Mystery cruise in Burma
AS we nose into a vast sandbank in the middle of the legendary Irrawaddy River, crew members scurry down the gangway carrying tables, chairs, planks, trestles and oil lamps.
No, it's cocktail party time for the 26 passengers on board Pandaw II, a splendid glistening timber and brass colonial-style riverboat (think gin and tonics at sunset), and this spot of indulgence is part of a seven-night cruise through the heart of Burma (Myanmar).
This mighty waterway, the nation's spiritual and cultural soul for centuries, flows south for nearly 2000km from its birthplace in the high Himalayas, dissecting Burma neatly down the middle to empty through a nine-pronged delta into the Andaman Sea.
At a tranquil spot near tiny Min Hla, 350km north of Rangoon (Yangon), scene of a minor skirmish in 1885 during the Anglo-Burmese war, we file ashore on to the blinding white sand for pre-dinner champagne and satay sticks.
In the distance, on this marvellous late afternoon, the spires of golden-tipped white pagodas shimmer through the haze from cooking fires in scattered riverbank villages.
As night falls, a canopy of stars drips from a black sky.
The river is silent on this day, with only an occasional fisherman in a canoe drifting past.
Nearly 100 years ago, in the glory days of the British Empire before the arrival of railways and motor vehicles, the Irrawaddy was a pulsing artery of commerce boasting 622 vessels carrying eight million passengers a year.
It was the largest privately-owned shallow-draft flotilla in the world. Rudyard Kipling immortalised the river in his poem and in song as the Road to Mandalay.
It all came to an end in 1942 when, as the Japanese Imperial Army marched on Burma, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company scuttled the entire fleet in a dramatic act of denial.
Today, under a harsh military regime that has brought international condemnation, the Irrawaddy, like Burma, is a different place, with a different agenda.
A few barges carry heavy machinery from China, loads of teak logs ripped from diminishing forests, trawlers hauling supplies for the thousands of villages along its path and the occasional tourist boat constitute most of the river traffic.
For the relatively few tourists who visit each year (less than 300,000 compared with 16.5 million to Thailand in 2010), Burma is a captivating destination.
There are breathtaking historical sites, hospitable people, a rural scene caught in a time warp, fine hotels and modern airports, tree-lined streets, parks and spectacular lakes.
It's safe, cheap, and with a brighter future since the release of National League for Democracy Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November.
Despite the presence of armed soldiers outside military installations and in a few public places, Burma's dark side is not obvious.
The average tourist moves freely and without fear on defined tourist tracks.
For all its political woes, Burma has a quirky side: cars are right-hand drive but drive on the right as in the US and Europe; motor cycles and scooters are banned in the capital, Rangoon (Yangon) to reduce noise pollution; and, in the small rice-trading village of Gyobingnuk you can contact long-departed relatives and friends by consulting a spirit whistler.
Our 11-day visit included three days in Rangoon (don't miss the 2500-year-old golden Shwedagon pagoda, the most sacred in Burma), then a fascinating 286km drive in a modern air-conditioned coach north to Prome to board Pandaw II for a seven-night leisurely cruise to Mandalay, covering a further 524 km.
The days and nights drifted by on the immaculate little ship attended by an overwhelmingly helpful crew in an unwinding tapestry of stupas and temples (3000 in Bagan alone), the crumbling, stunning architecture of former colonial showplaces, visits to famous forts and quaint townships, monasteries and schools, pony-cart rides and markets, a mountain climb in battered World War II jeeps, visits to a lacquer factory and a terracotta pot-makers' village, cooking demonstrations on board, the swirling mists of a dawn arrival into Mandalay, a glass of wine on the open top deck before dinner, cocktails in the saloon bar, sunny days and starry nights.
GOOD TO KNOW
Getting there: Thai Airways International direct to Bangkok then a 75-minute flight to Rangoon (Yangon). Also easily accessible via Singapore on Silk Air (2 hours 55 mins).
Cost: Prome to Mandalay (seven nights) from $2209 twin-share includes cruise, shore excursions, all meals on board, complimentary soft drinks, local beer and local spirits. Pre-cruise, add one night in Rangoon for $100 per person, includes accommodation, breakfast airport transfer, coach transfer to ship and a visit to Shwedagon pagoda.
Post-cruise, add $245, includes transfer from ship to Mandalay airport, flight from Mandalay to Rangoon, one night at the Chatrium with breakfast and transfer to Rangoon airport.
Other cruises: Pandaw (www.pandaw.com) offers cruising in similar colonial-style riverboats on the Mekong River also in Borneo and from 2012 in Laos.
Book: Contact Pandaw Cruises on (02) 80805622 or email firstname.lastname@example.org