Cruise Myanmar’s Mystic River

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Jul 08, 2016

by SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA, Writer

On a gentle cruise on Myanmar’s enchanting Ayeyarwady River, Shehan Karunatilaka discovers the true heart of this little-known land.

It’s a silly game made up while backpacking, right after watching Wings of Desire on a train to Berlin. I saw Apocalypse Now before Hanoi, Amélie before Paris and if I ever go to Johannesburg, I’ll watch District 9 again. It’s good to know the fiction of the place before you get to smell it. But there are a few rules: the film needs to be set there, not necessarily shot there. And it needn’t be highbrow. 

The survival tips I received before my voyage of the Ayeyarwady River were varied. “Take umbrellas. That river can be a damp squib,” said an uncle domiciled in Myanmar. The guidebooks were no more encouraging. “Pack a sense of humour,” said one, alluding to the locals’ languid approach to time and punctuality. “It’ll be cruisy,” said a guide in Yangon, somewhat helpfully.

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The erudite approach would be to browse the writings of Kipling, Orwell and Maugham and feel the enchantment this isolated nation once inspired. The obvious approach would be to Google “Ayeyarwady”, “Mandalay” and “Bagan” and look at pictures.

Instead, I turn to my movie game – a triple feature of Beyond Rangoon, The Lady and Rambo 4. Three very different films that share one setting; one was far-fetched, one was glossy and one starred Sylvester Stallone. None prepared me for my four-day/three-night cruise from Bagan to Mandalay.

Sanctuary Ananda is nothing like the vessel in Rambo 4. The 21-suite floating palace is panelled in fine teak, cushioned in bright fabric and flecked with gold. There’s a sundeck with a plunge pool, a bar with a mixologist, corridors lined with contemporary art and enthusiastic staff who know when to entertain you and when to leave you alone. Best of all, balconies spill out from each cabin, offering guests a private audience with the Ayeyarwady River.

The river runs through the heart of this ethereal and troubled land, joining the dots between the cities of Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon, sending streams from the Himalayan glaciers right down to the Andaman Sea. The landscape is stark, save for a few barges bearing logs, and birds swooping down on fish.

Sanctuary Ananda is one of a handful of luxury vessels that take tourists to the palaces, temples, markets and monasteries along the Ayeyarwady. All offer five-star comfort and most are booked out for the season (peak time is from October to February). Soon there may be more boats on the river but not yet. 

The heaving water and the verdant land have seen empires rise, dynasties crumble and some of history’s greediest marauders plunder the kingdom. Since 1962, Myanmar has lived under military rule, where oppression, corruption and international isolation ensured that a land rich in oil and sapphire stayed poor. For the selfish tourist, the benefits of low economic growth are plainly visible. Your currency goes further, the landscape remains pristine and the cranes, bulldozers, malls and hotels of progress have yet to arrive.

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If Myanmar’s walk to democracy turns to a sprint, the river may crowd with boats bringing the world to this once forbidden land. But for now, the sleepy river is yours and what it lacks in infrastructure it makes up for in trees, flowers, lapping winds and shifting colours. Just you and the water and ample time for reflection.

Without turning into a movie critic, let’s say that none of my feature films captured the elegance of this land or provided much of an insight into its soul. Hours of celluloid cannot quite convey what a few minutes in Bagan can give you.

My tour group is a lively mix of locals, foreigners, couples and extended families. We stop at Nyaung U market and bargain over paintings, carvings, souvenirs and sculptures. We meet Kayan women, famous for the brass coils that appear to elongate their necks, who weave fabric and pose for the tourists. One lady with nine inches of brass between her chin and shoulder stares at my eyebrow piercing and asks if it hurt.

Bagan is home to more than 2000 monuments – some a thousand years old – strewn over 41 square kilometres of lush field. The best way to grasp the scale of it is to greet the dawn in a hot-air balloon, watching as the sun’s first rays hit the tops of temples and listening to the wind blow the morning’s prayers towards you. 

Or you could climb the Shwesandaw Pagoda at sunset for an exquisite panorama of this archaeological park. This you’ll have to share with a few dozen tourists or more. The best option is to hire a bike and weave through the endless monuments, armed with a good guide or a great map. Or, if you wish, you can go by horse and cart.

Even after centuries of plunder, this archaeological marvel retains some of its treasures and much of its mystique. Its invaders have included Kublai Khan, the British Empire and the Imperial Japanese Army, though the most pervasive has been the philosophy of Buddhism.

There are enough temples here for lifetimes of exploring; some depicting the lives of Buddha in murals and frescoes of striking reds and yellows, some with ogres and demons carved into the wood and some with bricks that have lain for a thousand years. Bagan rewards slow inspection over days, weeks or longer.

Granted but a mere afternoon, we breeze through the Ananda, Dhammayangyi, Sulamani and Htilominlo temples. Each is a study in grandeur, symmetry, awe-inspiring structure and tricks of the light. Four giant gold statues at Ananda show the Buddha in different guises.

While chronicles have been penned on the symbolism of each gesture and posture, what interests me most is the range of expression. Buddha smiles as if he’s just heard the universe’s secret, as if he knows something we do not. He appears bemused at the idolatry his humble philosophy has inspired; he looks aggrieved that his message has been twisted to justify violence. 

There are temples in which he stands as a superhero with a flowing cape; in some he assumes the lotus position like a sage and, in others, he reclines like a man – all that he ever claimed to be.

How not to marvel at the lions that look like dragons who guard the entrance of Ananda, at the crouching figurines on the walls of Sulamani Temple, the teak carvings of bodhisattvas at Htilominlo or the majestic pyramid-like structure of Dhammayangyi? Though, after a while, the orange bricks, swaying trees, occasional bullock cart and ubiquitous artistry begin to merge in my mind – and that’s when it’s time to gaze at the sunset from a great height and think of nothing. 

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Knowledgeable and lively tour guides are ever present. Many are amused at my questions. No, we don’t pass any opium plantations, sorry. No, we don’t know any generals or cartel members or gangsters or their sons. Yes, even if I were a revolutionary, I wouldn’t tell you. They are equally forthright in discussing Myanmar’s turbulent past and speculating on its brightening future.

The locals are friendly and polite. “Maybe later?” they say when I decline to buy a mask of a demon. “You will remember me, yes?” says the girl with thanakha on her cheeks (the yellowish paste is made from ground tree bark and worn as sunblock) who sells photocopied George Orwell novels and memorises my surname. 

Back on the boat there’s dinner on a sandbank under fireworks, with the ship’s chef letting me hand-pick the ingredients that go into my fresh stir-fry. In the days that follow, there are meditation sessions, spa treatments and lantern-lit dinners. A cookery class teaches me that making tom yum soup requires a patience I will never possess. 

When we get to Mandalay, the river has risen, preventing us from gliding under the bridge. We approach the city by car and drive along the moat that surrounds the citadel housing the Mandalay Palace. Built by King Mindon in the 1850s and bombed heavily in World War II, the palace’s teak structures have endured, as have the mausoleums, the watchtower, the throne rooms and the Glass Palace apartment, the king’s main residence.

Our time is short in this evocatively named city, which boasts the Peshawar Relics – three tiny shards of bone thought to be Buddha’s – and tales of destruction, courtesy of the British and Japanese. Travelling the grid, we climb Mandalay Hill, lay some flowers at the shrine on top and gaze down on the swirl of temples and trees, and the Ayeyarwady’s flowing current. We encounter the “world’s largest book” at Kuthodaw Pagoda, where 729 slabs of stone represent each page of the holy Tripitaka.

And then at the Mahamuni temple, once again we experience gold and its many glitters. We join the queue to paste glistening flakes on the Buddha head and pass historic Khmer statues. A meal at the Green Elephant is a step back in time and a welcome foray into local spice. And then it’s back to the boat for final cocktails and some reflection.

The last day is spent with winds and silence, watching seabirds skirting the water, gazing at tree trunks defying the tides, sitting on the cushions of a sundeck and gathering scattered thoughts.

The river reminds me that landscapes will endure long after squabbles fade and that the melodrama, the biopic and the action film fail because Myanmar is seen only from the outside. Myanmar’s true story belongs to a people whose point of view and right to express it have been stifled – but no longer. As travellers scratch the surface of this land, perhaps its people can reclaim its story and revisit its former glory.

Another nation in the region claims to be “truly Asia” but if there is one country that really does capture the glory, tragedy, beauty and ugliness of this colourful continent, that presents Asia’s reality as well as its romance, then it is surely Myanmar, with a river of dreams that flows through its heart. 

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