Cruise into the heart of Burma
The opportunities to experience a culture which is more or less untouched by the modern world are few and far between these days as technology and international travel make the world seem smaller than it ever has before.
Claire Ross joined APT on the Irrawaddy (Ayerawaddy) River, cruising through Burma (Myanmar), and discovered a land which is raw, real and still largely unaffected by tourism.
Flowing through Burma from north to south, and stretching from the Himalayas to the Andaman Sea, the Irrawaddy River is an important life source. All life revolves around the river, whether it involves transport, washing, food or water. And this was the recurring theme of my cruise – there are the main sights of course, but it’s the understanding of the culture that you gain from the people you meet and interact with that stands out the most.
APT offers one of the longest river cruises through Burma which means that you get to experience a fascinating glimpse into some lesser-visited destinations as you travel between the major tourist attractions. I joined a 14-night cruise from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay on the APT Premium ship RV Princess Panwah, which has just 36 suites. As the ship is almost entirely staffed by Burmese crew members, you really have the chance to gain an understanding of the local culture and traditions from the moment you step on board
What surprised me most on this incredible journey was the time we shared with the residents in villages and communities along the river; it was fascinating to discover how the outside world has yet to make any mark on their way of life. The temples of Bagan and the U Bein Bridge may be the nation’s most famous icons but it was these personal interactions that symbolise the time I spent in Burma.
The experience that really captured quite how special this cruise is, was the visit to Yandabo. This working village is famous for its terracotta pots which are made from riverbank clay. You disembark the ship onto a muddy river bank; the crew have to moor up using ropes and there is no fixed pier which throws any misconceptions of conventional sightseeing right out the window. And once on land (which can get a bit boggy in monsoon season) you get an amazing insight into, and an immediate impression of daily life.
Each stage of the laborious pot-making process is handled by a different person with one person pedalling the pottery wheel, another shaping the pot on the wheel, and further craftsmen beating the pot into its final shape and marking the pot with its trademark pattern. The pots are then fired in a mass open kiln before being shipped on the river.
As the visit goes on you come to understand so much more about the village and Burma as a whole through talking to the people and asking them about their way of life. For example, many of the workers are university educated yet they have chosen to return to their home village because being part of the local industry is the most lucrative option for them. This is a common occurrence throughout the country, with university-educated locals favouring industry over academia to make their living.
You might expect an experience like this to be a little like looking into a world from the outside; however I was struck by how interactive it was. We were lucky enough to meet local children who embraced the chance to show off their impressive English skills when we asked them about their daily lives. It was an interactive experience, with the children and locals asking questions of us too – what our favourite food was, which football team we followed and which country we were from. We donated valuable resources for the children and witnessed their unbridled excitement as they discovered the pens, paper and learning resources that we had left for them.
Through this excursion and the many other trips throughout the cruise, it was evident how the outside world has had very little influence on the rural way of life. The Burmese people have only recently been able to connect to the internet, and it still remains very slow. The cruise was the perfect chance to switch off my phone and emails. Other evidence of this can be seen at the temples. These are places of worship first and foremost, with only a handful of international visitors; they certainly aren’t the tourist attractions that you find in other areas of Southeast Asia.
Given the off-the–beaten-track feeling that the rest of the itinerary leaves you with, you may imagine the famous – and therefore more crowded – sights of Bagan and the U-Bein Bridge would not quite compare. However they are as awe inspiring as the pictures lead you to believe. The city of Bagan really needs to be seen to be believed. Hundreds of intricately-carved temples, built from the 9th to the 13th Centuries, are scattered throughout the plains to the east of the river and create one of the world’s most spectacular skylines. And the final night on a gondola, watching the sunset over the world’s longest teak footbridge, was an absolute highlight and the perfect way to end this incredible cruise.