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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…elephant trekking and visits to the local market
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.