Luxury cruising no the infamous Ayeryarwady River in Myanmar is given a contemporary twist on The Strand Cruise, a river cruiser and floating resort, a sister experience to the storied The Strand Hotel in the country’s capital, Yangon.
The Ayeryarwady has become somewhat of a floating highway of late, with river cruise lines, big and small, luxury and mainstream, operating the route between Bagan and Mandalay and back again. But there are a handful of small, luxury operators that that cater to discerning travellers. The Strand Cruise is one of them, onboard a majestic and modern river cruiser, a beautifully designed 61m craft, created to carry just 50 passengers in 25 cabins.
Our cabin was remarkably spacious, decorated in a historical style, much in line with the sister hotel in Yangon but, of course, compensating for the fact that we were on a boat. Yet, it was extremely comfortable, with everything you’d expect from a hotel room, including a sumptuous king bed. The interior design took inspiration from the communities of the river and the natural beauty of the waterways was reflected in the colour palette – leafy greens, warm teak and gold leaf. Our cabin suite also featured a floor-to-ceiling window with juliet balcony, perfect for watching the world go by.
The rest of the Strand Cruise ship was also gorgeously appointed. A showcase staircase separated three floors. On the upper deck was the sprawling Sarkies Bar, a lounge-like, brown-leather space that brought out the raconteurs in us, a perfect place to socialise and swap stories with other adventurers. The bar led out to the terrace and pool deck, where we spent most of our time between shore excursions, topping up our tans, reading and doing absolutely nothing – with a glass of something alcoholic in hand – watching the sunsets, the life on the river and thousands of temples and pagodas pass us by. On the middle floor was the dining room and curated boutique, as well as a small spa. Downstairs, we even found a well-equipped fitness centre, much to our amazement.
As the boat glided off on its journey, we got to know our crew, headed up by Neville, the Myanmarese cruise director. Service on board would proceed to be spot on throughout the journey, with a mainly French team supporting Neville – a cruise manager, a sommelier and the enigmatic Bilou, the entertainment-cum-excursion director – all in charge of passenger happiness. But the stars of the show were certainly the ever-smiling, super polite, ‘can’t do enough for you’ local team of butlers, servers, barmen, front-of-house staff and stewards, who ensured we never went hungry or, more importantly, thirsty and who fastidiously cleaned our shoes after every shore excursion and delivered them to our rooms in just minutes.
Our first lunch was the best meal of the entire journey, but that’s only because it was stellar. All our other meals were superb, too: each day a different cuisine – Thai, Mediterranean, French – was served up by the ship’s Thai head chef. But this, our first meal on the ship and an introduction to Burmese cuisine, was a thali-like feast of mouth-watering pickles, salads (collectively known as a thoke) and curries, demonstrating a perfect Chinese, Thai and Indian gastronomical fusion. Each meal on board was accompanied by a selection of wine, handpicked by the sommelier.
There’s something very special about the sunsets on this part of the Ayeyarwady, especially from a large sun lounger for two, aft of Rhe Strand Cruise vessel. The scene it creates has the power to stop you in your tracks, make you put down your book or drink and just watch. When the sun starts to dip, the sky turns into a spectacular light show of hues and it is as if the ship has been transported back in time, in slow motion, to an enchanted world of glistening gold pagodas, old bridges and bobbing boats. For all you hopeless romantics, it’s like love at first sight and it took our breath away. Out on the banks, scores of local people did exactly the same: they put down their work or washing or whatever they were doing at the time and watched, equally mesmerised. The Myanmarese love this time of day – they believe in demonstrating gratitude to the gods for the day just gone and praying for the promise of a brand new one. With the sun’s last rays firing up the horizon comes the realisation that tomorrow holds endless bounties and possibilities. And with this kind of beauty, albeit fleeting, tomorrow would certainly be special.