Sail the road to Mandalay

The Burmese don't want to be shunned, reasons Paul Sheehan, and their isolated nation is among his best travel experiences.

The road to Mandalay is long, wide and liquid. George Orwell called it "huge and ochreous". The colour of dark jade, it has carried a civilisation for 2000 years. It passes some of the world's most breathtaking monuments, yet few foreigners travel this great passageway. Myanmar, better known as Burma, has been largely closed to the world for much of the past 50 years.

In February, I travelled the road to Mandalay, by boat, because the fabled road is actually a great river, the Irrawaddy, flowing 2000 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Improbably, it is possible to travel this river by five-star luxury cruiser.

To travel in Burma is to travel in both time and space. This is old Asia, how it must have looked and felt 60 years ago. Arriving in the capital, Yangon, better know as Rangoon, is to find almost every man and woman, of every class, wearing the longyi. On such a slim people, the longyi is an extremely elegant garment: narrow, dignified, worn like a sarong and tied at the waist.

There are no skyscrapers in Rangoon. No mobile phones. No credit cards. No ATMs. No beggars. No heavy traffic. No jostling crowds. No mini-skirts. Few Westerners. For a country with a military government, there is also a paucity of men in uniform.

Yellow is the predominant colour. It is the colour of the light, the haze, many walls and buildings, the spires of the Buddhist temples and, above all, the cheeks of the women who, with few exceptions, cover their cheeks with a dusting of pale yellow thanaka, made from the bark of the thanaka tree. It is Burma's traditional, natural skin protection and sun block.

In the centre of Rangoon, the most important building, the Shwedagon Pagoda, is also yellow and gold, with a soaring spire that's been newly restored and gleams with 30 tonnes of gold leaf. This is the Vatican of Buddhism but older by more than 1000 years. A visit here at dusk is uplifting. It is the only place crowded by visitors. Burma does not have mass tourism.

Burma wants tourists and needs tourism but its preference is for packaged groups, not independent travellers. It is much easier to obtain a visa from the embassy in Canberra if one is travelling with a pre-arranged tour. That is how I gained entry. I put my plans in the hands of Orient-Express after discovering the unexpected presence of two Orient-Express properties in the country.

One property is a converted German river cruiser, the Road to Mandalay, which used to ply the Elbe in northern Germany. Bought and transformed twice by Orient-Express, what was once the MS Nederland now sails the river for nine months of the year, except May, June and July, when the heat and humidity are oppressive and the Irrawaddy is too low (officially it is the Ayeyarwady River, another element in the government's program of purging British-era names).


The Road to Mandalay opens the way to treasures and the greatest is Bagan. Approaching Bagan by water is one of my great travel experiences. I add it to a list of places I have seen that combine gravitas, history and beauty, a list that includes Machu Picchu, the Blue Mosque, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the pyramids, the Potala Palace, the Vatican, Angkor Wat, Pompeii and Petra. This is a powerhouse list and Bagan sits comfortably in such company.

It is the least known, least visited great cultural treasure in the region, an ancient royal city of pagodas, not people. Sitting on a plain beside the river, more than 2000 spires rise above acacias, tamarind trees and toddy palms. Hundreds of spires stretch in every direction to the horizon, with not a single modern blight of urban architecture. Bagan's imperial peak was 1283 years old. It's looked this way, empty but spectacular, for 500 years.

To approach Bagan by water is a throat-catcher. My notes taken as I sat on the upper deck read: "The deep satisfaction of the onset of dusk. Hundreds of spires backlit by a blood sun. A streaky sky. Ploughing up the river. Children's voices coming off the shore."

Then came darkness and dinner. The staff kept each menu for me so I know what I had that night: green papaya salad, pepper-crusted tuna fillet with creme risotto and raspberry chutney, watermelon sorbet with dragonfruit ravioli.

The Road to Mandalay, refurbished last year and accommodating 82, is less than half full during my four nights. The passenger list is almost evenly divided between English and German.

And so we sail towards Mandalay but the sailing itself is cut short by the capricious flows of the river. The river was exceptionally low earlier this year, just as nearby Thailand was in drought. The final leg has to be taken by bus, returning to the ship in late afternoon. Mandalay itself, a city of about 2 million people, is an anti-climax. Ravaged during World War II, ravaged again by fire in 1984, its charm has been kicked around by fate.

Back in Rangoon, Orient-Express also operates the Governor's Residence, built in the 1920s as a colonial official's residence. It was revived from dereliction and restored as a hotel with meticulous care. Everything is teak. It sits in the embassy district, not far from the Shwedagon Pagoda, surrounded by gardens, pools and groves of banana trees.

The Orient-Express way is not cheap but both its properties are exceptional. Don't expect any change from $4000 for four nights on the cruiser and two nights in the Governor's Residence (and no change from $5000 if you take a deluxe cabin). The price includes all transfers, tours and a round-trip airfare on Yangon Airways, the flying elephant, to Bagan or Mandalay. Both my flights on modern aircraft left on time.

Travel this way offers comfort, time and seamless convenience in a country that can be difficult for the independent traveller.

Finally, there is the matter of travel morality: visiting a country made fascinating by some of the very elements that confine its people. Burma is the poorest country in the region. The haze across the countryside comes from wood fires, a sign of poverty. The per capita gross national product is $US1200 ($1304), much less than Thailand ($US8100), Vietnam ($US2900) or even Cambodia ($US1900).

Going to Burma invites the sort of supercilious comment I heard: "So you're going to help prop up the Burmese junta." No such comments are elicited by visits to China or Vietnam, not noted for their commitment to democracy. The government of Burma has announced it will introduce a new constitution and hold national elections later this year, arrangements that will leave the military in control even if not nominally in charge.

The image problem singular to Burma is, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, the 64-year-old de facto leader of the opposition. She would become leader of the country if an election were held tomorrow. Instead she lives under house arrest in her lakeside villa in Rangoon, banned from contesting this year's election. This is the single most compelling reason why travel to Burma is shunned. But Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, and the Harvard-educated author of the most definitive modern history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps (2007), makes this observation near the end of his book: "In almost every way, this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world - where the military regime isolated itself for the better part of 30 years and which indeed has grown up and evolved well in isolation - is both counterproductive and dangerous."

Aung San Suu Kyi has begun softening her position on boycotts, as Burma drifts towards becoming a client state of China. The River of Lost Footsteps also explains the inconvenient complexity surrounding the ultimate source of her power: her father, General Aung San, the hero of Burmese democracy. He became the most prominent member of Burma's deeply divided independence movement after World War II but was assassinated by a political rival in 1947. He was just 32.

Burma had not yet gained independence and he had not been elected to any office. He had received his military training from the fascists in Japan during World War II and rose to prominence as an agent of the Japanese occupation. He switched sides in the last weeks of the war.

The history is thus more complex than the myth.

The 50 million people of Burma do not want to be shunned and I loved my many contacts with them. On my last night in Burma I'm back at the Governor's Residence and supposed to dine with the Orient-Express country manager, Franz von Merhart. He is delayed, so I repair upstairs to the glorious Mindon Lounge to await his arrival with a Mandalay beer, beneath the ceiling fans, and to catch up on the day's notes. Instead, at the top of the stairs I encounter an apparition. She is standing alone in the lounge, waiting for her first guest, dressed in the ubiquitous longyi. Her name is Thin-Zar. I am her only customer and she speaks excellent English, so we chat. Her father was a teacher and taught her English. She graduated from the University of Yangon a year ago.

"What was your degree?

"Botany, sir."

We chat on. She brings another beer. Still no sign of the general manager. After some time a second apparition, much smaller but also beautiful, bursts into the lounge.

"I'm so sorry!"

It is Win Pa Pa, the joyful character from the front desk. The manager is delayed at the airport. I tell her I am at peace in the Mindon Lounge. I ask what Win Pa Pa means.

"First prize, bright moon," she replies.

"And are you also a graduate of the University of Yangon?"

"I am, sir."

"And what is your degree?"

"Physics, sir."

While the botany graduate and the physics graduate go about with a glorious aura of decorum and duty, I think about the most famous woman in Burma, in her villa across the city. Aung San Suu Kyi is perhaps the most beautiful and dignified women in world politics. This is not, I reflect, a statistical fluke. She is an elite Burmese, so it is a statistical probability.

Rudyard Kipling, the man who did more than others to create the mythology of Burma in the Western mind, had a special regard for Burma.

In a memoir published in 1889, he wrote: "When I die I will be a Burman, with twenty yards of real King's silk about my body ... and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her ... nor tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look at the world between the eyes."


Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Rangoon for about $1180, flying non-stop to Singapore from Melbourne and Sydney (8hr), then non-stop on SilkAir to Rangoon (3hr). Thai Airways flies via Bangkok. Fare is low-season return including tax. Australians require a visa for stays of up to 28 days.

Touring there

Orient-Express runs cruises along the Irrawaddy River from three to 11 nights, from $2910 a person, including domestic flights and transfers, meals and activities. Phone 1800 000 395 or see The Governor's Residence in Yangon has rooms from $US154 ($167) a night, see