With its parliamentary elections peacefully carried out during my visit in November, Myanmar began 2016 with cautious optimism: The new government led by charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party face unchartered waters. Tourism is sure to be a long-term focus, and hopes were palpably high when I was there.
For intrepid travelers who prefer a little luxury with their adventure, the timing has never been better: Temple hopping and river cruising the Irrawaddy can be experienced with unprecedented comfort, much of it due to the inroads created by Belmond. I was invited aboard its 82-passenger Road to Mandalay as part of a lecture series leading to this year's 20th anniversary celebration of Belmond operating in Myanmar.
Belmond's other river cruiser, the 50-passenger Orcaella (built in 2013 and sailing some of the little-visited northern reaches of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers), and the Belmond Governor's Residence in Yangon complete the company's Myanmar trifecta.
Belmond's Myanmar-based tour office accommodates most guests at the Governor's Residence, a 1920s teak mansion built with wraparound verandas and gingerbread trim. Recuperating from jet lag is a breeze at the gorgeous tree-shaded tiled pool with a small but excellent spa steps away. When it's sold out, guests can stay at the Strand, built by the Starkies brothers in 1901, fresh off their successful Raffles Hotel in Singapore. A Peninsula hotel is slated for the former 1880s headquarters of the Burma Railway. But the most ambitious of the city's luxury properties is the 200-plus-room Kempinski, which will be housed in a landmark heritage building near the Strand.
I arrived in Yangon after spending three exhilarating days in Singapore (a three-hour flight away) where a well-traveled friend expressed her disappointment upon finding it "not very Asian."
Visit Myanmar, I had said, where the traditional sarong-like longyi and yellow facial paste called thanaka (used for sun protection) are still worn and horse-drawn carts are still common.
This was my fourth visit to Yangon, a teeming metropolis of more than 5 million, and until recently the capital city of Myanmar. Much about the rustic and crumbling backstreets of the traffic-clogged city had remained unchanged.
Above it all looms the 300-foot Shwedegon Pagoda, covered by tons of gold leaf (WiFi hot spots are now posted around its base). This time there was a newfound spirit of hope and openness since the military regime, under pressure, had begun to relax its iron-clad grasp. This Buddhist nation, slightly smaller than Texas, looms large in the world's imagination as a romantic, stuck-in-time destination, but postelection, great changes are bound to happen.
A cabin on Belmond’s ship, the Road to Mandalay, provides a comfortable way to travel.
In 1996, Belmond (then called Orient Express) began sailing the coffee-colored waters of the Irrawaddy. In 2016, there are six river cruise lines, some with just one ship (such as the 21-cabin Sanctuary Ananda from Abercrombie & Kent division Sanctuary Retreats, which made its debut last year) or like the Scottish-owned Pandaw River Expeditions, which has six vessels.
Eddie Teh, the general manager of Belmond's two river cruisers, didn't sound concerned about the arrival of competition.
"As is always the case, it keeps us on top of our game," Teh said. "They can't compete with our experience in Myanmar nor our level of service and style. With our ground logistics and support teams, a one-to-one staff-to-guest ratio and onboard doctors and multilanguage permanent guides, we are a team of 300 strong who exclusively serve our guests on our two ships."
After a one-hour flight from Yangon to Bagan we unpacked our bags in our handsome cabins on the Belmond Road to Mandalay. Our seven-night cruise was a roundtrip, sailing around 100 miles each way, starting north from Bagan to the old capital of Mandalay. Most passengers opted for one-way segments, though I loved the chance to unpack for a one-week sail, unwinding into the lazy pace of yesteryear.
Each direction offered a different itinerary (and the excellent restaurant a different East/West menu) in order to avoid repetition, and the time was filled with options of lectures, spa treatments, a yoga or cooking class or just chatting with fellow guests around the rooftop pool with a cold Myanmar beer on the boat's newly redesigned observation deck, the largest of any river vessel in the country. The U.S., U.K. and Australia represent Belmond's majority of guests, but the inclusion of visitors from Reunion Island; Cannes, France; Lima, Peru; and the former president of an Eastern European nation added an extra splash of diversity to the mix. The young staff was almost entirely from Myanmar and as warm, gentle and generous of nature as everyone we met along the way.
Part of the Belmond experience has been the close connection with the riverside communities, especially with efforts such as a modest free health clinic located near Belmond's private jetty in Bagan, which began in 2011 and serves more than 1,000 patients a week.
"The support of the clinic comes from our own doctor and other volunteers as well as from generous donations from our guests, who are often inspired to experience and participate in our [corporate social responsibility] projects by giving back to the local community," Teh said.
Balloons Over Bagan offers rides above the temples and stupas of the ancient Myanmar kingdom. Photo Credit: Ken Spence
The highlight of the trip for me did not happen on the river itself but rather our first morning on the ship, when a few of us were picked up by Balloons Over Bagan, which provides one of the most magical hot-air balloon flights anywhere, sailing above the spires of the glimmering temples and stupas scattered across the riverside plain of the ancient kingdom of Bagan. Later in the day we explored the archaeological site, a collection of thousands of temples and stupas remaining from around 10,000 that had been ravaged by earthquakes, time and man.
A sunset experienced from atop one of Bagan's larger temples set the tone for our journey on the Irrawaddy with visits to small villages and lush botanical gardens, gentle walks, bumpy horse cart rides, early morning donations at hilltop monasteries and making friends at a busy nunnery.
At markets brimming with fresh produce and just-plucked poultry, smiling vendors asked to have their photos taken and giggling children practiced their English on us. In between we caught glimpses of a quiet, timeless lifestyle along the banks . I wondered how quickly things would change when, not if, I returned.