Long before Myanmar (Burma) began to open up and feature on lists of hot tourist destinations, Road To Mandalay started cruising the Ayeyarwady in 1996. Built in Germany in 1964, this former Rhine cruiser is an elegant vessel that was extensively refurbished by luxury cruise company Belmond and brought to Myanmar on another ship. After being damaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the ship was refurbished again, and guest capacity reduced to 82 passengers to increase space and comfort.
Burma is undergoing rapid change, but infrastructure in much of the country is extremely basic, and overland travel -- especially in northern areas -- can be arduous. Visiting the trading town of Bhamo, nearly 300 miles north of Mandalay and just 50 miles from China, aboard Road To Mandalay is not only relaxing, but the facilities on the ship are far superior to anything available on land.
Overall décor is light and airy, complemented by antiques and local carvings. The Observation Deck is a comfortable and popular place to watch villages, pagodas and a variety of river craft -- there is shaded seating, and a small swimming pool with sunloungers.
That the ship is very comfortable is not really a surprise, this is to be expected from Belmond. The only surprise lies in the warmth of the crew, and how genuinely happy they seem to be on board. The atmosphere was one of gracious abundance that seemed to enhance a spirit of kindliness -- one passenger described the journey as a “spiritual experience”.
The excursions were varied and meticulously planned, whether riding elephants or visiting a remote village by train to be greeted by a band and local dancing girls. No one was ever more than about 15 minutes away from a snack, drink or chilled towelette, plus almost every day there was a little surprise in one form or another.
Road To Mandalay is more like a floating heritage boutique hotel than a big cruise liner. As passengers are relatively few, there is little or no queuing for anything and attention to detail cannot be faulted.
Generally those aboard were well-educated professionals interested in seeing Myanmar, who wanted to travel the country in comfort. A number of those aboard particularly enjoyed both Burma and being on this particular ship; on an 11-day voyage to the northern part of the country 20 per cent of the passengers had traveled on Road To Mandalay before, and one couple were doing this cruise for the seventh time.
The cruise is not specifically aimed at families, but several couples were traveling with teenagers. The youngest passenger turned 3 on the cruise, and the oldest was 90. There was a mix of ages, but the group was predominantly lively over 50s. By nationality, the largest representations were from the UK and Australia, but there were also Germans and Russians (they had their own guides). Some travelers were solo, many in pairs and a few in small groups.
Burma is a tropical country so the dress code is very relaxed, although covered shoulders and knees are recommended on excursions, particularly if visiting pagodas or temples. The Burmese are not formal people, but their style of dressing (and behavior generally) is quite conservative, as dictated by their strong faith in Buddhism and respect for each other. Shoes suitable for walking in warm conditions are recommended, especially those that can be easily removed as footwear is not allowed at religious sites. Umbrellas are supplied, but the fair-skinned might want to bring a sunhat. Passengers generally dressed a bit smarter for dinner aboard ship, and for the cocktail parties held on board, but no specific evening wardrobe was necessary. Men are not required to wear ties. The atmosphere is refined but informal.