The rare gems of Myanmar

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The hilltop U Min Thone Se Pagoda, also known as the Temple of the 45 Buddhas, in Mandalay, Myanmar.
My second attempt at getting a tourist visa to visit Myanmar was successful this past spring — the first time I tried in early 2011, my application was turned down — as Myanmar slowly opens up after decades of isolation to share its millions of Buddhist monasteries, shrines, temples and stupas with the world.

A close-up of one of the buddhas.
A close-up of one of the buddhas.

To have a look, I signed up for a seven-night river cruise between Bagan and Mandalay aboard Pandaw River Cruises' new 40-passenger Kalaw Pandaw, one of 12 nearly identical Pandaw vessels built in Myanmar and Vietnam. (A 13th is being built in Laos and launching in September.) The 10- to 60-passenger teakwood boats are replicas of 19th century, Scotland-built Irrawaddy River paddle steamers with ultra-shallow drafts, two or three decks and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily traverse remote rivers even in dry season.

A friend and I flew into Mandalay, and it was a four-hour drive to Bagan, where we walked down the dry banks of the Irrawaddy River, past a gauntlet of children selling bracelets and necklaces, to board the boat. A crew member at the gangway took our shoes and cleaned them, while another handed us a cold drink.

Pandaw River Expeditions’ 36-passenger Kalaw Pandaw.
Pandaw River Expeditions’ 36-passenger Kalaw Pandaw.

With the boat tied up to tree trunks or stakes banged into the earth, daily life on the riverbanks was never more than a few feet away. The scent of wood smoke hung in the air as women washed clothes along the river's edge, slapping them onto stones, and families bathed in their sarongs, oblivious to litter scattered about. Roosters crowed, monks chanted into microphones, skiffs rattled past with shrieking outboard motors, and from time to time, loud music blared from giant speakers rented for celebrations and parties.

Our seven-night Bagan-Mandalay Packet itinerary included two days on both ends and three days sailing the 110 miles of river in between. A local guide sails onboard every cruise. Ours was San, a former teacher and a walking encyclopedia of Myanmar history and culture. He was thorough and conscientious, and during one Q&A session with passengers, fielded questions about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, corruption, human rights and other taboo topics rarely broached in a country still cowed by the military.

Bagan's 2,000-plus pagodas were just a 10-minute bus ride from our mooring, and it was like driving through a safari park, but the animals were ancient, red-brick monuments dating back to Bagan's Golden Age between the 11th and 13th centuries, when they were originally covered in stucco and gold leaf.

Some looked similar to Egyptian pyramids, like the Dhammayangyi temple, while others like the Mahabodhi temple recalled Indian temples, and still others resembled Europe's Gothic and Romanesque-style cathedrals, including the Thatbyinnyu and Shwegugyi temples.

The U Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar.
The U Bein Bridge in Mandalay, Myanmar.

We watched the sun set from the tiers of one pagoda, as souvenir hawkers hovered around us with their armfuls of shawls, T-shirts, lacquer bracelets and pirated books looking for a sale. For about $7, I bought a copy of Amitav Ghosh's excellent novel "Glass Palace," an epic set in Myanmar in the 19th and 20th centuries that I read voraciously throughout the week.

After two days in Bagan, we cruised upstream to Pakokku and roamed around the local markets and watched some ladies make thanakha, the traditional Myanmar face paint made from tree bark and applied like sunscreen. On our fourth day, we cruised to Yandabo to visit a rural homestead where terracotta pottery is made and had tea and corn on the cob in a local home. The next day, it was a two-hour bus ride up to a quaint British colonial hill station called Pyin Oo Lwin, or Maymyo, where we had lunch in an old colonial bungalow housing a restaurant.

Days six and seven were spent moored on the outskirts of Mandalay, with intermittent short cruises in the morning and during dinner to kick up a breeze and treat us to more river views. On shore, we spent time in Sagaing, a hill covered in Buddhist monasteries, shrines and sanctuaries; and also saw the teakwood Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung monastery; the gleaming Mahamuni Pagoda covered in millions of squares of gold leaf; the massive ruins of the Mingun pagoda; and then by horse-drawn carriages, more pagodas in the ancient capitals of Ava and Amarapura. My favorite place of them all was the hilltop U Min Thone Se Pagoda, also known as the Temple of 45 Buddhas, an arc of white-stone Buddhas in golden robes set in a hall of stunning green tiles.

A view from the deck of the Kalaw Pandaw.
A view from the deck of the Kalaw Pandaw.

When we weren't on shore, my traveling companion and I favored the deck chairs at the bow with a glass of refreshing Myanmar beer in hand as we gazed at the gold and white peaks of stupas carpeting the landscape and waited for the dinner gong.

Dining highlights included chicken breast stuffed with tea leaves, prawn curry and various delicious Asian soups made to order. On two evenings, there was a traditional puppet show and dance performance after dinner; otherwise it was a nightcap on deck or retiring early to our roomy air-conditioned cabin to rest up for the next day's adventures.

Fares start at $1,550 per person, double occupancy, and include meals, excursions, bottled water and local soft drinks, beer and spirits.

Visit www.pandaw.com.

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