Girls go to….Burma? Lucy Verasamy on an unusual voyage in the land that time forgot
I didn’t know what to expect on a boat journey through Burma. Nobody I knew had been before – or even considered it for a holiday. My brother had crossed the border from Thailand for the day when travelling, but that was about it. Even the Lonely Planet guide had limited information and a serious lack of photos.
I loved the idea of exploring somewhere ‘new’, but with such a rich and varied history. I travelled with two girlfriends and we were very aware we were going somewhere remote. Usually glued to our phones, we knew there would be no internet connection and limited phone signals for almost two weeks. It would be a digital detox – the longest I’d been disconnected in years.
Going with the flow: Lucy poses with an officer’s hat on her river cruise
The journey took us hundreds of miles north along the Chindwin River, the main tributary of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, and back again. Our home for 11 days was the Orcaella, a new boat launched recently by Orient-Express. Orcaella’s clever design means it can travel along a previously unexplored stretch of the silty, Ovaltine-coloured Chindwin. At about half a mile wide but only several feet deep in places, the river becomes too shallow to navigate in the dry season, making the trip possible only five times a year. So the journey is even more special.
We flew with Singapore Airlines to Singapore, then took its sister carrier Silk Air to Burma’s capital Rangoon (now called Yangon).
On arrival, the tiredness hit us, but our spirits were lifted when we were met by our guide, Michael, who turned out to be possibly the smiliest person we’d ever encountered. We spent a night in the colonial style Governer’s Residence in Rangoon, one of many hotels from Orient-Express – which until now, I had associated with trains rather than hotels and boats. After a good night’s sleep, we jumped on a short-hop flight to Mandalay, where a small, traditional motor boat took us from the shore to the middle of the river and finally to Orcaella.
Slow road: A novice monk hitches a lift on a cattle cart
This is what I’d been waiting for! The boat was a home from home. My cabin had the comfiest bed (so much so, I ended up asking where the mattress was from) and its en suite bathroom had a rainwater shower as well as Bulgari shampoos and shower gels. There was wardrobe space for my fortnight’s-worth of clothes and more. The floor-to-ceiling sliding windows overlooked the river and the lush banks. It was a perfect view at sunrise and sunset.
Orcaella has 25 cabins and wasn’t what I’d expect from a cruise boat. There was plenty of space to yourself if you wanted, but if you felt the need to chat, you could easily bump into the friendly staff or other holidaymakers.
There was a mixture of age groups and nationalities. Everyone kept themselves to themselves at first, but as the time passed we mingled and started dining together. Our table got bigger each evening as the number of place settings grew.
As well as the digital detox, I was hoping for a health detox. I’ve been to Asia before and the heat and humidity made me lose my appetite. But this was impossible on Orcaella. The food was amazing and stood out as one of the best things about the trip.
Alternative transport: Lucy enjoying a ride at the elephant camp
The chef, Ban, who previously worked at the celebrity detox spa Chiva-Som in Thailand, spoilt us with a huge choice of food every day – and always beautifully presented. We felt so pampered. All meals included Western and Eastern dishes, and some days it was impossible to choose.
Nothing was too much trouble for the kitchen. On request they would rustle up delicious dishes from previous nights, and they remembered anything you disliked, too. I still dream of the after-dinner petits fours – from dark chocolate salted caramels to orange madeleines to homemade squishy marshmallows.
I was glad there was a gym on board. It was compact but had everything needed, as well as windows looking out on the river banks and an endless supply of cold water and cold towels. If the heat got too much, the top deck had a small swimming pool surrounded by sunloungers; here, dragonflies hovered overhead, hopefully eating any lurking mosquitoes. Also on the top deck was the spa. The wafting incense oils smelt amazing. On a rare rainy afternoon, I chose the Vital Energy massage. I loved it. The pressure was just right and I couldn’t believe the masseuse was only 19. She was so strong.
As we glided along the river, Burma unfolded in front of us. The scenery was almost hypnotic – you couldn’t help but stare. It was a conveyor belt of thick greenery and palm trees, cliff faces and gorges, almost like Jurassic Park. Mist or smoke rose from hilltops in the distance. Now and again there would be pointy golden stuppas and pagodas punctuating the greenery, gleaming as the gold caught the sun. There were excursions pretty much every day and we visited tiny villages and bustling market towns. Each one was so different, whether in size or vibe.
Some of the Burmese were super-shy, but most were very friendly. Some were as curious about us as we were about them. Many had not seen Westerners before and there was barely any Western influence. A few had smartphones and we took it in turns to take photos. Apart from that, all I noticed of the West was a poster of Frank Lampard and the Chelsea team and the catchy tune of a One Direction ringtone.
Stirring for the soul:Temples in Bagan
Burma has influences from both Thailand and India. We visited temples and saw Buddhas of every shape and size, some smothered in gold leaf, others painted in traditional colours – and some decorated with flashing LEDs; a bit Vegas and very unexpected!
We saw identically dressed, maroon-robed, barefoot monks quietly weaving through small towns and down dusty rural roads. In the busier towns, people on bikes and motorbikes zipped along pot-holed routes, one hand on the steering and the other cradling a small child or umbrella. In the more rural spots were white cows with skinny haunches pulling wooden carts along dirt tracks, and water buffalo ploughing the fields.
We saw men and women knee-deep in waterlogged rice paddies wearing traditional triangular bamboo hats. Several times we saw older Burmese ladies puffing away on fat home-made cigars. It was almost surreal; like stepping back in time.
Several individual trips stood out. Midway through the journey we headed inland to an elephant camp – a great experience. We got to see the animals close-up while they were bathing and being fed, and got a little snap-happy.
Going to a monastery to see a traditional ceremony was facinating and a privilege. And we visited the traditionally and colourfully dressed Naga tribe – where we joined in with singing and dancing and were offered local food wrapped in banana leaves with rice wine served in a hollowed-out cylinder of bamboo.
Home from home: The new cruise boat Oracaella
It wasn’t until this trip that I discovered that Orient-Express funds local development. Orcaella’s doctor visits the more rural spots to offer health care and the firm helps to supply, maintain and build schools. We were all struck by the impeccable behaviour of the children. During the trip I never saw any babies or children screaming or crying – not one tantrum. They were super-cute, too. If I ever adopt, I’d quite like a Burmese baby! And the adults looked so youthful.
It turned out our guide Michael was a good ten years older than we thought. There must be something in the water…Michael couldn’t have been more helpful and patient, or better at gauging how much information to give us so it wasn’t overwhelming. As well as passing on his calming Buddhist philosophy, he showed us how to make a gold-leaf Buddha ‘wish’, helped us barter for bamboo bags and found the best places for photos – a big advantage when we reached Bagan, known as the city of 2,000 temples.
The view from one took our breath away. As we wilted in the heat and humidity, Michael was immaculate, cool as a cucumber and unflustered in his well-pressed shirt and traditional Burmese longhi (sarong). There was not a bead of sweat on his brow.
On hotter days, it was a relief to return to the air-conditioning of the boat. To travel so many miles and see so much of a country, but have to unpack only once and have a full laundry service, was a great luxury.
There was plenty to keep us entertained in the evenings. We dressed up for sunset cocktails on the upper deck – I had packed a few maxi-dresses, thinking this, along with Deet spray, was the best way to avoid evening mosquitoes. But the gentle breeze from the river kept biters at bay. And having learnt that the British in colonial India used the quinine in tonic water as a natural anti-malarial, enjoying G&Ts was not just decadent but practical too.
One very warm evening we transferred by tuk-tuk to a colonial-style house for dinner by candlelight where we were greeted with champagne and enjoyed a delicious three-course gourmet barbecue.
At night, in the middle of the river in the heart of rural Burma, there were inky-black skies – so when we launched paper lanterns from the top deck, the sight was stunning.
I saw so much in two weeks, and being cut off from the rest of the world meant stresses melted away. It was relaxing but also eye-opening; an insight into another world Burma is beautifully unspoilt and remote, and I hope that it doesn’t change too much. I came home with a memory bank fit to burst with beautiful images and special moments – plus two mozzie bites and a bag full of homemade marshmallows!
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) offers flights from Heathrow and Manchester to Singapore. Onward connections to Rangoon are operated by both Singapore Airlines and SilkAir. Return fares from £655. When connecting through Changi airport before September 30, 2014, passengers can claim £20 of vouchers to spend in transit.
An 11-night cruise on Orcaella exploring the Chindwin River starts from £4,500 and includes meals, excursions, transfers and domestic flights. For more details, visit orcaella.net or call 0845 077 2222.