As I opened my curtain on the first day of cruising Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, two very curious oxen were peering at me from the river bank.
Another day, I awoke to the sound of a group of half a dozen children serenading us with a traditional Burmese song.
And every day there was a procession of hand-built boats loaded with logs, pottery or people heading up and down the muddy river that’s the heart of Myanmar.
Every time you step on your balcony of AMA Waterway’s new AmaPura there’s something utterly new and fascinating. You’re in the middle of traditional life that has barely changed in centuries on an Irrawaddy River cruise.
And life on board is remarkable as well.
The Rhythm of Days on the River
There’s a gentle pace of life in the traditional villages we’ll be visiting over the 10-day cruise from Yangon to Mandalay.
Every day, tours leave at 8 or 9 in the morning to get back to the ship in time for lunch and an afternoon at leisure to avoid the mid-day heat before heading out again in the late afternoon for a sunset tour.
The tours–sometimes three a day– are all included and you can do as many or as few as you wish. On this cruise, everyone on the ship was game for every outing. And there were some wonderful ones to be had, including home visits and market tours in remote villages, visits to crafts workshops and trips in tuk tuks or horse carts or row boats.
AmaPura’s total guest capacity is 48 and on this cruise there were a number of guests travelling alone, so there were even fewer on board. That made for plenty of space when we boarded the two full-sized buses available for tours.
On a number of our shore stops, travel was not by bus by but on foot. The ship pulls in to the river bank at places that may have only dirt paths to villages where the local people are as curious about us as we are of them.
Our tour escorts on the entire trip are Duli and Thomas, who both grew up in Myanmar and are experts in its history and culture. They’re well trained and keep the tours running on time.
Note though, that it’s important to be able bodied to get the full experience on an Irrawaddy cruise. There are no docks along the fast-flowing river and when the ship ties up, there’s a gangway lowered to shore. From there, it’s often an uphill climb on uneven ground to reach the river banks.
Life on Board
AmaPura is wider than the river cruise ships in Europe that have to be narrow enough to fit through locks. There is plenty of public space and the guest accommodations are generously sized by comparison to many river cruise ships I’ve sailed aboard.
Built in Myanmar from local materials, it features the most gorgeous tropical hard wood floors you’ll see anywhere. The trim is nautical and the furnishings are contemporary and comfortable. The bed is extremely comfortable, with the high-quality linens you expect from AMA Waterways.
Most of the accommodations have full private balconies, which is a great luxury with so much to see passing by on the shores. On this trip in mid-April it was actually too warm to be comfortable sitting outside in mid-day, when the temperature can top 100 degrees fahrenheit. But the ship’s big air conditioned lounge and the pool deck covered with a canopy also offered cool alternatives.
Bathrooms are large with ample-sized shower. They lack only a vanity or shelves around the sink for stashing toiletries. I would have also liked to find hooks or a clothes line in the bathroom to hang damp shirts to dry after steamy shore outings. My wife and I used the chairs on the balcony for drying, which while not the most aesthetic solution, worked like a charm in this hot, dry climate.
I found the closet space more compact than I expected considering this is a ship designed to do cruises in a very warm climate for as long as two weeks and there is no guest laundry–although the ship’s laundry service is prompt, immaculate and thorough. While the dress code on board is casual all the time, I found most of the men brought jackets to wear in the evening and the women always like to dress up a bit for dinner.
We’re in This Together
With such a small group interacting closely on shore outings, people bonded easily from the start of the cruise.
One regular topic of conversation was whether anyone was getting wi-fi on their laptops and smart phones. All too often the answer was no.
Although the internet on board Ama Pura is complimentary, the very rural areas we’re visiting have limited wi-fi bandwidth (although interestingly enough even in very remote villages a lot of the homes do sport satellite TV dishes). It means you probably can’t be as social as you’d like on social media during a cruise here, but we weren’t out of touch, either. I found the best time to check e-mail was in the early morning before anyone else was using trying to share the limited bandwidth.
While the ship has modern computerized navigational equipment, it was intriguing to see the crew using classic depth sounding methods on the fast-flowing river which has constantly changing water depths. Just like Mark Twain described in his early days of boating on the Mississippi, there’s someone on deck to regularly test the water depth with a long pole marked with a safe water line to make sure the ship is in the channel.
In other ways, we were at the cutting edge. By contrast to the local transport buses, many of which are decades old, we have new air-conditioned coaches for our transportation.
The Tastes of Burma
Menus included daily opportunities to sample Burmese cuisine, which is influenced by the curries and spices of India and the sauces and noodles of China, along with local ingredients of the many ethnic regions within the country. The salads are made with fresh local vegetables, mangoes and papayas. Fish and prawns are staples, as are chicken and beef curries.
Of course there are always western dishes and steaks and chops on the menu for the less adventurous. I felt sorry for one of the passengers who claimed to be allergic to both onion and garlic, as one of the best treats on the menu was garlic fried potatoes.
The chefs are all local and the ones on this trip have worked in hotels in Yangon or Mandalay and have a delicate touch with spices.
The presentations were also remarkably artistic; each entrée was as stylish as an impressionist artwork on its plate.
Into the Night
In the evenings, scenic sunsets were framed by fantasy landscapes The tours often got us back to the ship just in time for a quick change for the happy hour in the lounge with complimentary drinks and then down to dinner.
Considering the pace of activities by day, it was remarkable how many of the guests continued the evening in the lounge after dinner. On the first few days of the cruise it seemed like the entertainment might consist of travelogues and documentaries of Myanmar. But the pace picked up when a resident musician returned to the ship after a couple of days of shore leave. Even though he’d never been out of the country, he was an expert in pop music from The Beatles right through Hip Hop.
Several nights we stayed docked so that local musicians and traditional entertainments such as a puppet show could come on board.
One of the unexpected treats on this cruise is how talented the crew were. On the crew talent night I expected a bunch of shy guys doing karaoke, but instead we were treated to original guitar renditions of songs they’ve written, and choruses of a dozen voices singing anthems and medleys of Country and Western hits.
I’m not sure which came first: the twanging guitar riffs of American country music or Burmese folk songs, which seem to have a lot in common with them. All I know is that Burma has been around a whole lot longer.