On the road to Mandalay

From the Irrawaddy River to Inle Lake, cruising Myanmar’s waterways is a captivating way to explore one of Asia’s most fabled destinations.

A loud splash breaks the early morning quiet. Those of us up to watch the sunrise from the top deck of the ship rush to the bridge where our captain, Myo Lwin, is scanning the coffee-coloured river. It’s our last day aboard the vessel, and we’re hoping to see an Irrawaddy dolphin. Lwin shakes his head.

“Probably just a butterfish,” he shrugs. In his three years at the helm, Lwin has spotted only two of the rare, round-headed cetaceans, which are thought to number fewer than 90 in Burmese waters.

“Seeing those dolphins was a highlight,” he tells us.

“But don’t hold your breath today.”

Gliding along at a leisurely pace gives us plenty of time to absorb life along the Irrawaddy. The longest of its kind in Myanmar, the river begins its course in the shadows of the Himalayas, bisecting the country before dumping its waters into the Andaman Sea.

Our cruise begins in Bagan, a vast, arid plain dotted with the ruins of more than 2000 temples and pagodas, described by Marco Polo as “one of the finest sights in the world”. Built from around 850AD until 1287, when the region was overrun by Mongol invaders, the remarkable monuments cover an area of 42 square km – red-brick, whitewashed and gilded stupas dotted amid cacti, acacia and the occasional toddy tree.

Northern exposure

As we cruise north, the river widens and a variety of traffic joins us on the water, including colourful ferries, high-sterned wooden boats known as hnaws, barges laden with teak logs and ceramics.

The banks of the Irrawaddy have been home to all of Myanmar’s ancient capitals – Sri Ksetra, Bagan, Inwa, Amarapura and Mandalay. Records show that as early as the Bagan Empire (849 – 1287), the waterway was the favoured playground of Burmese royals. King Alaung Sithu was renowned for cruising the river on his elaborate golden barge, reputedly building pagodas and temples wherever he came ashore.

Fast-forward to the mid-19th Century when the ruling British, recognising the river’s strategic and commercial potential, introduced a service of steel-hulled paddle steamers under the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). By 1930, the company had become the biggest river-transport enterprise in the world, with more than 650 steamers and barges moving Myanmar’s teak, cotton, rice and oil into China and beyond. Most of the IFC’s fleet was scuttled in 1942 on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Mandalay, and it’s thought more than 100 IFC ships still lie on the murky bottom of the Irrawaddy.

Royal capital

On day three on the Irrawaddy we see dozens of small fishing villages – teak and bamboo huts set beside magnificent white and gold stupas, erected as much for religious purposes as to serve as shore landmarks for river craft. The scenery changes as we pass Inwa and Amarapura, both of which served as royal capitals after the fall of Bagan in 1287.

The cruise ends on a wide bend of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay. This was Burma’s last royal capital, surrendering to the British in 1885. We dock just north of the Ava and Sagaing bridges in the hamlet of Shwe Kyet Yet. On the opposite bank is breathtaking Sagaing Hill, studded with more than 600 pagodas and 100 meditation centres and topped by a sublime golden stupa.

Life on the lake

Around 250km southeast of Mandalay, Inle Lake offers a completely different glimpse into life on the water. Small Intha and Shan villages dot the shores of this fabled lake, home to locals who largely rely on fishing for subsistence. Inle is a breeding ground for nine species of fish, including carp and ngaphain, and the fisherman have adopted an unconventional style of catching them. Standing at the bow of longtail boats, they wind one leg around an oar to steer, leaving hands free to throw nets.

Slipping through the water in longtails of our own, we make our way to Inle Heritage House, a preserve for Burmese cats. The breed died out when Myanmar gained independence in 1948 – the owners of Inle Heritage House reintroduced them in 2008. Since then, the property has opened six bungalows for guests as well as a cooking school and restaurant. We take to the organic garden, plucking chillies, herbs and vegetables that we turn into a tasty soup. It’s hard to resist the salad of rosy tomatoes – Inle produces 100,000 cubic metres of them every year.

The banks of Inle Lake are also home to Indein Village, a cluster of hundreds of stupas in various states of disrepair. Vines have crept in, and gilded spires peek from gnarly bushes. Aside from small copper bells chiming in the wind, it’s very quiet and almost entirely free of people, petrified in a peaceful state where time passes without the world noticing.