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Burmese Days: Gary Buchanan reviews Belmond Orcaella

Trip Reports

For centuries the ineffable mystery of Myanmar has captivated travellers. European writers from Kipling to Maugham have all tried to portray the embarrassment of bewildering beauty that imbues this sequestered land, formerly known as Burma.

On the flight east, I read George Orwell's caustic tale about the waning days of British imperialism in the fictional town of Kyauktada. His descriptions of the natural tableaux are as vivid as a painting, and turning the pages of Burmese Days I became absorbed in this portrait of colonial life.

After landing in the World Heritage Site of Bagan I was transported along dust-red tracks to reach my floating halcyon for the next seven days. Orcaella is a paragon. Owned and operated by Belmond (formerly known as Orient Express), this supremely comfortable 50-passenger river cruiser explores this enigmatic land barely touched by the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

That afternoon I joined a tour of Bagan, former capital of the Burmese empire and spiritual heart of Myanmar. From the 11th century until its rapid decline at the end of the 13th century, devout Burmese monarchs built over 4,000 temples across a swathe of a parched-earth plain. Though many of the original pagodas have crumbled into oblivion, there are still thousands rising from the rubescent terrain. In this ghost city, venerable white edifices contrast with stocky, red-brick monuments; some soaring 180 feet high, with elaborate terraces, porticos, and bas-reliefs.

The next morning as Orcaella began a slow, meandering navigation of the Ayeyarwady River - shaper of Myanmar's history and economic lifeblood - I got a glimpse into a rural lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries. Yoked oxen ploughed narrow strips of fertile soil exposed by the decreasing levels of the dynamic river. Children swam as their mothers went about ablutions before pounding their laundered clothes on the rocks. Young men in their longyis searching for fish, climbed aboard canoes that resembled ancient coracles; forests revealed inviolate golden stupas, while tall palms hardly rippled in the soporific air.

Purpose-built at the Thein Phyu Shipyard in Yangon in 2013, Orcaella is a recreation of an Irrawaddy Flotilla Company ship boasting contemporary, elegant interiors which are flooded with light from picture windows. Taking its name from small, beakless dolphins that inhabit the rivers of southern Asia, Orcaella offers two Balcony Suites, a Junior Suite, 13 State Cabins and 9 Deluxe Cabins - each with comfortable Sealy beds positioned to take full advantage of the enchanting scenery.

A spiral staircase of indigenous pyinkado wood connects the three passenger decks where the design palette is a mélange of the Occidental and Oriental. The Restaurant, with its nod to minimalism, evokes a recherché Parisian boutique hotel. The Lounge Bar with its cream bar stools, chocolate-leather chairs, Burmese lacquer-ware, and small library makes a convivial focal point for life on board. An expansive Observation Deck is a popular nexus for enjoying the enchanting scenery by day and cocktails under a canopy of stars at night. There's also a swimming pool surrounded by sunloungers, fitness centre and spa on Observation Deck; a boutique and fine-wine cellar on Main Deck; hair salon and medical facility on Lower Deck.

During my 428-mile odyssey south to the capital city of Yangon, each day was a well-balanced fusion of serene cruising and enriching excursions to ancient towns and bucolic settlements. As I explored ashore it became evident that a breeze of freedom is rejuvenating the Burmese people. Nowhere is this fresh energy and excitement more evident than on board my utopian idyll where the endearing hotel team of 44 Burmese staff are adept in the art of hospitality.

Find out more about Myanmar...

Our expedition cruising guide to Myanmar and the Ayeyarwady River will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and why some people still refer to the country as Burma.

Meet the author

Gary Buchanan is one of cruising’s most distinguished writers and guest writer for Mundy Adventures

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