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Rediscovering The Road to Mandalay: Cruising the Irrawaddy River

Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell wrote extensively of Burma’s colonial past. Its complicated present amid magnificent temples, life-sustaining rivers and 135 distinct ethnic groups make traveling in this Buddhist-majority country unforgettable.

A COMPLEX PAST
Burma — now also known as Myanmar — achieved its independence from Britain in 1948. However, it has hardly been smooth sailing since. In 1988, Aung San Su Kyi, known in Burma as “The Lady,” became head of the National League of Democracy. She then spent the next two decades mostly under house arrest, before receiving a Nobel Prize and finally becoming State Counselor following the NLD’s 2015 landslide victory.

The political road for The Lady has been rocky, reflective of an increasingly delicate dance with the still powerful military. In 2011, travelers began trickling in with 300,000 visitors, increasing to 4.7 million by 2015, but decreasing to 2.9 million by 2016. This fragile foxtrot has been exacerbated by the August 2017 Rohingya rebel attack on the military in Burma’s western most Rakhine state, followed by allegations of military ethnic cleansing. In Burma, one thing is crystal clear: reality is both complicated and multifaceted.

Long inspired by writers’ depictions and intrepid travelers, it was time to see if the Burma of my literary dreams was matched by Myanmar today.

A handful of the several thousand stupas in Bagan. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

MANDALAY: BURMA’S SECOND-LARGEST CITY
The Mandalay Hill Resort’s central location made seeing the city’s sites a snap. Climbing the watchtower at the 1990s reconstruction of the Royal Palace provided a good view of the city and the 40 timber buildings resembling the original 1850s structures. Some interesting period furnishings salvaged from King Mindon’s period are in the small, attached museum, along with some old photos of the royals.

Unlike most Burmese monasteries, Mandalay’s Golden Palace Monastery is not gold at all, but covered in a cornucopia of intricately detailed teak carvings. Nearby, Kuthodaw Pagoda’s 729 inscribed, massive marble slabs, each in its own stupa, or temple, comprise the entirety of Buddhist scriptures. When King Mindon assembled 2,400 monks in 1871, it took them six months of continuous relay reading to complete and since been dubbed the world’s biggest book.

Driving 45 minutes to the launch, I boarded the RV Kalaw Pandaw riverboat to begin a seven-day “downstream” journey on the Irrawaddy. This all-important 1,200-mile waterway was Kipling’s “road” to Mandalay.

Built in 2014, Pandaw’s 187-foot riverboat is punctuated by spotlessly maintained, gleaming hardwood floors. Its 18 en-suite, air-conditioned staterooms have deliriously comfortable bedding, good-size marble countered bathrooms with large showers, built-in nightstands, vanity desk, generous closet space, and happily, plenty of outlets. The riverboat has a large, open deck stern for outdoor dining, a mid-ship indoor bar and another furnished aft outdoor deck to take in abundant riverside village life. This Pandaw ship felt less like a boat and more like a very nice house that happened to travel on a winding waterway.

On my sailing, there were just 17 passengers, a remarkably cohesive group comprised of British, Canadians and Australians. Beautifully prepared Burmese and western meals were served at three tables of six, and by the end of the trip, with lives, stories and experiences shared during the week, we parted as friends. Most remarkable, the Pandaw staff shared the well-known and heartfelt Burmese hospitality. With a crew of 20, passengers were all continuously treated like favored relatives.

School girls adorned with Thanaka, a paste made from ground sandalwood. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

RIVERSIDE VILLAGES OF MINGUN, SAGAING AND AMARAPURA
Mingun is known mostly for what would have been the world’s largest stupa had it been finished. But construction ceased when King Bodawphaya died in 1819. Only its one-third base was completed and, following the 1838 earthquake, is often called the world’s largest pile of bricks.

Built for the beloved wife of Bodawphaya’s successor, Prince Bagyyidaw, is the all white Hsinbyume stupa. Its impressive wavy architecture represents Mt. Meru’s seven mountain ranges and is locally known as the Burmese Taj Mahal.

Once the capital of an independent Shan kingdom, Sagaing village is now a meditation training center with more than 5,000 monks and nuns studying in the area. Great Irrawaddy views beckoned from atop the 14th century Soon-U-Ponnya-Shin pagoda, though the added, neon-lit halos around Buddha’s head were bizarre.

Amarapura, Burma’s penultimate royal capital, is home to the world’s longest teak footbridge over shallow Taungthaman Lake, and is one of Burma’s most photographed sites. Built in 1849 it’s 1,300 yards long with over 1,000 teak posts. As the ball-of-fire sun slid silently into the horizon, three Pandaw crewmembers paddled alongside the four-seat Burmese-style gondola in which I was seated and handed us ice-cold Campari cocktails. Rudyard would’ve surely swooned in scheming satisfaction.

My stateroom aboard the RV Kalaw Pandaw. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

RIVERSIDE VILLAGES OF YANDABO, PAKOKKU AND SALAY
The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo — ending the first Anglo-Burmese War — was signed in this tiny riverside village. Here about 1,500 people, mainly terracotta potters and subsistence farmers, reside in elevated, bamboo-thatched houses. Women went about their day miraculously balancing atop their heads enormous, stainless bowls containing kilos of rice and vegetables. While visiting Yandabo’s simple primary school, one of Pandaw’s passengers entertained students with hilarious, Aussie-accented Donald Duck imitations. Like paparazzi, the children crowded for his autograph when time to leave.

In the small town of Pakkoku, we boarded tuk-tuks, 150cc motorcycles with jerry-rigged attached six-seat rear carriages. Driving through fields dotted with conical-hatted farmers, we made our way to the lively town market known for its vegetables, especially onions, and Thanaka — a beige-colored, therapeutic paste of ground sandalwood bark that men and women routinely apply as facial adornment. It was here that monks started what became known as the Saffron Revolution. A misnomer since Burmese monks wear maroon and what was revolutionary was the attacks were seen abroad by smuggled video.

Another highlight was visiting the miniscule Thiri Village, home to two Pandaw crew members. A Pandaw steward’s mother invited us to her garden facing the family living area and plied us with tea and savory snacks and shared stories.

The ability to access these remote, off-the-beaten track villages inaccessible to even most intrepid travelers, coupled with onboard cultural lectures, made the Pandaw riverboat experience truly unparalleled.

An active religious village with over 50 monasteries for less than 10,000 residents, Salay has remnants of once gorgeous Burmese-Victorian architecture built when oil was discovered in the late 1800s. The river edge Salay House has a small upstairs museum with artifacts of the era and a lovely garden restaurant.

A taxi pulled by Brahman bulls in Mingun. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

THE BELLE OF THE BALL: BAGAN
A building boom until the late 13th century, more than 4,000 temples were built in this 26-square mile area. Boating into Bagan with its thousands of gold stupas is an extraordinarily ethereal sight. Despite Mongol invasions, earthquakes, and some questionable restorations, Bagan is breathtaking.

Some passengers opted for a sunrise balloon ride. After two days viewing a dozen temples with massive Buddhas, teak carvings, elaborate painted murals and some of the best sunsets on the planet, it was time to disembark.

I ended my own “Burmese Days” at Mt. Popa, where an enormous gold-gilded Buddhist prayer hall is precariously perched atop a 2,400 foot volcano. My guide in the area, who also guided author J.K. Rowling when she traveled in Burma, reiterated the lore that Popa inspired her Harry Potter writings.

Kipling was awestruck by Burma and described a nostalgic longing for Asia’s exoticism. He once said, “When I die I will be a Burman.” I’ll never know if Kipling’s post-mortem dream came true, but I would strongly suggest that it’s a far better plan to experience while alive the wonders along the Irrawaddy so as to best enjoy Burma/Myanmar’s many blessings.

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book, “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at julie@vagabondlawyer.com.

See “Three perfect days in Yangon” and “Burma’s Inle Lake” in upcoming editions of the San Francisco Examiner.

Julie L. Kessler
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Julie L. Kessler

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