From the plane's window, sluggish brown rivers weave through a jigsaw of palm-fringed fields. Rooftops gleam bright blue and pagodas wink gold as my plane lands in Mandalay. Carousels groan in a bare concrete hall at this no-fuss airport, and my suitcase soon appears.
I spot a Sanctuary Resorts sign held aloft by a phlegmatic Burmese, a wad of betel nut wedged into his cheek. We set off down the highway at a sedate pace as I goggle at shimmering water and squat temples. My first glimpse of Myanmar is the westerner's fantasy of the East: lakes afloat in lotus flowers, hilltop stupas, mahogany-faced folk paddling along the roadside, seductive in hip-hugging, sarong-like longyis.
This is no tropical paradise, however. Road edges crumble, farmhouses are makeshift in corrugated iron, children and scrawny dogs scrabble in the dirt. It's impossible to ignore the appalling living conditions in Asia's poorest country and yet, as I cruise down the Irrawaddy River over the following week, I can't help but be seduced by its dreamlike landscapes. Timeless villages and ancient capitals hug the riverbanks, and 10,000 temples of grinning gold Buddhas unfold. A river cruise in Myanmar is a float through a vast tropical land whose unnerving yet exhilarating exoticism is brilliantly captured by George Orwell in his anti-colonial novel Burmese Days.
My first glimpse of the Irrawaddy comes next morning, when I'm transferred from my hotel to a tumbledown quayside lined with fire-blackened huts where children play on cracked footpaths. The mighty river is latte-brown and sluggish. A porter heaves my suitcase onto her head and sets off down the embankment. I follow her across a rickety gangplank onto Sanctuary Ananda, trim and airconditioned, a floating First World haven in a country of hardscrabble living and threadbare infrastructure.
Throughout the cruise we dock at dilapidated colonial-era quays, or simply tie up on sandbanks, roped to trees. There is a sense of adventure, but no hardship. Sanctuary Ananda is a handsome ship modelled on a 1930s river steamer, decorated with teak, woven textiles and scattered lacquer ware. We travel in style, as pampered as memsahibs in a Kipling story.
By 10am we're already heading off with our guide Khin to see the sights of Mandalay, last royal capital of Burma and its spiritual centre. At busy Mahamuni Pagoda, monks wash the face of a giant gold Buddha with sandalwood water. Devotees have pasted the statue with slivers of gold foil over decades, leaving it with a bulging waistline and fat fingers.
Teak wood Shwenandaw Monastery is next, its interior a dim wonderland of serene Buddhas smiling at the follies of the temporal world. Our final stop, Kuthodaw Pagoda, shimmers gold in the midday heat. Shy teenagers hold hands under the tamarind trees, surrounded by a forest of white stupas housing stone-carved Buddhist scriptures.
We relax over lunch on Sanctuary Ananda as we sail the short distance to Sagaing. A quick afternoon visit brings us to a monastery orphanage school, which houses more than 2000 schoolgirls in pink robes. Crammed 40 to a class, they're as raucous as lorikeets as they recite their lessons. On a hillside high above the monastery, Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda is gaudy as a discotheque in mirrored tiles and gold. Its terraces overlook dozens of glittering temple spires against a great sweep of the Irrawaddy River: just one of several tremendous viewpoints on this cruise.
Late afternoon brings us to Amarapura for a visit to a textile workshop, which creates elaborate ceremonial longyis in silk. There is a shop here but, as elsewhere in Myanmar, there is no hard sell from its shy and courteous owners. Our final stop is U Bein Bridge, a teak wood Meccano set caught between water and sky. The sun is setting as we're rowed into the lake. A Sanctuary Ananda waiter appears unexpectedly in a boat to hand out chilled goblets of Taittinger champagne. The sun turns orange, creating fabulous silhouettes of wooden pilings and bridge-strolling pedestrians.
Next day we're sailing for Sin Kyun, a village of about 1000 inhabitants who supplement a subsistence farming income by weaving straw hats. The village sits on a large riverine island engulfed by floodwater during the wet season, when villagers move inland; the fields of beans and peanuts, however, benefit from the fertile silt. It's a desperately impoverished existence, and a sobering counterpoint to the magical landscapes of the previous day. Floppy-eared cattle huddle under the shade of acacia trees, and children follow us along muddy lanes. We chat to hat-making women and the village school teacher whose accommodation – and the village library – is sponsored by Sanctuary Ananda.
By mid-morning we're sailing away on the wide, muddy Irrawaddy. Cattle graze under the trees and hills line the horizon. Lunch on board is an extravagance: seared tuna with spicy mango salad; grilled river prawns in chilli-lime sauce; stir-fried pumpkin with green papaya.
We're heading to Bagan, another destination of splendid temples and fruit-filled street markets. I could be bumping all day along pot-holed roads to get there, and checking into a damp, concrete hotel. Instead, I recline after lunch on a plantation chair on the ship's open deck, cooled by river breezes and a Myanmar beer. Golden spires are gilded exclamation marks punctuating the passing scenery, and in the evening the muddy river turns to beaten silver.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur (8½ hours) with onward connections to Yangon (2½ hours). Phone 13 26 27. See malaysiaairlines.com
Sanctuary Retreats has various cruises on Sanctuary Ananda along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Myanmar, including a seven-night Mandalay-Bagan-Mandalay itinerary. Prices from $2300 a person twin share, including meals, guided excursions and port charges. Phone 03 9536 1831. See sanctuaryretreats.com
Brian Johnston was a guest of Sanctuary Retreats and Malaysia Airlines.