To travel to Myanmar is to travel back in time. The very first impression is that of locals dressed in longyis – a long sheet of cloth similar to a sarong – gathered at the airport in Mandalay to greet family and friends. The heat perseveres but the humidity is familiar. After all, Myanmar is Thailand’s sister in physical climate, but that is where the similarities end.
Myanmar is Thailand as it once was – 50 odd years ago. The physical landscape is scattered with golden pagodas and temples – a clear representation of the myriad ethnic groups currently living in the country – and the Ayeyarwady River lends itself to the simple pleasure of travelling through the country with ease.
As you step on board the Strand Cruise, you are immediately offered a cold towel to refresh from the soaring heat. This simple act of hospitality ultimately sets the tone for the rest of the journey.
The luxury cruiser is one of the most comfortable ways to experience the rich cultural heritage of Myanmar, while simultaneously enjoying premium dining and services. Inaugurated in early 2016 as an add-on of the iconic Strand Hotel in Yangon, which boasts a heritage that extends all the way back to the colonial period. In his 1911 Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon, author John Murray called the Strand Hotel “the finest hostelry East of Suez”. That same dedication to style, quality and personalised service is now being offered on the luxury cruiser.
The spacious pool on the top deck offers panoramic views of the Ayeyarwady River as you journey from one destination to the next, but it is early evening that truly holds the promise of something magnificent. A sunset over the Ayeyarwady River is a memory that is imprinted in your mind forever – without any high-rise buildings to obscure the kaleidoscope of colours or constant murmur of city life to drown out the silence – as the sun descends beyond the horizon.
There are four types of cabins to choose from: Deluxe Cabin, Strand Cabin, State Suite and the Strand Suite. Each is decorated in cream and pale green furnishings with upholstery fabrics of exotic foliage. Light teakwood flooring provides contrast for the darker woods of furniture, while framed pictures of moments in Burmese history adorn the walls.
In spite of the contemporary comforts of the cabin, there is enough traditional Burmese aesthetics to ensconce you in the country’s rich culture. A set of French doors leads out onto a tiny balcony, from where you can drink in the fresh air while letting your gaze slip over the lush rural landscape.
On-board chefs are not only skilled in creating exquisite international favourites – from pan-fried scallops to slow-cooked spare ribs – but also to capture the traditional flavours of Burmese food, such as a pickled tea leaf salad called Laphet Thohk. The salad is an acquired taste that is simultaneously bitter and sour.
Among the services that can be enjoyed from the Strand Cruise are personalised onshore tours to many of the country’s captivating and historical sites. At Sagaing, one of the most important religious areas in Myanmar, the Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda with its hillside location is a must-see, one of the oldest temples in the area. From here, never-ending vistas are on offer of the surrounding countryside, dotted by white, silver and gold pagodas and monasteries.
Home to the largest and densest concentration of religious and historical ruins – over 2,000 temples, pagodas and stupas dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries – Bagan is the star attraction that beckons a sense of wonder from even the most jaded traveller.
To visit these sites is awe-inspiring in itself, but to see them while travelling on a luxury boat like the Strand Cruise represents the kind of experience lifelong memories are made of.
Bangkok Airways Flights to Mandalay
Bangkok Airways flies nonstop from Suvarnabhumi International Airport to Mandalay International Airport once a day at 12:00. Additionally, they fly from Bangkok to Mandalay with a stopover in Chiang Mai four times a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) at 08:00, 09:45 and 12:10.