The natural blessings bestowed on this land are no better appreciated than from above. This particular morning, the sun is just beginning to creep around the horizon, turning the dense blackness of the night into the milky blue of dawn. It is in this light that the hot–air balloons, graceful titans of the skies, show their true colour – a deep rich burgundy – their mass created by powerful jets throwing out searing hot flames which lift their silk envelopes, billowing gently like the robes of the local Buddhist monks with which they share their colour. The balloons take off, having been carefully positioned to provide the best possible view of Bagan’s jaw-droppingly beautiful temple region from the sky.
The next 40 minutes are undeniably one of the most magical experiences of my life. The sensation of floating weightlessly over the most unreal of time-forgotten dreamscapes, peppered with Buddhist pagodas, wrapped in mist and barely touched by the early morning light, will stay with me for the rest of my days. I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve seen some amazing things, but even I had to stifle a tear at the beauty of the moment. I wasn’t alone. Each member of the group, including our pilot, recounts their sense of wonder and privilege the experience gave them. “How do you like my office?” he jokes, clearly high on the adrenaline rush that his job gives him. “You could never get bored of this,” he quickly adds, and I can only respond with a nod of agreement.
With so much money involved in Myanmar’s natural resources, the stakes are high. The unspoilt natural beauty, the traditional methods of farming and the subsequent rural population that supports it will inevitably change. It’s currently a place where one can still see farmers transporting hand-cut crops in oxen-drawn wooden carts, or straw-hatted fishermen casting individual nets all set against National Geographic– worthy, photogenic scenery: paddy-fields and gently flowing rivers where you can cruise leisurely past endless, golden pagodas. All of these are the guaranteed sights from the deck of Belmond’s ‘Road To Mandalay’ river cruiser which has become synonymous with the Ayeyarwady river. For almost 20 years, it has graced the leisurely, calm waters between Bagan and Mandalay while its younger sister ship, the Orcaella, winds its own way along the no less stunning Chindwin River.
“It may be of interest to note that Belmond ships deliver essential medical supplies and free clinics to the communities along their routes.”
For those who may still question the ethics of travelling to and in Myanmar – the opposition called for tourists to boycott the country in the 1990s to stem the tide of money going into the government’s coffers, a plea largely observed by the international community until 2011 – then it may be of interest to note that both Belmond ships deliver essential medical supplies and free clinics to the communities along their routes. Dr. Hla Tun, the ship’s doctor, comes from a humanitarian background, having himself set-up free emergency clinics(in the absence of any governmental support) to relieve the suffering of South Western rural populations following the catastrophic floods of 2008. The doctors’ time is paid for by the company whilst all the medical supplies and building materials for clinics and schools are donated by Belmond’s guests. Over the time that the company has been running these cruises, their sense of social responsibility has grown to become fundamental to the operation, and crew – many of whom are from the local area – making the sight of this majestic vessel on the horizon both meaningful and welcome to the local populations. Families are reunited and community ties cemented, children are provided with what would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive stationery and people travel for days to receive medical attention. Of course, one might also question the morality of taking a luxury cruise in a country with so many socio-economic issues and this should of course always be a personal decision.
Nevertheless, I found it humbling to witness the clear and unwavering commitment to the wellbeing of the people along the river by the Belmond staff, proving that their hearts are as big as their beaming smiles. That’s not to say that they are any less attentive to the needs of their guests. Every whim is catered for and the facilities for a relatively compact boat are extensive. The ship comes complete with a spa, gym, decktop pool, two cocktail bars and an excellent restaurant. The service, as you would expect from Belmond, is exemplary, characterised by the welcome sight of a cold towel and refreshing cool drink, lovingly presented to you each and every time you return to the ship following an excursion to yet another amazing sight, be that cycling through the countryside to visit ancient temples, taking a gondola to witness the sun setting on the U Bein Bridge, a glass of champagne in hand, or simply getting up early to watch the staff present alms to the monks outside the monastery at Mandalay. Each carefully planned excursion offered something different and spectacular, leaving me in awe and instilling in me the desire to return to this place. I felt an even greater desire to see the country get back on its feet economically and politically, and exorcise the demons of its tumultuous past.
Myanmar may not be a perfect country politically, but it does have the potential to make a real step-change, albeit in its own peculiar way. And I hope that this new dawn brings with it the light of fairness worthy of its undeniable beauty and richness. Martin was the guest of Belmond.
Photography by Martin Perry and Yves Alarie (via Unsplash)
Get out there
… wake up and get high. A dawn balloon ride over the stunning temple region of Bagan is one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things you can do. Weather permitting, you’ll get an amazing view and everlasting memories.
… ditch the shorts and get yourself a longyi, the traditional Burmese wrap–around, sarong– style garment. It’s so adaptable you can even turn it into an elephant to amuse local kids.
… get yourself some Thanaka. This traditional Burmese bark, scraped over a wet stone produces a yellow, creamy, completely natural sunscreen. Rubbing wood on your face has never been so beneficial.
… forget to bring a decent camera and stock up on memory cards. Myanmar has to be one of the most photogenic places on the planet. Every turn reveals a new Kodak moment.
… rock with up funny-looking cash. Local businesses in Myanmar don’t like to take crumpled notes. So stock up on plenty of crisp bank–fresh US Dollars and a decent sized wallet to keep them in pristine condition, which is surprisingly hard to do.
… overstay your visa. The small fees for overstaying might tempt you, but remember hotels can get in serious trouble for providing accommodation to travellers unwilling to leave the country on time.
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