of mind (if not, sadly, in belly). It’s almost the halfway point of the four-night package, and if things keep going like this, by the end of it, I’ll be one of those peaceful, shiny, happy people that I previously believed only existed in self-help books. Maybe I’ll revert to that cynical city-person mindset the moment I step foot in a free Wi-Fi zone but, until then, this cruise condition is exactly what I need.
Thus robbed of my access to the basic tenets of modern civilisation, the gently rippling river replaces the usual moving pictures as entertainment of choice. The days drift on, the experiences a blur of gilded stupas, toothy smiles, artisanal samples and superlative sunsets. But it’s the memory of the muddy Ayeyarwady waters licking at my window that’s the postcard in my mind, a mental picture that conjures up not details of Buddhas statues on lotus leafs or other historically important artefacts ogled, but simply a life less hectic – a holiday that, counter-intuitively these days, requires no effort at all.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO