No cognisant person can go to Myanmar without being mindful of its troubles that range from more than 50 years of oppressive and corrupt military rule, human rights atrocities, its blood jade trade to accusations of a Rohingya genocide. The country remains mired in ethnic conflict, and its fledgling government formed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is a long way from seeing true democratic rule, free from the constitutional veto power of the military. Yet, as I arrived at the new Yangon International Airport, I smelt a heady scent of optimism in the air, and the reason for it unfolded as I made my way from Bagan to Mandalay.

2,000 STUPAS
I was in Myanmar at the invitation of hospitality specialist Belmond as it celebrated 20 years of operation in the beautiful country that shares its border with Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. It is clear the company takes pride in curating exceptional travel experiences in Myanmar, inaugurating from the Governor’s Residence in Yangon, then proceeding on its cruisers, the Orcaella and the Road to Mandalay. It also operates the Eastern and Orient Express that runs across Southeast Asia, traversing Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

A bird's eye view of Bagan's stupa dotted plains
A bird’s eye view of Bagan’s stupa dotted plains

My journey with Belmond pushed off from Yangon to the old city of Bagan, beginning with a 360 view of the plains from the Nan Myint Tower. On the flatlands, the stupas of more than 2,000 ancient Buddhist monuments pointed steadfastly to the heavens, punctuated by lakes, bush, tidy plots of cultivated land and contently grazing oxen. It certainly helped me forget the traffic jams of Yangon at peak hour, brought on by the sudden availability of affordable automobiles and a young population that has flocked to the city in search of job opportunities. By stark contrast, my fellow travellers were racing in Bagan, first on electric buggies, which allowed for a closer to the ground feel of the land and its agricultural life. After a simple but tasty lunch in a village, we climbed onto dressed-up pony carts to continue the race through the stupa-studded plains towards Ananda temple, this time with aggressive souvenir vendors in hot pursuit.

A DEADLY TIME FOR ARCHITECTS
The most striking of Bagan’s shrines, the Ananda was built by King Kyansittha as a sanctuary for learning in the 11th century. To mimic the great mountain caves that visiting Indian monks talked about, it was given white stucco walls housing four massive gilded buddhas facing the main points of the compass. The monarch was delighted but sullied the temple’s auspices by executing the architect.

Getting back on the ship after the day’s excursions was welcome reprieve from the heat and dust. The vessel was built in Cologne, Germany, in 1964, and underwent a complete refurbishment before it was brought to the Ayeyarwady. Travellers can rest in classically furnished cabins, socialise at the cosy piano bar, dine elegantly at its restaurant or lounge by the pool on the top deck. It even has a spa for its guests to indulge in decadent pampering, and a boutique that draws attention to the traditional textiles, arts and crafts of Myanmar.

Everyone’s second favourite spot on the boat was the piano bar, not particularly for the cocktails although they were quite good, but because that’s where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest. This was a fairly recent phenomenon. Where travellers had to disconnect when they visited Myanmar just a few years ago, they now find themselves possibly being photographed as curiosities by local youth wielding smartphones.

Belmond's Road to Mandalay river cruiser
Belmond’s Road to Mandalay river cruiser

MAKING A POSITIVE IMPACT
That was the case on the afternoon of the Belmond Rally. The Belmond travellers were grouped into three teams, then dropped onto a remote village through which they had to race (once again) on local modes of transport, stopping at various stations where they had to perform traditional village tasks. My team clambered onto ox carts to our first station where we split up to gather hay, cut it up into strips and stir it with water and other nutrients to make cattle feed. It wasn’t just the amount we made, it all had to be palatable enough to the cows that had been brought in from the fields as judges.

Our next task was to make as many dough balls filled with palm sugar as possible as a treat to the village kids.  I fervently hoped no one would actually eat them though. In spite of good intentions, dough balls made so hurriedly and carelessly would only give anyone dysentery.

Our final task was making cheroots. This was tricky business. Our inexperienced hands grappled with cutting leaves into the right shape and size, fitting them with filters and filling them with tobacco before rolling them well enough not to unravel in an unwary smoker’s face.

All said and done, it was good fun for everyone. The villagers were amused, chasing us around to watch our shenanigans. They also earned a few things from collaborating with Belmond, which supplies them with what they need to sustain and improve the community. This is how the company tries to impact local communities in a positive way. Earlier on the journey, we visited a clinic set up by Belmond and run by the ship’s doctor to bring free medical and dental care to rural folk. It was heartening to learn that people typically walked for days to get to the clinic, having no other access to medical services.

Boat on the Ayeyarwady
Boat on the Ayeyarwady

LIGHT THE WAY
After the exhilaration of the Belmond Rally, we were promised a special post-prandial treat along with the opportunity to indulge in some local cognacs. Some of us congratulated ourselves for guessing that the only fitting finale to the glorious day would be a fireworks display. But our expectations were surpassed. We gathered on the top deck to find tiny specks of light upriver. As the minutes elapsed, they increased in number and colour before coming close enough for us to make out what they were – 3,000 lanterns (made from biodegradable materials) lit and released from fishing boats to mark Belmond’s two decades in Myanmar. We watched mesmerised. It was a beautiful end to the day.

BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE
Our last day took us to Amarapura to see the ‘Jade Exchange’ in action. Our guide talked with great excitement because, apart from gold, oil, forestry and rubies, jade is the most important industry for Myanmar — its jade is said to be the finest in the world. At this point, I couldn’t help but remember a documentary I’d seen about jade miners taking extreme risks and pushing themselves to work harder with heroin use and often paying the ultimate price of their lives to bring the prized stone to the eager China market. I can only hope the country’s new government can find a way to provide good stewardship of its vast resources so that they benefit its people as a whole rather than line the pockets of corrupt officials.

Our final excursion was to U Bein Bridge at sundown. The old 1.2 kilometre teak bridge was built circa 1850 and still takes the faithful across Lake Taungthaman to the Kyautawgyi pagoda. It is quite a sight, even if it has been broken and repaired many times over. For me, it represented a resilient Myanmar that wants to rebuild itself to link on to a peaceful and promising future.