River Cruising in Asia: Myanmar, An Unexplored Land

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar, the world's longest teak bridge

Myanmar (also known Burma), in Asia, has been noted as the next unexplored destination. Here, an insider’s view of sailing the storied Irrawaddy River.

Myanmar (also known Burma), in Asia, has been noted as the next unexplored destination. Most touring outfitters tend to navigate Myanmar by the river Irrawaddy, which takes travelers to storied Mandalay and the ancient temples of Bagan.

But the waterway route that the Avalon Myanmar plies is unique. It is near the top of the Irrawaddy, northeast, remote. So remote, you must take a domestic flight to Bhamo, almost at bordering China, and board the ship there.

But not before a few up close and personal experiences with the locals, made easier with our guide, Dorothy, who is a native of Bhamo. She is a ray of positive energy that only grows every day. Tourism is new to these parts. And far from shying away from our strangeness, the locals revel in it. They call out, welcome us, ask to take photos – of us! We are the novelty, the curiosity, the welcome guest.

Avalon is the only river cruise company that traverses this part of the Irrawaddy river, and that feeling of being out here, almost alone, just us and the locals, is a luxury in itself. We set sail with Avalon Waterways’ managing director, Patrick Clark.

Click through to get his insider’s view of sailing this storied river. www.avalonwaterways.ca

ship

 

Vivian Vassos: So, why Myanmar?

Patrick Clark: It started for me about six years ago. We had committed to go on the Mekong, and I was invited by a company that wanted to build a ship for the Irrawaddy. Then I got on one of the ships, and it felt right, based on that experience, and what could be done, this exotic destination. The growing number of people cruising Europe with us, they are now looking for new experiences. It’s such an exotic place; you know this is one of those last places left where you can still have a really sincere experience at a new destination.

 

deck

VV: But starting in the north of the Irrawaddy, it’s a unique way of sailing…

PC: I’ve only done it from the north, now, and I love it because it’s like an introduction to Myanmar without the bustle of Yangon, which is a city of six million people. It can be kind of overwhelming. We didn’t have a lot of choice on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. But here, in Myanmar, we built a ship to our specs, and we will commit to it for a number of years. We basically pay for it. And at the end, if we want a new ship, we retire the old one and build a new one. If we’re in a destination then we really believe in, we’re going to have a ship there. And with the Avalon Myanmar, even the vibration of the engines on this particular ship has been worked over so that it’s smooth, pretty good. The ship is to my specs.

riverview

VV: But I love this way of visiting Myanmar and the Irrawaddy; it is like decompression, a digital detox.

PC: Yes, and I tell our guests to keep an open mind, because it’s not predictable. You could say we will go at 8 o’clock, but something can happen on the river. It’s more likely to work in a European city, but here, if it doesn’t work, you shift your expectations as you go. Sailing schedules are built for plenty of opportunities, but you could go north and find a barge stuck in the middle of the river, and it could take a day to get it out.

dorothy

VV: You must be prepared for that, yes?

PC: Yes, we would add a village that might not be on the itinerary; we’d ask, Can you do this in the north? And why? Because we have resources on the ship, our purser; we have, Dorothy (pictured above) a local guide who grew up in Bhamo; we’ve got a cruise director, and we’ve got people on the ground in Yangon, so we go to the team and get the best case scenario.

staff

VV: If you were Patrick Clark, passenger, rather than Patrick Clark the boss, what would your expectations be coming on to this floating boutique hotel?

PC: Little things, lighter stain on the floors; and housekeeping is trained to Western expectations, catering to the customers’ expectations. But the attitude of the staff is so great; so happy; there is always a smile, and always a willingness to help, whether it’s with disembarkation [for those with mobility requirements]. But it’s important that as a passenger, for agents to be educated the agents about the terrain; it’s a bit rougher; we try to make sure we know about walkers and wheel chairs, and we want to know and we want to make sure they know as well. Our cruise director Mark enlisted two crew members/sailors who were then assigned to a traveller with a walker. It’s important for travellers to disclose if they have mobility requirements.

In Bagan, when we climb the temple, where even some of the most active may have trouble; steps are very narrow and also steep and fairly far apart. If you have any mobility issues, if you’re afraid of heights, we try let people know, and if a traveller insists, we assign a crew member to climb up behind them. The point is that even people that are mobile may find climbing up an outdoor staircase with no railing is a challenge.

 

sunset

VV: What’s next for Avalon?

PC: Amazon is a new destination for us; Peru side of the river is the best side; there are opportunities for all the Peru experiences, like Machu Picchu; India and Ganges is something we might be looking at; Douro river in Portugal; Bordeaux, in France, is another; and one I’d like is the Elbe with Berlin and Prague, but there’s no ship yet because the river has no water control levels and locks there…

Also, once it settles down, the Nile will be coming back; Egypt is an experience there is so interesting; I’ve never been, but the bookings are still so small, we won’t offer it in 2017.

stupa

VV: Is that a “safety” ripple effect? Or the fear of the unknown?

PC: Look at the demographic; Zoomers, when there is uncertainty, they won’t make a decision to travel, they’ll wait; they won’t put their money down; they’ll choose to go visit the grandchildren at the cabin.

 

face1

You can extoll the virtues of a brand new destination like Myanmar, rarely accessible to Westerners and will be truly memorable. We would never put our crew or guests in harm’s way, there’s a lot more awareness; everybody is looking at the safety procedures so the good news is that you’ve got access to police and support up and down the rivers in Europe. You have to have secure cards, control it in the right hands, we will have to keep looking at safety procedures down the road; fingerprints; etc., but it can be tedious. The kinds of things we are also looking at are places like the Chobi River in Africa; but will we be safe? There is a lot more attention to safety. Paris, for example, is probably the safest right now.

face2

VV: I feel like Myanmar is the antidote to the jaded traveller.

PC: It’s my third visit; each one I learn more. This place is so special; there are so few of them left in the world. The more we can have people experience it, in a way without intruding on the people, I think that’s fantastic. And then, where we can, through supporting local, through Tourism Cares and their school programs. We bring $300 worth of school supplies at the school in Bhamo. Myanmar is a place where people are welcoming you. And they’re not going to fleece you; they’re actually happy for you to be here.

NEXT: Personal highlights of the trip

Here, dear reader, as Zoomer’s resident travel editor, I offer you some of my own personal highlights of the trip. For me, really, it was about the many faces I encountered, such as those of the children at the school, seen on the previous page.

monks

The sun is our only constant. At dawn, we rise to give alms to the monks of the village where we’ve docked. As the light approaches, so do the monks, materializing out of the lingering mist, in a line. Saffron and ruby against grey and smoke. And the sun. They collect their day’s supper, and carry on, fading back into the last of the mist, as the sun eliminates the night.

pottery

The ship features just 18 suites, a floating boutique hotel with a top notch cruise director/concierge and an eager to please staff that only adds to the “wow, we really do have this all to ourselves” factor. The ship is petite enough to, in some ports of call, sidle right on up to the river’s banks; we walk down the gangway and are off on dry land adventures ­­– visiting villages known for ceramic arts and watching potters throw their backs into their craft creating the much-sought-after oversized Burmese water jars…

ladies

elephant

…elephant trekking and visits to the local market

face3a

and a monastic school for children, and then back to ship to our sky deck perch to watch the day fade away, the sun setting over the river.

monkkid

balloons

When, after three days of this bliss, we emerge out of the north and into the port of Bagan, we see where the rest of the (river cruising) world starts. On this morning, we, again, rise before the sun. We disembark, and take a coach to the sacred temple grounds of the ancient royal city.

Think Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, without the crowds. As we climb one of the pyramid’s steps with flashlights in hand, a sliver of fuchsia and gold splits the dark. Perched on one of the ledges, we sit in silence and watch the world wake from its slumber. The reveal is more than just the sun. It is light surfacing, pouring over 100 miles of the Plain and crawling slowly up the backs of Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries; some of the 2,200 of the white, brick and gold that remain of what experts think numbered more than 10,000 and dating between the 9th and 13th century. Each throws a shade that near defies description.

www.avalonwaterways.ca

For my full story, see the June issue of Zoomer magazine, on newsstands now.