A luxury river trip from Mandalay, writes Nigel Tisdall, is the stress-free way to see remote parts of Burma.
It takes just one, famous, stupa-fying view to make me understand why everyone is now heading for Burma. Gazing across the tea-coloured waters of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, I spy the 37 sacred hills of Sagaing crowned with hundreds of shrines, pagodas and monasteries that have been arising here since the early 14th century.
Their ornate roofs and gleaming spires soar above the trees in a lustrous cavalcade of golden pimples, epitomising the storybook charm of this most welcoming of Buddhist nations.
Being new to both Burma and the leisured pace of river cruising, I'm impressed by this panoramic opening shot as I embark for a 1647km adventure that will see us sail up the broad, brown tentacle of the little-visited Chindwin River, which winds close to the country's north-western border, then return to behold another of Burma's great set pieces, the temple-studded plains of Bagan.
Within an hour of casting off, I feel as if I've boarded a luxury spaceship journeying back to the Middle Ages. Elegant waitresses in red uniforms serve refreshing strawberry and cucumber drinks as we attune to a landscape lifted straight from a willow-pattern plate. Eighty per cent of Burmese people still live an agrarian lifestyle, and the river-hugging world we discover beyond its cities seems barely brushed by the modern era. Yes, some locals use mobile phones and there are garish adverts for Lucky Cow creamer, but the predominant images are of water buffalo wallowing in the mud, teams of oxen churning the fields, and fishermen in conical hats floating by in wooden canoes powered by colourful sails sewn from old sheets.
My waterborne home for the next 11 nights is the Orcaella, a four-deck river cruiser, operated by Belmont (formerly Orient-Express). With just 25 cabins and a contemporary design, the Orcaella has been purpose-built to make long and exploratory voyages into remote areas. Many of my fellow passengers are first-timers keen to catch a glimpse of this hot-list country before it gets more developed, while others are veterans of Belmont's larger and more traditional sister river cruiser, the 43-cabin Road to Mandalay, which has cruised the Irrawaddy since 1997.
"It looks like a hospital ship," one old hand opines, and there are early grumbles about slow service and a lack of atmosphere. I find it hard to love the decor of the bar and lounge, which has chunky red velvet sofas and monumental stools more appropriate to a Hong Kong night spot, but we all appreciate the spacious sundeck with its wooden loungers and 6m swimming pool.
As Somerset Maugham noted when he sailed to Bagan in 1922, "river travelling is monotonous and soothing". A voyage aboard the Orcaella is undoubtedly the latter, with engines so quiet I hardly notice we are leaving port. This is a glide more than a cruise, and any fears of boredom are sent packing by an engaging programme of excursions, lectures and entertainments.
We visit the colossal Bodhi Tataung Buddha near Monywa, which rises to 130m, and ride in the back of construction lorries to reach a jungle camp near Mawlaik where elephants learn to haul logs. Heavy rain turns an 29km drive to Kalay into a bumpy 90-minute ordeal, while in Homalin, our northernmost port of call, a rice wine-laced encounter with the Naga community ends up in a lively conga.
Foreign tourists are still a novelty in this region, and the warm welcome we get at each stop is touching. Most memorable is an invitation to watch five boys aged from 6 to 10 being prepared for monastic education in Moktaw. As I sit among the proud mums watching their nervous sons have their heads shaved, the mixed emotions rippling around the village hall are like the first day of term at any primary school in the world.
After such heartfelt encounters, which invariably leave us hot, sweaty and muddy, it is bliss to return to the cool, calm and spotless cocoon of the ship. Burma has a shortage of top-class hotels, and our excursions provide proof enough that travelling on its soggy, potholed roads aboard "best-available" buses can be wearying. Special permission is also required to visit a sensitive frontier region like this, with the Indian border just 48km away at some points.
While our trips ashore offer insightful adventures, they are marred by the variable quality of our Burmese guides, the withdrawn attitude of our lecturers and a general paucity of information about what we are visiting. A low point comes when one guide informs me that "a cow is a useful animal". Regardless, in my view the deepest joy of a cruise like this comes from simply watching riverbank life unfold. "Who is entertaining who?" quips our sparkiest guide, Ko Win Myint, as we find a welcoming committee of onlookers awaiting us at every port, as eager to see us as we are them. One minute, we are among burgundy-robed monks, giggling schoolchildren and immigration officials in immaculate white uniforms; the next we are alone with the glistening paddy fields, or lost in the mysteries of the forest as a lonely stupa catches the sunlight like a shiny gold tooth.
All this beauty is not good for the digestion, as meal times frequently present me with an inner tussle between grabbing the camera and tucking into the superb and predominantly Asian dishes prepared by our highly talented Thai chef, Bann Nawisamphan. Her menus introduce us to the lightly spiced flavours of Burma - the fish soup mohinga, an intriguing pennywort salad, grilled prawns and wonderful sticky desserts and the palatable local Red Mountain wine.
Bann's finest moment comes when she cooks up a spicy storm at a barbecue held at the charmingly neglected golf club in Mawlaik. Founded in 1936, the oldest course in Burma has seen better days, and today a round of its nine holes costs a mere 80c. Inside the gecko-decorated clubhouse, a large sign records that the most recent hole-in-one was achieved in 1998 using a Power Big Iron No 5.
An army of Orcaella cooks and waiters descends on the club's overgrown lawns to create one of the best pop-up restaurants I've ever visited. We arrive in a fleet of bright red tuk-tuks to find white, linen-covered tables laid out with candles, silverware and a feast of Asian dishes. The attention to detail is summed up in a plethora of protective polystyrene blocks diligently attached to the spikes of every yucca. As a xylophonist plays music-box tunes and the complimentary champagne flows all night, the consensus among our merry band is that it is hard to see how a high-end trip deep into backwater Burma could get much better. In nine days cruising the Chindwin, we don't see one other tourist.
On other evenings, the entertainments include a Burmese dance performance, a longyi (sarong) cocktail party (women are given a splendid example to take home) and a dreamy spectacle in which 1000 red, white and gold lights are floated on the river to the sounds of classical chill.
Most romantic of all, on one night amid the dark waters near Sittaung, we let off a host of colourfully striped Shan balloons from the Orcaella's upper deck. These are delicate, oil-drum-sized bags powered by a flaming wooden stick, which gently rise into the night sky in a magical procession. "Make a wish," the crew whisper, and while some of us keep these secret others make loud declarations. "For the people of Burma!" cries one passenger as he dispatches his glowing parcel into the heavens.
It is a fitting thank you to an enchanting country that is now fulfilling many a traveller's dream.
Getting there: Malaysian Airlines flies from Auckland to Yangon via their hub in Kuala Lumpur.
Details: For information on Belmond's cruises in Burma, go to belmond.com