With thousands of dramatic pagodas, a strong Buddhist culture and ancient rural landscapes, Myanmar is a unique travel gem. There is no better way to see what inspired Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay than a luxurious voyage along the Ayeyarwady River from Bagan to Mandalay.
Frozen in time by decades of limited access for outsiders, in recent years it has started to open itself to visitors. Its cultural treasures and peaceful charm are very different to any other lands you know about. And perhaps the most spectacular of Myanmar’s treasures is the extensive, golden-topped Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital Yangon, a must-see before you head further north to travel the river.
If the Shwedagon Pagoda is breathtaking in its size, the sight of the more than three thousand pagodas that await you in the beautiful old capital city of Bagan (Pagan), a one and a half hour flight north, is awe-inspiring. The starting point for your four-day voyage up the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) to Mandalay, Bagan lies on the river’s vast plain and its sesuous, pointed-topped pagodas spike the skyline from wherever you view them.
You will fill like a Victorian explorer as you come across 800-year-old, red-brick pagodas. More obvious highlights are the golden Buddha statues of the Ananda Pagoda and the fragile, ancient mural of the Buddha´s life that fills the walls of the Gubyaukgyi Temple.
Bagan is also famous for its arts and crafts and is the production center for the country’s impressive lacquerware. You could spend all day shopping in Nyaung-Oo market but the real beauty of the city comes with the sunset. The sun’s rays wash the pagodas in a golden light and, if you climb to the top of one of them, you’ll get a grandstand view. With ox carts working the patchwork of fields, people cycling and mauve-robed monks walking back to their monasteries, it is a scene of pure serenity; it is barely believable that such a way of life still exists in our modern world.
You will probably be thankful, though, that the best aspects of this modern world can be found on board the exquisite Road to Mandalay. The ship offers luxury accommodation and fine dining, and as you sail up the Ayeyarwady, you can relax on the deck and watch age-old scenes of everyday living unfold on its banks. The river is the backbone of Myanmar and, as the roads are poor at best, it is still the main way of getting people and goods around the country. Timber barges mix it with fishermen in dugout canoes, even though the Ayeyarwady is so wide that there is plenty of space for everyone. The pace of travel is sublime and at dusk, as the stars become bright pinpoints in the inky sky, the ship seems to glide through the water with effortless ease.
By day three you pull into the small village of Shwe Kyet Yet, the main mooring port for the Road to Mandalay and just a 15-minute drive from Mandalay itself. Deliberately chosen to avoid the hustle of this large city, the mainly bamboo village is a lovely place for wandering. In the early morning, the monks from its monastery queue up to collect alms from the villagers, while schoolgirls play skipping games, men mend bicycles and old women cook food in clay ovens.
In Mandalay, ancient wooden monasteries, like the ornately carved Shwenandaw Monastery, stand close to huge temple complexes, the most revered of which is the one in honor of Mahamuni. Inside, worshippers constantly cover his statue with fresh gold leaf. This is made locally and it is an eye-opening experience to visit one of the factories and see just how much bashing it takes to make gold so thin. At sunset make your way to the long wooden U Bein bridge over Taungthaman Lake. Monks, nuns, fishermen and cyclists make their way across its stilted wooden beams, forming perfect silhouettes against the dusk sky.
Further upriver, reached by a smaller ferry boat, is the impressive Mingun Pagoda, an unfinished project built in about 1790 to house one of Buddha’s teeth. Its massive base is bigger than those of the other pagodas in the region and it would have been three times higher than any of them. The views from the top are worth the testing climb up steep steps. Mingun is also home to the world’s largest working bell.
There can be no more fitting place to bid farewell to Myanmar than from atop the Sagaing Hills, overlooking Mandalay and Kyet Yet where the Road to Mandalay is moored, with temples on either side and stretching out to the horizon and the glinting lights of the ship piercing the twilight sky.
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