In 2003, I traveled to Myanmar, formerly called Burma. We flew to the capital, Yangon, once called Rangoon, before journeying on to Mandalay where my traveling companion and I boarded the river boat, The Road to Mandalay.Thus began some of our most memorable days in the country. We talked with locals who often told us of their love for dissident Aung San Sui Kyi, whom they called “The Lady,” and of their desire to see Myanmar’s name restored back to Burma. By the end of our sojourn, we found ourselves calling the country Burma as well. Following is a memory snapshot of that time.
We have arrived in Mandalay to its ancient harbor where we are welcomed aboard our river boat. Anticipation fills the air as the journey begins. As an orange sun reflects its flames upon the waters of the Ayeyarwaddy River, the ship floats past the surreal vista of the Sagaing Hills. From every peak and undulation, white and gold pagodas rise. Bathed in the amber rays of the setting sun, a pink blush creates a halo effect on the golden spires. It’s a dreamlike scene and we watch from the top deck aboard ship on the great Ayeyarwaddy River.The Ayeyarwaddy forms Burma’s backbone, cutting the nation in half, and upon its banks, life seems to have been unchanged for centuries. Our riverboat is called “The Road to Mandalay,” in honor of the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name in which he wrote, “Come ye back to Mandalay/Where the old flotilla lay/And the dawn comes up like thunder/outer China crosst the bay.”
During the next four days, my consort and I marvel at the people and places of historic Mandalay, mythical Sagaing and the ancient empire of Bagan. We return each evening bringing dusty feet and filled hearts back to the comforts of our floating hotel. Also called the “White Mermaid” by many of the local fishermen, she transports us each morning along the 120-mile stretch of shoreline that harbors both modern and ancient Burma.
In Mandalay, we offer alms to young, red-robed Buddhist monks, who, with black lacquer bowls in hand, receive morning rations from the village community. Our pilgrimage to the Maha Muni Buddha sculpture fills us with reverence for the devotion lavished upon it as we watch the faithful place layer upon layer of gold leaf upon its bulk.
We travel by horse carriage on an arid road to the monastery-studded hills of Sagaing, where we visit pagodas, some up to 800 years old. Legend has it that the perfect hemispheric shape of one pagoda was inspired by the similarly perfect breasts of the wife of its builder, King Thulan.
But the ultimate “piece de resistance” is the remains of what was once the glory of Bagan. Here in the 11th century, the citizens of Bagan entered into an orgy of temple building. In a short time, 12,000 shrines and temples were erected, and Burma became the envy of the world. This Golden Era lasted nearly 250 years, ending when Kubla Khan sent his Tarter troops to storm across the land, devastating Bagan. Because the temples and shrines were built of stone and brick, many fell. Still, thousands remain.
We explore their fading murals, meditate beneath benevolent Buddha images and listen to temple bells. At sunset, we climb atop the tallest temple for a view of this virtual plain of shrines as it shimmers before us, still glorious after all these years.
On our last evening, under a star-filled sky, we look out upon the waters of the Irrawaddy and see hundreds of blinking candles bobbing on the river’s tiny waves. Together they form a floating tapestry of light, spread before us by the magnificent staff of The Road to Mandalay. A fitting tribute to a timeless destination.
Another magnificent way to view the pinnacles and spires of the 2,000 Buddhist temples that rise up along the shores of the Irrawaddy River is to join an early morning balloon ride while the rays of the rising sun kiss the tips of the temple tops. Pure magic.
If you go: Burma (Myanmar) is on the cusp of change both politically and socially. Travelers can still take in the country’s authenticity without the distraction of mass tourism. Go soon to immerse yourself in its distinctive culture.
Belmond Road to Mandalay this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the ship’s river journey between Bagan and Bhamo via Mandalay, Travelers to Myanmar may fly in to Yangon where they can stay at Belmond Governor’s Residence, a romantic colonial-style mansion in the heart of the city. Here, they can visit the incomparable Shwedagon Pagoda and its surrounding environs before meeting the ship. Prices for three night/four day journeys from Mandalay include internal flights between Yangon and the ship’s departure site. For further departure dates or to book, visit www.belmond.com.
IF YOU GO: see also Rangoon Renaissance: Staying at The Strand