Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country steeped in tradition and touched only marginally by globalisation. Men still wear sarong-like longhis, women and children paste thanaka made from bark on their faces, ox-carts trundle in the streets, and locals are open and warm to visitors. The country was closed to tourists until a few years ago, and the attitude of Burmese doesn’t yet seem to be jaded or cynical.
As the infrastructure of tourism is still developing, the perfect way to explore major temples, pagodas and monasteries, or to observe the way of life in rural villages and towns along the Ayeyarwady River, is to take The Strand Cruise from Bagan to Mandalay, two iconic cities in Myanmar. It is these passing landscapes and relics of a bygone era that inspired some of the works of Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and other journaling travellers during the period of British sovereignty in Burma.
The Strand Cruise, launched in 2016, is an elegant and sophisticated vessel that was built in the Thein Phyu Shipyard in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. There are one-and-a-half floors of guest cabins, and communal space is maximised: there is a spacious restaurant on level two, and a bar, pool section, and sheltered top deck lounge area taking up the whole of level three. From the reception, a magnificent teak staircase spirals up to the cabins. Décor in these areas references elements from “old Burma”, with artwork, an antique typewriter, teak furniture, and books. A range of board games are also on offer, some of them Asian.
The cabins share a sense of colonial antiquity with the ship’s sister property — The Strand Yangon, a newly refurbished hotel in a 1901 mansion. Fine thread-count linen is regularly ironed on the bed, to keep it crisp and neat, and a discreet personal butler will unpack your clothes if you would like him to do so. The butler ensures your roses are fresh, that the the Molton Brown toiletries in your bathroom and shower are regularly replaced, and that Evian water is always available next to your bed. Turndowns are lavish, with French-style chocolates in a pretty box, a card, and a surprise gift that links to the educational activity or entertainment on the ship that day.
You are never disturbed in your cabin, so it is up to you to decide whether to leave your oasis for a drink, meals, to socialise, or for an excursion. It is tempting to linger in the pleasant air-conditioning, to simply gaze out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the activity on the Ayeyarwady River or its banks.
You may feel you have stepped into the pages of a 19th century National Geographic magazine as you glide past scores of gilded temples, people washing their clothes or bathing in the water, fishermen in small boats with one-cylinder engines, and silhouettes of elaborate pagodas as the sun rises.
Shore-excursion organisation is slick, but flexible, so individual preferences are accommodated, affording guests a high degree of freedom. Ship managers are sensitive to the needs and interests of their guests. Groups have maximum autonomy, with about five people to a guide. Photographers, for example, may prefer to travel more slowly, so this is considered. If you have already discovered areas of Bagan or Mandalay on your own, the guide will steer you to the highlights you don’t yet know. Guides are local, and possess in-depth knowledge of the attractions and the culture.
After walking barefoot in the temples — a requirement to show respect — and negotiating in dusty streets with vendors for handmade crafts, you return to the boat to where your shoes are cleaned and returned to your cabin, and you’re given an iced hand towel to wipe away the tropical heat, as well as a long, cool drink of your choice in the air-conditioned bar.
The cuisine on The Strand Cruise is exceptional and must surely be the best of any cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. Expect fine dining, including gourmet French fare carefully paired with wines, at immaculately set tables in the evenings. Al fresco lunches are served on the sundeck, when Burmese and Thai dishes are presented. Breakfast buffets sport a range of Asian and European favourites, with à la carte options. Try mohinga, a staple of the people of Myanmar, made with a rich fish broth and rice noodles. Irresistible bread, croissants, and baguettes, as well as brioche, are baked daily. Traditional Strand afternoon tea is served at The Strand restaurant, with delicacies arranged on tiered servers.
Signature evening cocktails — such as Pegu Club, a gin-based favourite from a 1920s British gentleman’s club — together with a sunset shimmering on the gentle waters of the Ayeyarwady like crinkled silk, add to the sense of well-being accumulated from days memorably spent. thestrandcruise.com
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED HOTELS
The Strand Yangon, built in 1901 and recently refurbished, is set in the vibrant old city, surrounded by grand, colonial-period buildings. It’s steeped in tradition from the colonial era, with delicious high teas and fine dining, whirring ceiling fans, a smoking bar, and a butler to unpack your clothes. hotelthestrand.com
Blue Bird Hotel Bagan is an oasis, on a dusty road in a village, that is set in a verdant garden, with a swimming pool and al fresco restaurant. It’s walking distance from some of the temples of Bagan. Only local people are employed at Blue Bird Hotel and sound eco-friendly principles are practiced. bluebirdhotelbagan.com
Hotel by the Red Canal, Mandalay is a boutique hotel in a welcoming space, enclosing a lush garden with water features. It has a striking, Pagoda-style roof; red teak furniture, floors, and staircases; and provides lavish amenities. hotelredcanal.com
Sanctum Inle Resort is tranquil and elegant, with high ceilings and selected teak furniture. It’s set in a large garden that includes tamarind trees, with views over an infinity swimming pool to paddy fields, Inle Lake, and the Shan mountains. It’s also well located for day boat trips to water villages. sanctum-inle-resort.com