On the Road to Mandalay
Who can forget these words from Rudyard Kipling? “Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay…Where the flyin’—fishes play.” Words like Burma and Mandalay conjure images of mystery and the distant, faraway past. As travel to this part of the world is long, the time has to be well spent and memorable, so I chose unique and historic experiences in ancient Burma, now Myanmar, and Thailand, organized by another appropriate name, the Orient Express.
As Myanmar still remains largely an agrarian society, one sees the life of a more tranquil era: verdant rice fields, lumbering wooden ox carts, and everywhere gilded pagodas and alms-seeking monks. I arrived in the city of Yangon, in the past known as Rangoon, which is a pleasant, perhaps old-fashioned city of over 5 million people dating back more than 2,500 years and the gateway to cruise the spectacular Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. To understand the country, its history, and to feel its pulse, one must cruise this north to south mighty thoroughfare. My three-night cruise aboard the aptly named Road To Mandalay reveals life on the river and its riverbanks pulsating with life unchanged over the centuries. Passing river captains exchanging whistles, waving crews, sweating fishermen hauling their nets, floating bamboo rafts laden with teak logs, giggling children splashing in the swallows, noting the shifting sandbars of the river and studying the daily chores of the rural riverbank life—these were the fascinating and educational observations of each day while enjoying comfortable cabins and dining on fusion dishes of the region.
A particular treat—one night under the stars, the horizon filled with 1,000 lights which beckoned closer and closer until we were surrounded by floating illuminated candles celebrating the “Festival of Lights.” It was an amazing visual and task achieved by the locals to welcome us!
After departing the ship and a flight to Bangkok, Thailand, I was in a cosmopolitan, dazzling, and contradictory metropolis. After an overnight stay at the Mandarin Oriental along the Chao Phraya River, the evening’s entertainment was watching the fireworks over the constant hectic river traffic. The next morning, a flight took me to Chiang Mai, where I would once again step back in time into the mystique of the past. Remember perhaps the old movies about the classic Orient Express trains in Europe?
Legendary travel in bygone eras, Orient Express’ sister train, the Eastern and Oriental Express, runs various routes through the lush beauty of Southeast Asia. My particular trip was a four-day, three-night venture from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Imagine stepping aboard the signature green and silver carriages with paneled walls of teak, cherry, and rosewood. The train pulled over a dozen carriages, including two restaurants, a bar, a boutique, and ended with an observation car. All compartments are air-conditioned, have picture windows, and en suite showers. The meals were superb, coupled with sterling service and distinctive cutlery and glassware. While dining at night, my efficient and friendly steward transformed my compartment into a bedroom. During the day, we snaked and meandered in the colorful countryside, stopping periodically to mingle with Thailand’s friendly folk. Another surprise: When we stopped on a bridge at night over a river, we witnessed another “Festival of Lights” display. I did live the dream of the Golden Age of rail—wined and dined amid one of the world’s most captivating backdrops.
As Kipling wrote, “If you’ve ’eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.”
For more information, contact Helen Varri at Lake Forest Travel Bureau at 847-234-4940.
—Helen Varri of Lake Forest Travel Bureau