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Great Escapes: Rediscovering Myanmar

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go Orient-Express’ Road to Mandalay sails between Mandalay and Bagan in three-, four- and seven-night itineraries October through April, with additional dates in July. Three-night fares start at $2,520 and include all shore excursions and internal flights. Seven-night itineraries aboard the Orcaella start at $5,040. 800-237-1236 www.orient-express.com

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As we bounce over the pot-holed streets of Yangon, past crumbling colonial mansions in the largest city in Myanmar, U Win introduces me to local culture by way of career advice.

“Burmese people believe in reincarnation,” explains the guide, wrapped, like most men here, in a saronglike longyi. He points to the towering 368-foot temple known as Shwedagon Pagoda, where the faithful apply fresh gold leaf to statues of Buddha. “If I did a good donation, I might come back as a rich man. Without meditation, I can’t get to heaven. We have less crime because of Buddhist beliefs. So, lawyer business isn’t going well in our country.”

Then he twists around to look at me in the mothball-scented cab, laughing, “I hope you are not a lawyer.”

Newly lighthearted, yes, but litigious the Burmese are not. And while recent clashes in the far western state of Rakhine between Buddhists and Muslims reveal social fault lines between majority (roughly 85 percent of residents are Buddhist) and minority, the country that has only recently opened to the West after 50 years of suffocating military rule has a lot to teach the visitor in the way of nonviolent protest and enduring good humor.

A 1962 military coup suspended development in Myanmar, also known as Burma, wedged between Thailand, China and India, and rich in minerals and gems. After the overthrow, the once prosperous nation fell into widespread poverty.

Democracy advocates like Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi were held captive and stifled; her case involved 15 years of periodic house arrest. But last year, after she and hundreds of other political dissidents were released, U.S. economic sanctions were eased and the floodgates opened.

In swept developers of everything from hotels to sewage systems, along with tour operators catering to travelers eager to see the once-forbidden, culture-rich country. Arrivals rose to more than 1 million last year, a 30 percent increase, and are projected to boom to 7.5 million by 2020, according to government tourism officials.

The U.S.-based Backroads introduced biking itineraries this year. Abercrombie & Kent launched a new small group tour. In November, Intrepid Travel will offer its first sailing trips to the remote Myeik Archipelago. While in July, the country’s established tourism leader, Orient-Express, launched its second small-ship river boat, the 25-cabin Orcaella, running itineraries from Yangon and the cultural center of Bagan on the central Irrawaddy River, as well as seasonal trips up the more remote Chindwin River.

I boarded Orient-Express’ original ship, the 40-cabin Road to Mandalay, which plies the Irrawaddy River for more than 128 miles between chief cultural capitals Mandalay and Bagan.

After a one-hour flight from Yangon to Mandalay, I stand agape on the awning-shaded deck in view of hundreds of golden temples piercing the sky over successive waves of hills rolling back from the murky river. Shorn, ochre-robed monks collect alms in the neighboring village of woven bamboo houses. A wooden horse cart trundles past, carrying newly cut straw to a barnyard.

On land, it’s 19th-century Rudyard Kipling, whose poem Road to Mandalay famously extolled the “spicy garlic smells, An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells.” But shipboard, it’s pure 21st century. My tasteful berth is more hotellike than ship cabin-ish with a generous bedroom, flat-screen TV and ample bathroom. In the restaurant, the staff serves a mix of Asian and Western food, with excellent renditions of the vegetable-focused salads that distinguish Burmese food. Up top, there’s a swimming pool and gin and tonics at sundown, where the mix of English, New Zealand, American and Singapore passengers toast Burma, as they call it, comparing the emerging country to seeing Cambodia’s Angkor Wat 20 years ago, “before it was overrun.”

The trip, however, is anything but cruise ship-standard. Excursions focus on local culture and heritage in visits to Buddhist temples and monasteries posting the shores.

“The history of our country is along the river,” says San Phyo Aye, my shipboard guide, noting that we will trace it back from the present military stronghold of Mandalay to the ancient Bagan, where more than 2,000 temples and stupas spread across a riverside plane. They express the collective fervor of 200 years of construction following the country’s 11th-century conversion to Buddhism.

Numerous but not monotonous, the temples range from small dwellings, where just two people can crane their necks to see 800-year-old figure paintings, to the light-filled Ananda Temple ringed in relief sculptures and the dark Gubyaukgyi Temple, where San carries a lantern to illuminate its richly muraled walls.

Between temples, we tour modern-day Burma, where traditional decorative arts thrive in lacquer, marble carving and gold-leaf workshops. In Bagan’s teaming Naung Oo Market, we squeeze past stalls heaped with eggplant and betel nut leaves, wood carvings and jade statues.

On my last of three nights, from atop a four-story pagoda, San and I watch the sun sink into the spires that stretch across the terra-cotta plane. It’s a hushed moment, but in fact around us are dozens of Italian, Thai and German tourists — with millions more expected to come.

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