There is the slightest of reverberations up through the wooden deck and the captain, resplendent in his all-white tropical uniform and peaked cap, leans out over the port railings to ensure that the departure is going without a hitch.
Two shaven-headed nuns in flowing pink robes continue to amble along the muddy bank and a group of women barely look up from the smooth stones where they are beating the soap bubbles out of the morning washing and letting it float away on the eddies of the Irrawaddy River.
Gently, the three-storied RV Orient Pandaw turns with the current and edges away from its overnight mooring at Sagaing, an important center for Buddhist belief and meditation in central Myanmar, and home to more than 5,000 monks and nuns in some 1,000 sanctuaries.
On the opposite bank is the city of Mandalay, made most famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “The Road to Mandalay” and in which he paints of picture of “the old flotilla” and “paddles chunkin’ ” up the river from the then-capital of Rangoon.
The RV Orient Pandaw was launched in part to resurrect the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and to tap into the fascination with Britain’s imperial history in this part of southern Asia, with every element of the luxurious, 60-berth vessel reeking of yesteryear.
The staterooms are floored and paneled in teak and have brass fittings. The meals are an impressive combination of local and international cuisine, the barman serves an excellent gin and tonic and Kipling – inevitably – can be found on the bookshelves in the bar.
The ship is also catering to the more modern desire to experience a country that is only now emerging from decades of relative isolation, yet has a reputation for stunning and unique sights and friendly people. And there is no better way to see that than by traveling along Kipling’s “road.”
A journey along the Irrawaddy is sublimely sedate. We are passed by smaller fishing craft and admire the golden stupas that stand proud of the jungle that runs down to the water. There are oxen in the fields and children in the communities alongside the river wave and call out as we pass.
History in Yandabo: treaty that ended first war
Yandabo is a typical village and the terracotta pottery that the locals make is a cause for a foray ashore. It also has an important footnote in history as the place where, in February 1826, Britain – represented by the East India Company – and Burma signed the treaty that ended the First Anglo-Burmese War.
Pandaw also sponsors a school in the village and the children give visitors a rousing version of the national anthem before rejoining their games of bare-foot football.
Back aboard, cocktail hour coincides with the ship passing the confluence of the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin River just before the velvety night descends.
The following day’s excursion is by tuk-tuk into the town of Pakokku for the morning market, where everything from local fruit to spices, gold, conical coconut-leaf hats and thanaka – the off-white powder from tree bark that is considered the secret of Myanmarese women’s beauty – are available.
Further downstream is Tan Kyi Taung mountain, which we ascend in a wheezing minibus. From the peak, which is dominated by the gleaming gold stupa, the views up and down the river are stunning, while the structures of the ancient capital of Bagan can be seen on the other bank of the river.
Exploring the temples of Bagan
After a visit to the small town of Sale, with its temples, a teak monastery built on stilts and yet more throwbacks to the time of empire in the shape of colonial homes and official buildings, the final days are spent exploring Bagan. This was the capital from 1044 until 1287, but was famously sacked – briefly – by Mongol hordes. It has so many temples and stupa that guidebooks cannot agree on how many there are.
Traditional puppets hang from the lowest boughs of trees for the tourists. The stone floors inside the temples are cool on naked feet. The darker ochres of frescoes on interior walls can still be picked out, hundreds of years after they were first painted. Children chant religious texts in a monastery school.
A favorite way of ending a day exploring Bagan is to climb to the top of one of the pagodas and enjoy the colors of the evening sky as the sun sinks behind the encircling hills. Memorable, no doubt, but so is the view from the upper deck with a chilled gin-and-tonic in hand.