Issue 29 / Myanmar: Cruising The Land Of The Pagoda

Myanmar: Cruising The Land Of The Pagoda

Dec 27, 2015


The dark horse of Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a revelation: equal parts mystic, chaotic and optimistic with a new political future as the youngest democracy in the world. Add warm hospitality with looming, benign idols of the Buddha, and I had myself a holiday to remember.

Flying from Mumbai to Bangkok with hordes of honeymooning couples can be great fun, for a good 10 minutes. Escape from the rose-tinted world of lovebirds comes quickly enough, in the form of a superlative shrimp egg noodles on board Bangkok Airways, with enough juicy pieces of  fat shrimp to drown out the slight bounding of the plane on the tarmac.

 On board Bangkok Airways Premium Class, with my bag seated next to me.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

The boutique airline has a very young vibe; the hostesses dressed in turquoise skirts with matching ombre scrunchies in their ponytails. At Suvarnabhumi Airport, after the honeymooning couples spill out of the terminal, I slink towards the homely comfort of the airline lounge, which offers a resting space for all passengers, not just Business Class passengers. The common lounge has wifi, popcorn, chips, drinks and enough space for me to plop down, before the staff hustles me to the Blue Ribbon Club Lounge on the other side.

The Bangkok Airways Blue Ribbon Club Lounge at Suvarnabhumi Airport, decked up for the holidays.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

 

A cup of mint tea is just what a 5-hour layover demands.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

This one, with chandeliers and personalized service (hello tum yum noodle soup, you champion fighter of airport blues!) in an intimate space that feels like a plush colonial home replete with jewel-toned sofas and cushions. The smashing Asian menu is courtesy the airline’s recent collaboration with Thailand’s celebrity chef Chef McDang.

Chef McDang and his Asian blowout for the airline.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

As much I love cold cuts of meat and clammy sandwiches, what chance do they stand against bao buns, leafy parcels of caramelized banana and many refills of mint tea. Punctuated by trips to the shops nearby, I breeze through a three-hour layover stretched to five hours before the giggly young staff can say Sawadee kha… again.
 
The Rangoon Stop

The luxurious colonial theme continues at Yangon (Rangoon), the chaotic and buzzing Myanmar capital. The Belmond Governor’s Residence, where I’m staying overnight before hopping on Belmond Orcaella, their cruise across the Ayeyarwady River, is a verdant oasis of calm in the stately embassy district. (India House, a gargantuan, all-white colonial bungalow, is just a minute away.) A throwback to imperial charm, the refurbished Burmese teak mansion is the epitome of luxury that speaks softly.

The Belmond Governor's Residence, a green oasis of colonial charm in Yangon.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

 
Settled into my room.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

 
Gorgeous Myanmar knick knacks which are available at the gift shop (I bought a stunning kitschy clutch).
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

I skip an evening bargain-hipping at Bogyoke market and offer hasty prayers at the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda (you can’t escape it driving around the city; it’s Yangon’s glittering golden Eiffel Tower) before nursing a drink at the Kipling Bar at my hotel and listening to a fascinating talk on the country’s gorgeous treasure of gemstones (jade, sapphires and one of the world’s most valuable corundum, the dazzling Burmese Mogok Pigeon Blood Ruby).

My second home for eight nights, The Belmond Orcaella.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

Lords and Ladies of the Ayeyarwady

Mingalarba! (That’s ‘hello in the Myanmar language). After in-room breakfast early the next morning )it could get addictive living a Governor’s life) the Belmond on-ground service drops a bunch of us to Yangon Docks, where the Belmonmd Oracella is sitting pretty to set sail for our 8-day cruise, Jewels of the Ayeyarwady. We’re welcomed by the warm staff with jasmine garlands and watermelon smoothies and whisked straight up to our cabins. Mine, on the upper deck, on the same level as the ship’s restaurant, is airy, sunny and well-positioned to catch panoramic glimpses of Myanmar’s fabled sunrise. The day’s itinerary is placed on the bed each day, along with a sweet souvenir (Myanmar hand fans, thanaka face packs, a hand massager, a local bracelet) and the housekeeping staff is waiting to storm in as soon as one leaves for a drink at the bar on the sun deck or a dip in the swimming pool. As a result, the cabin is spotless through the journey.

One of the Belmond Orcaella Housekeeping staff's many surprises.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

 
My favourite artwork from many that adorn the walls of the ship.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
 
Breakfast of scrambled eggs with spinach, chorizo and goat's cheese.
I also picked up that  adorable 'tiffin' salt and pepper holder from the ship's boutique.

Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
 

For the first few days, it’s all breakfast on the deck, lazy lunches, cocktail parties, five course dinners, chummying with guests and staff over whiskey sours, lectures on the country’s political past and Aung San Suu Kyi, and paper lantern releasing at night. Before it gets terribly indulgent, the good staff has drafted an absorbing off-board journey for us to get to know the real Myanmar.

Good morning, Myanmar!
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

Samosas, Foie Gras and Enlightenment

Incidentally Orcaella, our guide, the very effervescent Mr. Win explains, is the name of a species of dolphins that frolic in the Ayeyarwady, which the British also called Irrawady. We don’t get to see them, but there’s so much more to absorb. Every morning (or afternoon) we go for a short excursion, whether it’s a trishaw ride in the town of Danuphyu with a breakfast of chai and samosas; the Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay, the archaelogical site of  Sri Kshetra or a tuk-tuk ride through the town of Magwe.

Always ready with a tobacco-staned smiled and a doll on the arm.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

My favourites included walking down the leafy bylanes of the town of Salay; a super-dusty bullock-cart ride to Gwechaung Fort and, of course, the crowning glory, an entire day spent in Bagan. Sunset at Bagan is a must-do in Myanmar and it doesn’t disappoint.

Hello Sir, which way to Nirvana please?
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

The Ananda Pahto or Phaya in Bagan is phenomenal, a confluence of the local Mon and North Indian architecture influence. Built in the 12th century by King Kyanzittha (who preceded Shahjahan in lopping off the fingers of his pagoda’s workers, and executing much of his skilled workforce!) Like most of Bagan’s 2000-odd monuments, Ananda was partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1975 and restoration efforts are still on with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India. But even in its present form it is mesmerizing.

One of the four 9.5-metre Buddhas inside Ananda Temple.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

The excursions are interspersed with more fun on board, including a lyongi (lungi) party, puppet show and the traditional "elephant" dance. The staff also conducts yoga and tai chi classes on the sun deck every morning, an excellent excuse to catch breathtaking sunrises and chat with the young staff who’re avid Aamir Khan and SRK fans. To ward off the enthusiastic Burmese sun, I slap on some thanaka paste, which the women and kids in Myanmar apply on their faces daily. It doesn’t give me their incredibly ageless and flawless skin, but it’s worth trying anyway.

Malabar prawn curry made by Chef Baan on board for Indian night.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

 
Pan-seared scallops with salmon roe, pureed cauliflower and baby carrots
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
 
Homemade pasta with forest mushroom cream sauce, truffle oil and parmesan shavings.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
 
The swimming pool decked up for barbecue night.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar
 
Maybelle Khin (or Angela, given that one will always misspell the Burmese name), one of the efficient restaurant staff.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

Before I know it, I’m three kgs overweight and the journey has come to an end. Before we dismebark for the last time, the Orcaella's older and bigger sister ships, Belmond Road to Mandalay, glide into Bagan. Along the short flight to Yangon, the Belmond staff is courteously with us, a motley group of British, Austrian and Chilean couples I’ve managed to bond with over the cruise. A big jezuba (thank you) for the cheery company.

Nobel Laureate Mother Suu Kyi may not be president yet, but she's Myanmar's uncontested beacon of hope and optimism.
Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar

Of special note, is the cheerful music we heard during the journey, whether it was classical tunes, 1950s rock and roll, kids in blonde Mohawks driving through villages playing the latest rock anthems or cabbies in Yangon with music blaring through the windows. With Aung San Suu Kyi’s (or The Lady as everyone calls her) government set to take charge within three months of the new year, there’s a buoyancy in the spirits of people. This is a country of friendly, hospitable (and often very gregarious) people on the verge of a bright new political future. Pack your bags and get here before gorgeous, exotic Myanmar breaks out into the mainstream.

Main Image Photo Credit: Aparna Pednekar 

Aparna Pednekar

Aparna Pednekar

Author

 Aparna is an India - based travel writer for leading lifestyle and fashion publications. She's also a gemologist and jewelry designer. New cities, new food, cats, dogs, snakes, hours of walking and driving fuel her incurable ADD.

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