The thawing of relations between Burma's military junta and the outside world, the release from house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a visit this month by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have all sparked renewed interest by international travellers in this isolated country.
One of the most popular and easiest ways to see this mysterious country, also known as Myanmar, is on the Orient-Express' luxury river cruise ship Road to Mandalay which has been sailing on Burma's Irrawaddy River for several years.
Road to Mandalay is a shallow-draught teak vessel that sails the 128 nautical miles between Bagan and Mandalay carrying 82 passengers.
On board, much time is spent watching passing river life that is a visual and sensual feast. Pagodas glow like burnished gold at dusk, villagers tend crops as dawn breaks, and Buddhist monks collect alms, usually rice folded in a banana leaf after being cooked in hollow bamboo, from the faithful.
Whenever Road to Mandalay ties up by the riverbank, women appear balancing baskets on their head, hoping for a sale of their dried fish, exotic fruits, or colourful flowers. Yoked oxen also arrive laden with produce while mischievous children jump into the warm river or play in the mud.
Passengers are surprised the Burmese people are so warm and friendly.
Road to Mandalay is not a large cruiser but its air-conditioned cabins include ensuite facilities with five-star service onboard. The restaurant is on the main deck beside a cosy piano bar, gift shop, and lounge while a lower deck has a spa and fitness area. The top observation deck has sun loungers around a small swimming pool, and a shaded area with wicker armchairs.
PLACES TO SEE
The Burmese city is also known as Yangon. It is in the south and has faded colonial buildings and Shwedagon Pagoda, dating back to the 15th century, which is one of Buddhism's holiest shrines housing eight of Buddha's hairs. Plated in gold, the building is decorated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and topaz.
Here, Burma's crafts are preserved by wood carvers, stone sculptors, gold leaf makers, even cheroot rollers, while the Golden Palace Monastery, the photogenic U Bein Bridge, and the giant seated Buddha covered in layers of gold leaf should not be missed. The nearby pagoda-studded hill at Sagaing is another impressive sight.
This World Heritage site has temples dating back to the 10th century and while the chanting monks with their reverberating bells have moved on, it retains a spiritual calm. An early- morning hot-air balloon ride over thousands of pagodas is an impressive visual feast.
A trading post close to the Chinese border, the daily market here attracts ethnic minorities wearing colourful costume. A local ferry sails overnight to Mandalay through jungle and steep rock gorges
Away from the Irrawaddy River, this is an essential side trip to see villages built on stilts over the lake, where fishermen row with one leg while balancing on a narrow boat to drop conical nets that trap passing fish.
Our 2012 Guide to Cruising:
VOYAGE WITH THE ANCIENTS
WE'RE WARMING TO RADIANCE
AMUSING YOUNG SEA ADVENTURERS
HIGH SEAS HOLIDAY HOT SPOTS
SET SAIL FOR A FUN RIO BEAT
MORE TO VALPARAISO THAN MEETS THE EYE
NO NEED TO PACK ‘JUST IN CASE’
Getting there: Thai Airways from Perth to Bangkok and on to Rangoon. See thaiairways.com.au
Visa: Required before arriving in Burma.
Stay: Governor's Residence, an atmospheric Orient-Express hotel in Rangoon. From here, it is a one-hour flight to Bagan to join the cruise.
Be aware: Mobile phone reception is rare in Burma, credit cards are not used, and there are no ATMs. Carry US dollars.
Souvenirs: Gold and silver jewellery, precious gems, fabrics, parasols of handmade paper, and Burmese lacquer ware.
The cruise: Three, four and seven-night itineraries between Bagan and Mandalay with a cruise to the northern town of Bhamo available a few times a year. See orient-express.com/cruises.