WRITER: Nick Walton
The intimate Orcaella by Belmond (formerly known as Orient-Express) is a relatively new river cruiser that glides along the Chindwin and Irrawaddy, two rivers at the heart of Myanmar, probably the world’s most unspoilt destination.
The children’s laughter cascades across the rice paddy fields and echoes off a ring of limestone cliffs, as if a pint-sized army was on the move. Their little heads eventually appear from among the tall rice reeds, near grazing water buffalo completely unfazed, as they run to the water’s edge, stop suddenly and stare, saucer-eyed, at our ship.
I’m aboard Orient-Express’ latest river cruiser Orcaella, which replaced the Road to Mandalay (a reference to Kipling’s famed poem but also the name of the company’s ship that began venturing across Myanmar as early as 1998.) Today, Orient-Express has a new global name, since it has been rebranded as Belmond, signifying ‘beautiful world,’ and Orcaella picks up where the old one left off, plying the remote and rarely visited waters of the Chindwin River in northwest Myanmar, which is where we’ve just caught a snag.
It’s September and the rainy season is nearly over, but tropical deluges in the mountains to the north have set the Chindwin to a rushing, mustard-hued torrent dotted with debris. One sizeable tree trunk has become entangled in our propeller, and the captain has no option but to tie up to a tree just beyond a tiny cluster of thatch homes perched beside the river, while the crew leap into the water. Of all the encounters on our 11-day river adventure, this epitomises the experience best; we’re able to stop beside a serene riverside village whose inhabitants have quite likely never seen westerners up close. But it’s also the third delay of the day, on a long journey fraught with logistic and cultural calamities that truly illustrate the difficulties of introducing to new and unexplored locales the levels of luxury today’s jet-setting travellers demand.
The village children and I enjoy a period of gazing at one another across a muddy riverbank. Some board a tiny canoe for a closer look as their fathers work with the crew to dislodge a log that’s more than two metres long. With frantic waving and laughter that echoes across the darkening landscape, the debris is unblocked and we’re on our way again, fighting against the Chindwin’s strong current, bound for the town of Homalin further north.
Belmond is no stranger to the rivers of Myanmar. The hotel and train company identified a demand by its well-heeled clientele for remote destinations 17 years ago, to be exact, when it launched the now iconic Road to Mandalay, a beautiful German river cruiser that currently calls the Irrawaddy River – which cuts across Myanmar and most of Burma – home. Luxurious and intimate, the Road to Mandalay has been the first foray into Myanmar for many travellers, who, despite political instability and a nearly complete lack of infrastructure, wanted to walk among Mandalay’s silk looms or Bagan’s ancient temples and still be able to return for cocktails on deck at sunset.
Myanmar, or Burma as it was once called, is an enchanting land of golden pagodas, velvet shoes and lotus flowers that might have endured decades of darkness and fear but is now full of promise and open to tourism. The best way to see the country is undoubtedly by boat and if you go with the intimate Orcaella, you’ll have the major advantage of having an expert guide on hand, like Robert Gordon, the former British ambassador to Burma.
Many of the 40-odd passengers boarding the Orcaella in Mandalay five days earlier had already travelled on the Road to Mandalay and knew the Belmond brand well. There were French, Americans and Germans, as well as a Belgian couple and a bevy of Australians travelling as a family.
However, as we leave the berth at Amarapura, the former capital, outside modern-day Mandalay, and pass under the Ayeyarwady and Inwa Bridges on the Irrawaddy River, there are already a few grumbles from guests – for reasons never really explained, two of the three minibuses which picked passengers up at the airport skipped the lion’s share of the city tour – so the embers of discontent were ignited before we even set sail. For passengers who had flown around the world to see Mandalay, comforted by an itinerary that promised a walk on the famed U Bein Bridge, as well as visits to the revered Mahamuni Temple and Kuthodaw Pagoda, it’s a rough but forgivable start.
As the sun dipped low behind the peaks of the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, home to Myanmar’s largest population of Indo-Chinese tigers, Captain Aung Nyein, a 42-year veteran of the river, slows Orcaella to a crawl and navigates the treacherous shifting sandbanks at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin. We passed into the swollen river with the final rays of twilight, as cocktails are served on the upper sun deck and dinner prepared in the elegant dining room.
Shorter and with a shallower draft that makes it ideal for the fickle Chindwin River, Orcaella, named after the dolphins known to inhabit the Ayeyarwaddy River, may have been designed as a traditional Irrawaddy Flotilla ship and built by local craftsman in Yangon but she resembles a fridge floating on its back. What she lacks in outward appeal, she makes up for in internal intimacy, with only 25 cabins spread across three decks. More modern than her sister ship, her cabins feature full-height French doors, allowing the warm, evening breeze to merge with the air-conditioned confines of the ship. The stylish, contemporary interiors by François Greck, a French architect based in Southeast Asia, reflect the local surroundings, with traditional furniture and works of art by Burmese artists. On the upper level, there’s the chic lounge and library, as well as an outdoor plunge pool forward, lined by sun loungers, and another open air lounge and cocktail bar aft.
After a morning waving to the fishermen sailing canoes on the river, their colourful sails a stark contrast to the green and brown belts of the flat landscape, we moor and go to the Thanboddhay Pagoda, which is crowded for a full moon celebration. It’s our first real chance to delve into the local culture, and gaggles of curious children follow us around the orange and cream-coloured shrine, through hallowed halls pockmarked with more than 500,000 tiny Buddha statues. There are more in the nearby fields of Bodhi Tataung, where more than 6,000 serene sculptures donated by the faithful, look towards a mesmerizing 130-metre high gilded Buddha on a nearby hilltop. Unfortunately, the itinerary didn’t allow for guests to actually climb up to the towering sage but merely gaze at it from a distance, which caused more consternation on the ride back.
Nothing happens fast on the Chindwin; most mornings are spent exploring riverside villages, the afternoons spent cruising. The itinerary includes eight days cruising north and only three south because of the current. Orcaella must tie up as the sun sets as there is no navigation on the river after dark but even with our glacial pace, the weather changes as we inch north, the mellow warmth of the plains giving way to the mountain mist.
While some passengers love cruising, watching as tiny hamlets pass by, the mountains to the north drawing ever closer, I love the shore excursions, which are an opportunity to dive into the everyday life of the communities clustered on Chindwin’s banks.
The day after our log jams we’re in the lively markets of Kalewa, a trading gateway to India. It’s been raining through the night, a thick layer of mist settling over the river like whipped cream. The mud in the markets is ankle-deep but the colour and activity of the markets make up for the weather. The Burmese are among the most welcoming people in the world – all along the river we have been greeted by singing, waving children, by shy fisherman who beam as we pass and even here, in this lonely outpost near the Indian border, we’re greeted with betel nut-stained smiles, and offerings of fruit and thick, hand-rolled cheroots.
In Sitthaung, a tiny village of just 25 homes, we brave belting rain and walk to school with packs of laughing children, down paddy dykes, past stilted thatch homes and around ambivalent water buffalo. The Orcaella conducts charity drives along the river and on this cruise we have the humbling opportunity to introduce the first electric light bulbs to a tiny settlement. Beautiful children with dark, inquisitive eyes fill the dark, single-room school as local militia leaders accept the solar panel donation, holding the light bulbs and posing with serious expressions.
In Homalin, the northernmost point of our itinerary, we watch Naga tribespeople in traditional headwear sing and sway to a timeless dance of the forest while we sip homemade rice wine from bamboo cups, children dressed in bright red, black and yellow beads, feathers in their hair, at our feet. The singing has a beautiful, rhythmic quality and soon guests are up, joining the dancers. It’s a truly magnificent experience.
There is a minor insurrection on the second-to-last day, when it’s announced that due to time constraints we’ll only be spending three hours in Bagan, a true highlight of Myanmar. The ship has struggled to keep up with the current; the logistics of boarding the ferry and the visits to the many villages, monasteries and markets en route has bitten into our time at the ancient temple plains. Quickly, the ship’s little lobby is packed with angry passengers. So hotel manager Win Min, a soft-spoken Burmese, calls a town hall-style meeting and the itinerary is tweaked to allow earlier starts, quicker transfers and more time in the temples. A mutiny is avoided.
Despite a beautiful final day exploring the most famous temples of Bagan, including Thatbyinnyu, Dhammayangyi and the gold-dipped Shwezigon Pagoda, as well as a few of the ancient, crumbling, terracotta-hued stupas, moods had not improved much back on board. The general manager for the two Belmond ships arrives to host a cocktail party on the sun deck, only to be faced with an inquisition, as a few guests finally and loudly vent their frustration that the ship, the food, the wine list (now nearly depleted) and its always-eager-but-poorly-trained crew were not up to par with other Belmond experiences.
This might be fair criticism for an internationally branded cruise that starts at nearly 6,000 USD per person per week and undoubtedly, things will be tightened up in short order but for me, and many other passengers, the Orcaella offers a sensational and truly unique opportunity to play explorer in one of Asia’s most far-flung corners, and to do so in much more comfort than the pioneers that travelled the mighty Chindwin before me.