50-guest river cruise ship Orcaella sails 438 miles into Burma’s magical Bagan valley, a virtual forest of pagodas and temples built for worship and to honour the dead.
Red, blue and green motorised wooden fishing and transport boats scuttle back and forth across the Twante Canal, which feeds into the Andaman Sea.
On shore, modern buildings are juxtaposed with tin-roofed, crumbling concrete structures and intricately woven bamboo huts. But it is the towering golden stupa, Shwedagon, that dominates the skyline.
Welcome to Yangon! Our ship, the 50-passenger Belmond Orcaella, is departing the former capital of British Burma on an eight-day 438-mile itinerary that ends in the temple-strewn valley of Bagan.
First, we sail west along the 22-mile-long canal before joining the Ayeyarwady River, which cuts a windy path north through the fertile Delta region.
As tiny boats flit alongside us, we pull away from our jetty into the silt-heavy water. Women grip tightly to the small craft yet still hold aloft brightly coloured umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun, their faces smeared with yellow Thanakha make up, a natural and potent sunscreen made from bark.
The Myanmar of George Orwell’s Burmese Days, set in colonial Burma as the empire wanes, is described as a carpet of jungle with teak forests, full of wild animals and awash with gold, silver, sapphires, rubies and jade.
The Delta was once the breadbasket of South East Asia. In more recent history, the country was isolated under a military government for nearly 60 years.
The country is now one of the poorest in Asia but Yangon is being regenerated and most of the sanctions put in place by Western governments have been lifted.
The reason I am drawn back to Myanmar, after a brief visit five years ago, is its people. Their openness and warmth is remarkable and the sincerity of their welcome endearing.
Apart from the chef, all staff on Orcaella are from Myanmar. Our hotel manager, Mr. Win, explained: “It is integral for guests to interact with our local crew who can explain our traditions and point out undiscovered highlights when ashore.
“Being a good host is an important part of Burmese culture.”
The elegant three-deck Orcaella will be home for the next seven nights. My cabin has a Juliette balcony, a supremely comfortable bed, an enormous bathroom and a walk-in closet.
Orcaella has 25 cabins and a modern restaurant decorated with traditional antiques and musical instruments.
The observation deck has a gym, two treatment studios, a pool and bars with leather sofas and chairs. The reception area is on the lower level.
Our Thai chef serves exquisite Burmese, Thai and Indian food and there is a buffet every morning and lunch with tea in the afternoon, plus an a la carte menu for dinner. A barbecue evening takes place on the pool deck.
As we are in a part of the world that promotes well-being, yoga classes are offered every morning and tai chi is taught every afternoon.
A Burmese language lesson is well received by guests, as is an intricate marionette performance.
All guests are invited to a cookery demonstration where there is a bake-off style competition to see who can make the best green tea salad.
The journey is slow due to the unpredictable nature of currents and sandbanks. The riverbanks have turned to sand, too, as we reach the semi-arid mid-lands.
Green flora has disappeared, cliffs are often punctuated with pagodas and single huts dot the shore, with men and women fishing and tending meagre crops.
Against a backdrop of obvious change, Myanmar is still deeply steeped in tradition and religion. Youngsters sign up to be novices, shave their heads and wear the monk’s robes in a celebration of Buddhism. Many do it for a few days, while some stay on to study the ancient Pali language and the texts of Buddha, becoming monks for life.
A stop to visit the two-century-old fort of Gwee-chaung is another case in point. The village near the fortress has electricity, but land is still farmed by oxen.
As the Orcaella docks, we are greeted by the bleats of goats being herded along the shore. Our small group disembarks to find that an oxen cart is our transport to the 19th century fort – an authentic experience, if a bit bumpy. Strolling along the battlements of the fortress with a unique view of the river as the sun sets is our reward for this minor discomfort.
Another port of call, Pyay, has 2,000-year-old cylindrical stone stupas in Sri Khestra, the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shwe-san-daw Pagoda, in this important trading city, is impressive for its smiling 10-storey, seated Buddha.
Orcaella’s final destination, Bagan, experienced a remarkable cultural flowering from the 11th to the 13th centuries.
It is a virtual forest of pagodas, temples and stupas, built for worship and to honour the dead. After a significant earthquake in 1975, thousands of these structures were lost but nearly 2,500 remain.
A horse-drawn carriage ride through the old archaeological site, weaving in and out of these treasures in the early morning, is an evocative start to the day.
Twenty years ago, Belmond operated river cruises here and the company’s Road to Mandalay ship was destroyed during the 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
As our tiny band watches the sun descend over the valley of temples, with the pyramid shaped Dhammayangyi temple in the near distance, I count myself lucky that this intrepid little ship Orcaella, despite adversity, is still weaving her way around the waterways of such an incredible country.
Prices start from $4,336/£3,377 per person for the eight-night Jewels of the Ayeyarwady departure on October 20, 2017 from Yangon to Bagan. Price includes all meals, local wines and house beers and excursions as per itinerary. Internal flights from the ship to Bagan are in addition and can be booked through Belmond. Guests also have the option to stay at Belmond Governor’s Residence, in Yangon, pre and post cruise. Qatar Airways, Emirates and Thai Airways operate regular flights from London into Yangon. Visit belmond.com/orcaella-myanmar