It was my second time in Bagan, and I was thrilled to revisit this magical place which is one of the places I visited as a solo traveller years ago. Bagan is truly a picturesque town and photographer’s haven. This time, I’m back for my first river cruise experience at the historic Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River with The Strand Cruise for five days and four nights cruise from Bagan to Mandalay.
Upon arrival in Bagan Airport, we were greeted by the staff and cruise manager, Neville. Our journey started with a wide spread of delicious freshly baked bread, cold cuts, cheese, fresh juices and hot coffee for breakfast in the tranquil and shaded colourful gardens of the oldest lacquer factory in Bagan.
After enjoying our morning feast, we went to the factory to see how this traditional art of Lacquer painting has been practised since the 11th century. The enormous amount of effort and artistry in a single item was impressive.
A short drive in hot weather, we visited the nearby Shwezigon Pagoda, a famous Burmese stupa decorated with gold leaves. The Strand Cruise staff lead by Bilou, the excursion manager, was very flexible towards their guests’ requests, so we had a short detour at the market for some shopping before we visited the Ananda temple, one of the four great temples which were built in 1105 AD.
We headed to the ship at noon; we were greeted and welcomed by genuine smiles of the crew. We were given sleepers before we entered the corridors and escorted directly to our suite.
We instantly fell in love to our suite. It has double beds, a huge closet, a reading/work desk, a decent shower room with luxurious toiletries and a generous floor to ceiling windows that opens up to feel the breeze gushing through as we sail. There’s no denying that we spent most of the time inside our suite since the weather in Myanmar is unforgivingly hot during the day. Thanks to the tablets provided with mobile data so we could use the internet throughout the cruise.
There was a planned activity in the afternoon which did not push through due all the guests preferred to stay on the ship and enjoy their suites. With the crew’s generous flexibility, I requested if I can visit an old friend in Bagan for a surprise reunion. With the help of our guide and my good sense of direction, we found the temple that we were looking for. We bought some sweets for the kids; Bilou showed some of his amazing magic tricks and everyone had a great time. I met Thiri during my first visit in 2012. She had been my tour guide and her family hosted a dinner for me at their shack beside the temple. It was a rewarding experience to express my gratitude for their kindness, and I’m really thankful to the crew for making this possible.
The daily routine for five days was to sail in the morning before breakfast, dock for an excursion, sail once again or remain at the dock during sunset since it was not allowed for the ship to cruise at night at the river. At the excursions, we visited all the must see places starting from the famous Sulamani and Gubyaukgyi in Bagan to the hidden gems of Ava. There were cultural and traditional puppet shows on the first two night after the delicious dinner.
We started sailing upstream towards Mandalay on the second day after catching Bagan’s glorious sunset. We headed to the restaurant to have breakfast while enjoying the view of the villages along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. The food was delicious, and there’s a huge variety, but I cannot let the local flavours passed so I had a Mohinga (rice noodle and fish soup) for my breakfast.
The sundeck is managed by a bar crew, so we always get our cold drinks while enjoying the sun and a dip in the swimming pool. I also managed to visit the gym once to burn some calories. There’s also a spa with two onboard masseurs offering different treatments which I think is cheaper than the usual price of luxury hotels. A small shop was available to get some essentials and souvenirs from the Strand Cruise.
My favourite part of the day is the sunset, not only for the good lighting for photography but to sip on cold signature cocktails from Sarkies Bar.
The views were more stunning as we get close to Mandalay. Just before lunch on the third day, the crew prepared a Thanaka and Longyi demonstration. Thanaka was used by the locals for over 2000 years as a sunblock to protect their skin and Longyi is a traditional cloth worn for different purposes. It was a great and fun activity just before we start our delicious lunch followed by a cooking demonstration by the Chef. They shared the recipe in making the traditional tea leaf salad.
We docked and visited Mingun in the afternoon. Mingun was one of Myanmar’s former capitals, right at the foot of an unfinished pagoda. It’s among the largest Pagodas ever constructed in Myanmar’s history. The highlight of this place was the Paya Hsinbyume a white washed pagoda that rises in seven curved terraces representing the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru, the mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe.
Back in the ship before sunset. Aside from the fantastic cocktails, dinner was what we’ve always looked forward to. The dining experience at the cruise ship was great. They ensured not only that the food was delicious, but they didn’t repeat the menu and the dining style. My personal favourite was the Shan State-style dinner where we had samples of delicious local dishes, and the crew were wearing the traditional Shan clothing.
We finally reached Mandalay on our Fourth Day where we had a very early breakfast to make it to the food offering for the monks at their monastery. We were fortunate to experience this kind of luxury with the Strand Cruise and giving back to the community is truly a remarkable experience. After the short ceremony of food distribution to the monks, we wasted no time and went to U-Bein Bridge, a crossing that spans the Taungthaman Lake and believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world.
From the bridge, we continued the tour of Mandalay Heritage Trail by visiting the famous Mahamuni Buddha Temple. This magnificent image of Buddha was covered in the thick gold leaves which accumulated through the years by believers who were putting gold leaves at the image as a part of their sacred tradition. We also stopped by to visit theShwe In Bin Monastery before heading back to the Strand Cruise. It’s a beautiful monastery carved in teak wood. A good place to spend some quiet time and meditation.
It’s our last lunch at the cruise, and it has always been delightful. I always finished my meal with my favourite coconut Ice cream, yes I had it every day and the staff already know what I will be having for dessert. It’s the best coconut Ice cream I ever had in my life, creamy, refreshing and delicious.
Around mid-afternoon when the ship arrived in the ancient imperial capital of successive Burmese kingdoms, Ava. Of all the places we visited during the trip, this was my favourite. We were taken to these landmarks that seem to be untouched by commercial tourism yet through horse carts. We also had a short traditional Myanmar tea break in a local tea house with some delicious delicacies brought from the ship.
It seems that they saved the best for last. Our last dinner was a French-style dinner course where we had a dish famous for The Strand, a delicious lobster.
The last day was a quick early morning sail from Ava to Mandalay, passing through the beautiful scenery around Ayeyarwady river and for the last time, I woke up early to get the glimpse of the sunrise and feel the morning breeze as we slowly cruise on to our final dock.
The past four days has been an amazing and a sumptuous journey. Myanmar once again surprised me by its beauty. Our tummies were full, and our spirits were happy, though the weather is unforgivingly hot due to its warm season in Myanmar during our trip in April. The experience with the Strand Cruise has been amazing. Luxurious facilities, delicious food and excellent crews in a beautiful country, genuinely impressed and satisfied, I couldn’t ask for more.