Utterly unspoilt by tourism, now is the time to visit Burma. Jeannine Williamson took a cruise through this beautiful country
As I bent down to put on my shoes after leaving the temple, a little girl approached, and shyly held out a bunch of wild flowers picked from the grassy bank.
Encouraged by my delighted reaction, it didn’t take long before her friends clustered around and, by the time I got back to the boat, I had an armful of makeshift bouquets.
It was one of many welcome surprises on a captivating cruise along the Chindwin River that flows down the western side of Burma and is the quieter yet largest tributary of the Irrawaddy.
We set off from Homalin, close to the Indian border, and each day our southern downstream journey brought new and often totally unplanned experiences.
One impromptu stop, caused by the fast-flowing river hastening the scheduled itinerary, took us to Kae Daung, where tourists are a novel rarity.
Giggling children followed behind as our guide walked us through the dusty streets lined with wooden houses on stilts and oxen resting in the afternoon sun.
Our trip coincided with one of the many Buddhist festivals, and another day we received a spontaneous invitation to join a celebratory feast in one of the monasteries found in every village.
Ushered to sit on the floor at low tables, we sipped green tea and nibbled on sweet treats made from rice.
Renamed Myanmar by the military junta that ruled from 1962 to 2011, for many years Burma was cut off from the rest of the world. On the brink of a new era of democracy, it’s a fascinating and mystical nation populated by gentle, friendly people.
With few roads, the Chindwin is the main transport artery between the remote towns and villages lining its banks.
Untouched by tourism, there are no tacky shops and children don’t beg. Our guide advised us to give any gifts, such as pens, notebooks and footballs, direct to the small single-room schools we visited.
We picked up authentic souvenirs at the same prices locals pay – a traditional pointed bamboo hat for the equivalent of £2, colourful fabric bags for £1 and jars of thanaka, a yellowish paste made from tree bark, for 50p.
Thanaka doubles as a sunscreen and skin treatment, and is used to striking effect by women and children, who paint patterns on their cheeks.
Dedicated shoppers can stock up on clothes, Buddha statues, jewellery and other keepsakes in shops and large markets in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, which are the start and finish points for Chindwin cruises.
With its lovely teak decks and cosy wood-panelled cabins lined with brass fittings, the two-deck Kalay Pandaw was inspired by the Scottish-owned colonial vessels of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that plied the same waters 150 years ago.
Carrying just 10 passengers (Kalay means baby) and nine crew members, we felt extremely pampered. Ever-smiling staff were always on hand to help us negotiate the riverbanks and welcome us from excursions with cold towels and a zealous shoe-washing service.
Life onboard was peaceful and we lazed on steamer chairs watching a timeless panorama of river life – small, crammed ferries transporting locals and goods, fishermen casting nets, women washing clothes and panning for gold at the water’s edge, and barges nudging huge expanses of floating timber upstream.
From the buffet-style breakfast to served main meals, the food was consistently delicious. The two chefs stocked up at local markets, and I relished the chance to try traditional Burmese dishes, such as noodles flavoured with coriander, sesame seeds, chilli and lemon – and that was for breakfast!
Western dishes are also always available.
Every day heralded an excursion – mostly walking tours through villages to visit temples and sights. Burma’s landscape is scattered with thousands of conical pagodas, or stupas, emerging over treetops, lining the side of hills or hugging the riverbank.
Similarly, there are countless images of Buddha – a staggering one million alone in the pastel- painted Thanbodi Temple, near Monywa, where our cruise ended.
Half an hour’s drive away, we craned our necks to admire the extraordinary 412ft standing Buddha, the largest in the country, and the 330ft reclining statue in front.
Going with the unpredictable flow on the river to Mandalay we encountered everything
from random acts of kindness to spectacular man-made wonders, all of which are commonplace in beguiling Burma.
Audley Travel offers an 1 1-night Burma itinerary from £3,200, including an all-inclusive seven-night Chindwin cruise with Pandaw, two nights’ B&B at the Sule Shangri-La, Yangon, and the Ayarwaddy River View Hotel, Mandalay, half-day tours in both cities, international and internal flights.
For further details, departure dates and prices, call 01993 838 450 or visit audleytravel.com.
Woman’s Weekly Travel offer
Burma & Irrawaddy River Cruise
Discover the spiritual and traditional societies of Burma on a cruise. Prices start from £2,749pp for a 12-day tour with a three-day Irrawaddy river cruise.
Selected departures from April to September 2016. Price includes return flights, half board, guided tours and a tour manager. For more information or for a free brochure, call 01283 742 396 or visit womansweekly.co.uk/Burma