Feb 8, 2017

Meandering through Myanmar


Bridges, Buddhas and blessings – there’s more to an Irrawaddy River cruise than meets the eye.

Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, also known as the Ayeyarwady, translates as the ‘river that brings blessing to the people’. “Our river means everything to us,” says our local guide Me Me.

From our perch at the Buddhist mountain sanctuary of Tan Kyi Paya we can see the smooth ribbon unfurling below us, blushed pink by the setting sun as it meanders through the temple-strewn Bagan plains.

Starting high in the Himalayan glaciers before emptying into the Indian Ocean 2170 kilometres later, this is Rudyard Kipling’s Road to Mandalay, the spiritual heart and lifeblood of the Burmese people.

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By following the Irrawaddy River between Mandalay and Pyay a Scenic river cruise ticks all the bucket list boxes, but side trips and detours allow for further exploration. At Inle Lake, a 22-kilometre cobalt-blue lake in Myanmar’s Shan state, we take to longtail boats, cruising past the famed one-legged rowers before enjoying a lakeside cooking class and a spot of shopping (tip, have some small change ready for the local women, who invariably pull up in their wooden canoes with trinkets to sell).

Afterwards we head for the hills, with wine tasting at the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards, a French-style winery with a climate similar to Burgundy. With the late afternoon sun sending long shadows scudding across the mountainside we sample everything from chilled chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, to roses and full-bodied shiraz.

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Then there’s Taungthaman Lake, a shallow lake not far from Mandalay, home to one of Myanmar’s most photographed sights – U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest and oldest teak bridge.

Here we board brightly coloured wooden boats, each manned by an expert oarsman who paddles us into the sunset while we sit back with cocktails and canapés in hand.

On another night we enjoy sundowners and snacks of a different kin, at Clay Pot Mountain, a little-known vantage point overlooking the World Heritage-listed archaeological site of Bagan, with its 2,500 gold-plated and gilded stupas.

During the day guests go their separate ways, some rising in the dark for an optional hot-air balloon flight while others join a temple circuit or visit Old Bagan, but at sunset everyone comes back together again. With most of the crowds gathered at Pyathada Temple or Shwesandaw Pagoda we have the place almost to ourselves.

Our final destination is Yangon, a vibrant riverside city and home to Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist site, Shwedagon Pagoda. According to legend the 2500-year-old pagoda is believed to contain eight strands of hair from the head of Buddha.

Sunset is the time to visit, when the diamond-encrusted stupa (make that 4, 531 diamonds to be precise) casts a beam of light reflecting green, white, purple and orange. Before arriving, confirm which day of the week you were born so you can pay your respects at the correct animal figure marking your birthday (eg Thursday-borns are rats and Saturdays are dragons).

As I join priests and local Buddhists in an oil lamp lighting ceremony I realise, it’s not just the river that bestows the blessings, but the Myanmar people themselves.

Article written by Kerry van der Jagt.