Burma – Road to Mandalay

Burma – Road to Mandalay
By Judy Zimmerman

“I love you. I love you very much. I will never forget you,” said Daw May Lwin Zin,

headmistress of the village school of Kindat, Burma (or “Myanmar” as it is now known). Before

we parted, she showered me with gifts of limes, pomelos, and green jade earrings.

We strolled arm in arm down the main, muddy thoroughfare of Kindat, as the esteemed

headmistress proudly announced to curious on-lookers in their teak houses of stilts that the Road

to Mandalay had just presented the school with much-needed school supplies.

Perhaps the crew had chosen me to represent the ship’s passengers in this formal, moving

school ceremony because I had so enjoyed playing and singing together with the precious children of other villages.

For the first time last September, our Road to Mandalay river cruiser journeyed along the

Chindwin River, visiting remote villages in the heart of ancient Burma. The Chindwin is a

tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, which was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “On the Road to Mandalay where the flyin’ fishes play….” over a century ago when he described

Burma as “quite unlike any land you know about.”

What was once Southeast Asia’s most secretive and mysterious country is now slowly

opening up to the outside world to reveal a rich and glorious cultural heritage, breathtaking

natural beauty, and people who have an endearing genuine charm that seems to transcend time.

A thoughtful note from the ship’s captain appeared on the pillows in our cabins the first

day. “We know of your thoughtfulness in wanting to give money and other items to the children,

but it is not good, (for) they may become too reliant on this form of giving. Instead, may I

suggest you join us in…seeing to it that useful school items are brought for the benefit of all the

local children.”

Chief Engineer Terry Kyaw Nyunt, Senior Trustee for the Road to Mandalay’s School

Fund, said, “Five years ago I collected $1.00 from each crew member which we presented to the

Shwe Kyet Tet School in the river cruiser’s home village. Since then, we have built an annex for

the school and bought a multi-media system for a school in Bagan with the money passengers

donated. Normally, we do not give money, but ask ahead of time what is needed.

“Most of the tourism industry in Myanmar is doing similar charitable projects. It is our

responsibility to preserve the culture of Myanmar,” said Charlie Turnbull, Manager of Road to

Mandalay’s Hotel Services.

My journey in Myanmar began with an Abercrombie & Kent tour in Yangon (formerly

Rangoon, Burma). We stayed at the grand old Strand Hotel, built during the British colonial era..

Half the persons on the tour bus had already cruised on the Road to Mandalay within the past

two years. Why, I wondered, would they return so soon? There must be something very special

about this journey.

Nearby, the shops of the huge, enclosed Scott’s Market were well worth a serious look at

the rubies, sapphires, jade and various beautiful Burmese works of art.

Yangon is more memorable, however, as the site of the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the

most sacred Buddhist temples in the world. A golden spire dominates this religious fairyland and

everything around it. Meandering through hundreds of pavilions, shrines, and statuary images,

you begin to learn a great deal about Theravada Buddhism which is fervently nurtured as the

national faith. It is truly a sight that appears, in the words of Somerset Maugham, “like a sudden

hope in the dark night of the soul.”

The following morning we boarded a plane for the short flight to Mandalay, a city that

comes across as a huge kind of Oriental bazaar of artists and craftspeople at work. Wooden

mallets pound precious metal into gold leaf, found everywhere in Myanmar, since the faithful

place it on Buddhist images for good luck and karma.

Market stalls are piled high with sticks from the thanaka tree. Young women and children

grind these into a smooth sandalwood paste and apply it to their faces as beauty marks and

protection from the sun.

On the waterfront, creaking oxcarts, a rickety jetty and old wooden boats transport you

back to a Southeast Asian trading post right out of a book by Joseph Conrad.

Before boarding the Road to Mandalay, we stopped to visit Mahagandayon Monastery,

home to several thousand novice monks. Long lines of saffron-robed monks with shaved heads,

most of them young boys, cradled their begging bowls of food as they processed into the open

dining hall.

The luxurious Road to Mandalay is the latest addition to the Orient-Express Hotels,

Trains and Cruises. Originally built for cruises along the Rhine River, it was completely renovated and transported to Myanmar in 1995 for cruises on the country’s main Ayeyarwady River. Local craftsmen added elegant decorations and fittings such as woven cane furniture, Burmese antiques, and traditional motifs carvings that reflect a colonial ambiance. The new eco-friendly sewage system neutralizes all effluent before leaving the ship.

The magic charm of Burma weaves its spell as something new appears around every bend

Times stands still. It feels we are gliding through a secret journey into a hidden world.

The entire village turns out to greet us. Excited children run along the riverbanks, waving

and shouting their welcomes. Ox carts cultivate fields, leaving trailing clouds of dust. Fishermen cast their nets. Ancient temples shrouded in mists, majestic white and gold pagodas illuminated in the sunset, teak forests, virgin jungles and snow-capped mountains, all are part of the enticing adventure.

The openness with which the proud people of each village welcome us is first evident in

their warm, genuine smiles. Bright-eyed young girls with longyis hugging their hips linger for

awhile and smile while balancing baskets on their heads. Giggling children splash in the bankside

shallows beside their mothers who are washing the family’s clothes.

But after each fascinating village visit, it is always a welcome respite to return to the ship

for a plunge into the pool or a cool, thirst-quenching drink on the top deck’s canopied bar.

During the day, on-board cultural lectures and discussions help us to better understand

the culture of Myanmar. There’s also time for a soothing massage or body treatment, all excellent values.

Each of the 56 air-conditioned cabins enjoys a view and, in addition to a spacious

diningroom and main observation lounge, a pianist entertains at a bar on the main deck. Each

evening, there are colorful performances by local Burmese dancers, puppeteer and acrobats as

well as televison in-house movies.

Our tranquil river journey ended in eerie old Bagan (formerly Pagan) where the

mysterious ruins of more than 2,000 temples dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Bagan,

once the ancient center of a glorious kingdom, is Myanmar’s remarkable architectural equivalent

of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Previous visitors advised it is best to view the ruins when a fine mist hovers over the sun-baked plain, but I prefer the inspiring scene at sunset.

As we said our good-byes aboard ship, tears glistened in the eyes of two shy staff

members. In respectful prayer-positions, they murmured to me “We will miss you always.”

Should you visit Myanmar? Whether informed tourism helps or hinders the restoration of

human rights in Myanmar is the subject of on-going debate, but the local Burmese people with whom Orient-Express personnel come into contact say they do not want to see an end to tourism in Burma. The company believes that this interaction between ordinary people can be a catalyst for long term social change.

John Hinchliffe, the Road to Mandalay’s Director of Operations, said, “Although corruption in Myanmar remains a problem, our employees certainly DO get their money. Indeed, our Burmese crew are our finest asset. They are superb!”

As for me, Burma has cast an irresistible spell. I will return soon to see how these friendly people are getting on in a world that is not so friendly as they are.

IF YOU GO

o For more information and reservations, www.orient-express.com [http://www.orient-express.com/web/luxury/luxury_travel.jsp] (800) 524-2420

Ask for the “Great Journeys of the Orient-Express” brochure.

Judy Zimmerman is a 20-year-experienced professional travel writer with specialties in cruising, western U.S. destinations, soft adventure travel, spas and service articles.

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