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Stories from our Travelers

Deep in the Waterways of Myanmar


A young village girl

A woman enjoys a hand-rolled cheroot

Umbrella in the rain
by Nicholas Walton

Skipping, laughing and leaping across puddles as wide as jacuzzis, the children seem completely unfazed by the torrential rain as they scamper through the tiny village of Sitthaung, a line of foreigners following in their wake. Water gleams off their little umbrellas and fluro-coloured ponchos as they wind their way across rice paddy dykes and around ambivalent water buffalo. The kids are obviously very excited; tourists are rather rare on the further reaches of this mighty waterway, especially here in tiny Sitthaung, a village of only 25 stilted thatch homes, but Orcaella, a new river cruiser operated by Orient-Express, is reaching further into Burma than ever before, making the most of the high water levels of the summer monsoon.

We’re in Sitthaung not so much as camera-toting tourists – though it’s ripe for fantastic photographic experiences as the children, with their dark, inquisitive eyes, beam for the cameras – but as part of Orcaella’s charity initiatives, which are designed to help the communities along the banks of the Chindwin. Sitthaung has changed little through Myanmar’s turbulent history; it’s a close knit community wreathed by emerald-hued rice paddies; on the top of a nearby knoll the village’s gilded stupa gleams in the early morning light.

The children continue under a canopy of ancient oak trees, leading us through the school’s tiny playground and into the shelter of the single class room, our ship moored just meters away on the river. Despite the rain, or perhaps because of it, the whole scene is idyllic, as if we’ve stepped back in time.

The Orcaella is a great way to explore far beyond Myanmar’s fledging tourist pale. The release of political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and slow but steady reform has encouraged travellers to once again visit cities like Mandalay and Bagan. Orient-Express was operating in Burma well before it became trendy again, sailing its iconic Road to Mandalay river cruiser between Mandalay and Bagan on the Irrawaddy River. Now the Orcaella, with its shorter length and shallower draft, can venture even further from the beaten path, including the 1,600km up to Homalin in the northwest and down to the temple plains of Bagan.

However, just because you’re travelling where few tourists have ventured, doesn’t mean you can’t do so in comfort. Orcaella boasts just 25 luxurious cabins spread across three decks. Each features full height French doors allowing the warmth of evenings on the river into the air conditioned confines of the ship. The dining room is dressed in warm, regal tones, with Asian art adorning walls and comfortable chairs lining dining tables. On the upper level there is an elegant cocktail lounge and library, as well as an outdoor plunge pool lined by sun loungers on the forward deck, and another open air lounge and cocktail bar aft.

In the shelter of the school house, staff from the Orcaella hand out steaming cups of tea and snacks to villagers and guests alike as a gang of elders and local militia leaders crowd round boxes of Chinese-made solar panels; we have the humbling opportunity to donate to the village Sitthaung’s first electric light bulb and there is as much bemusement as there is curiosity in the eyes of the officials as two bulbs are powered up, casting white light across the dark school room and the weathered faces of the men. The smallest children crowd around the bulbs like little moths drawn to a flame, their hands reaching out to the energy-saving bulbs while behind, their mothers smoke hand-rolled cheroots and gossip.

Speeches completed, photos posed for and with the rain still falling outside, we make our way back to the ship, the same troop of tiny children following alongside, gazing up at the towering Orcaella as we board, throw off the lines and rumble our way into the current of the Chindwin.

Many travellers look to not only learn and experience on the road, but to also make a connection and we all feel privileged to have been able to bring a little light to the beautiful people of Sitthaung.

If You Go
Cathay Pacific has direct flights between Hong Kong and Los Angeles,
San Francisco and New York, www.cathaypacific.com. From Hong Kong sister airline Dragonair has direct flights to Yangon, www.dragonair.com. Orient-Express operates both the Orcaella and the Road to Mandalay on a range of river itineraries. Fares include all meals, excursions and domestic flights, www.orient-express.com.

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