Visiting Myanmar, also known as Burma, is like taking a journey back in time; pictures just don't do this fascinating country justice. While major cities, such as Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, are vibrant and bustling, much of the nation still lacks basics like running water and electricity. Small villages dot the shores of the Irrawaddy River, relying on the 1,300-plus-mile waterway for subsistence. Farmers and fishmongers are common sights, and dirt roads and thatched houses are the norm. Yet, on the heels of historic elections in late 2015, which effectively ended 50 years of military rule, you can't help but feel the country is on the verge of change.
An Irrawaddy River cruise might just be the best way to reach otherwise untouchable villages and destinations. Cruise Critic sailed with Avalon Waterways on a condensed 10-day version of its typical cruise to the northern reaches of the river. (The company usually offers journeys from 14 to 19 days.) Avalon Myanmar, a three-deck riverboat, is purpose built for the Irrawaddy and visits larger cities, as well as tiny villages.
Click through our Myanmar pictures to follow our Avalon Waterways Irrawaddy River cruise.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor
A cruise on Avalon Myanmar includes a pre- and post-cruise stay in Yangon, the country's capital. A city of more than 5 million, Yangon blends tradition and modernity at virtually every turn. Our day in Yangon included a guided tour of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old religious site that is home to hundreds of temples, shrines and statues of Buddha. The pagoda is a study in contrasts: Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Asia, yet gold leaf and jewels adorn the structures -- donations from Buddhists seeking prosperity in their next life.
Each cruise is assigned a local guide who stays with the group from Yangon all the way through the cruise. Passengers come to know the guide well and rely on him or her to answer questions, provide history and facts, and serve as an interpreter for interactions with residents. Our guide was "Dorothy," who selected this easy-to-pronounce Western name because of her love of "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy also gave onboard lectures about a variety of topics, such as typical Burmese dress and traditions.
Our itinerary on Avalon Myanmar started in the village of Bhamo, a short chartered flight from Yangon, and finished in Bagan, sailing north to south. (Avalon also offers the reverse journey, from south to north.) Soon after we left Bhamo, we sailed through the Second Defile, arguably the most scenic spot on the river. This is where the Irrawaddy narrows and cliffs jut from the banks. We spotted stupas and shrines, as well as the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.
Fishing is a way of life on the Irrawaddy, where fishermen are up early casting nets for the day. The river also serves as a bustling highway, with boats moving goods from village to village. The river is quite shallow, and sand bars move with the current, so boats are flat-bottomed and have little draft. Avalon Myanmar has a 6-foot draft, and it's not unusual for the boat to get temporarily hung up on a sandbar. It's part of the adventure and quickly remedied, thanks to skillful maneuvering by the captain.
Most of the crew (including the captain) aboard Avalon Myanmar are from Burma. While English isn't their first language, service always comes with a smile. After a day in port, passengers are treated to cool washcloths and fresh juices. Thirty-one crew members provide service to the 36 passengers onboard.
All cabins onboard Avalon Myanmar are identical to one another. They feature lots of dark wood and hand carvings. All Avalon boats position their beds so they face the windows. On Avalon Myanmar, the company has added a screen to keep out bugs, which thrive in the warm Southeast Asia climate. Cabins are each 245 square feet and include a seating area, mini-bar, desk/vanity and beautiful tiled bathroom with a large walk-in shower.
While river cruise boats in Europe typically sail at night and dock at piers, this isn't the case on the Irrawaddy, where infrastructure doesn't support traditional docks. Instead, Avalon Myanmar anchors on jetties, tying ropes securely to trees to keep the boat in place. All of the travel on the river is done during the day; at night, it's too dark for the captain to safely traverse the shallow waters.
All excursions are included with the cruise fare on Avalon Myanmar, and many of them involve meeting with residents. In the village of Kyun Daw, we visited a school where the children were as fascinated by us as we were with them. The students, roughly from kindergarten age to fifth grade, told us (through our guide) what they hoped to be when they grew up; teachers and doctors topped the lists. They also performed songs -- and passengers returned the favor, singing "I'm a Little Teapot" and "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."
In Myanmar, markets are a necessity. In many villages, there is no electricity or refrigeration, so residents visit the markets twice a day for fresh ingredients. Markets, like this one in Katha, are always busy, and you can purchase virtually anything, including fish, poultry, rice, household goods, toys and fresh flowers. You won't find prices on anything, so expect to barter if you're interested in purchasing items.
Cuisine onboard Avalon Myanmar combines Western and traditional Burmese dishes. Burmese foods are heavy on rice, fish sauce, coconut and peanuts, and onboard, you have the option of spicing them to your taste. The chef on our cruise gave a clinic on how to make two Burmese staples: ginger salad and green tea leaf salad. He also handed out recipes so we could try to reproduce them at home.
About 80 percent of the people in Myanmar practice Buddhism, according to a 2010 Pew Research study. Every male who practices Buddhism is required to be a monk at some point in his life, so you'll see monks wearing maroon robes all over the country. Monks eat only two meals a day, and they can only eat food donated to them. Crew members of Avalon Myanmar provided alms for the monks early in the morning on our visit to Katha. Later, in Kya Hnyat, passengers provided alms (supplied by the cruise line).
The U Bein Bridge in Amarapura is almost a mile long. Originally built in 1783, the bridge is made from teak wood, which is indigenous to Myanmar. Locals use the bridge to cross Taungthaman Lake, where fishermen throw their nets all day long. At sunset, tourists walk the bridge and shoot photos of the iconic structure. Passengers from Avalon Myanmar enjoyed rides in sampan boats, rowed by locals, and took breathtaking pictures from the water.
Because ports in Myanmar don't have piers, crew members from Avalon Myanmar are always on the riverbanks to help passengers traverse terrain that might be uneven or require a relatively steep uphill climb. When it's sunny (or rainy), crew hold umbrellas to keep passengers comfortable.
The final stop of our cruise was the city of Bagan, which served as the capital of Burma from the ninth to 13th centuries. Myanmar -- and particularly Bagan -- is famous for its lacquerware, crafts made by hand by slicing bamboo into strips, then coiling it and covering it in layers of lacquer. Here, an artisan peels the bamboo into even strips using his hands and feet. (It's no easy task. Passengers were given an opportunity to try it, and most failed miserably.)
After the lacquer has been applied to the pieces, artists apply paint, eggshells or gold leaf. Gold leaf is used virtually everywhere in Myanmar, from artwork and temples to jewelry. Here, a woman applies the finishing touches to a lacquerware Buddha statue. A piece like this would sell for several hundred dollars, but smaller pieces (and those that don't have gold leaf) can be purchased for just a few dollars. In markets, expect to haggle for the best deals.
We finished our Avalon Myanmar cruise from atop Pyathadar, one of about 2,300 religious monuments in Bagan, which once had more than 13,000 temples, stupas and pagodas. Our sunset view was breathtakingly expansive. Viewing Bagan and its religious structures when the sun goes down is a popular draw for tourists staying in the city, and we shared our experience with plenty of others from all over the world, but it didn't feel overcrowded.