Continued from Part 1
In the morning, immediately after breakfast, we were met by the uniformed Strand Cruise staff: Cruise Manager Neville Joseph, Front Office Manager, Moe Sithu Aung and F&B manager whose name sadly escapes me.
They whisked us off to our first port of call, the Lacquerware factory in Bagan.
As we sat in the pretty tropical garden of the workshops, the cruise staff lined up pastries and smoked salmon sandwiches for a picnic breakfast, our second of the day.
The refreshments over, we watched a long but enthralling demonstration of the various stages of producing lacquerware. Never again will we look at a lacquered cup in the same way as we have in the past. The process starts with separating strands of a type of bamboo, an operation performed by a seated expert who uses both hands and feet/toes for the purpose. He then expertly weaves these into a desired shape.
Bamboo filbers mixed with horse hair create a more flexible, softer shape.
Lacquer is made from the resin of the eponymous tree indigenous to East Asia, mixed with natural components such as organic dye.
Each layer requires several days to dry in a special room and coloured patterns are applied after each consecutive dry out procedure.
Some of the large pieces of furniture on display take up to 3 years to finish, roughly the length of time to train a lacquerware artisan. Both the process and the skills applied are fascinating and to some extent head-turning because of the heavy and pervasive smell of lacquer. Going through the front shop, looking at the vast array of products, from art to crafts, is a heady affair, quite literally. We could have bought the entire contents pretty much, from the elaborate screens/room dividers right down to the smallest tea cup.
Instead, we scrambled back to our Strand Cruise 4×4 and headed for the ship.
The Strand Cruise
The triple decker ship navigates the Ayeyarwady River, taking passengers on the Bagan Heritage Trail.
It has 25 rooms of which two suites with their own open deck space.
As we made the short distance between car and boat, we were treated to an extraordinary sight: 47 uniformed staff were lined up to welcome us on board.
Having greeted the captain, we were offered the customary face towels, relieved of our shoes, and given special boat slippers, then taken directly to our quarters.
Reader, I can tell you that the rest of the 4 day cruise was spent in a happy haze of constant, yet unobtrusive pampering and my favourite drink, Michelada, perfected by the resident barman and on tap, but that would be too short a review, even if it is a truthful one. It wouldn’t do justice to the rest of the cruise, described below.
This is the place to say that staff at The Strand are so superbly trained that they anticipate your every desire before you have even formulated it as a thought. They are not one little bit oleaginous, cloying or obsequious. Incredibly friendly, but not matey; ever-present and well-informed, yet respectful of your space, privacy and pace at which you want to do things.
In all my years as a media group owner, I have never had such a sense of perfection and serenity. It wasn’t so much the sites, breathtaking as they are, nor the ever-changing landscape and sense of new and magical discovery – all that is a given when you explore new destinations and cultures. Rather, it was the sheer pleasure of being the focus of attention and the awareness that the delightful people working on the cruise ship were genuinely happy to interact with us (or so we like to believe).
Tangential commentary aside, below is a rundown of our 4 day program.
The Shwezigon Pagoda, famous for its gold leaf decor
The Ananda temple, one of the four great temples of Bagan, with its four standing monolithic Buddhas that are both awesome and awe-inspiring. The stone carvings depicting 80 episodes from Buddha’s life are equally impressive.
Traditional dances preceded the dinner, which was the first of an array of exceptional culinary experiences on the Strand Cruise.
The ever-smiling bartender kept us happy throughout as did every member of the staff, some of them invisible but supremely efficient nonetheless.
This was dedicated to visiting colourful Pakokku, with its vibrant markets selling everything from exotic fruits to giant tobacco leaves, this being the region for Burmese cheroots. In fact, we were treated to visiting the workshop where the cheroots are being rolled, as well as a flip flop making facility and a straw basket store. All small artisanal enterprises, they cater primarily for the local population, but export some of their product to the wider Asian market.
The thanaka market was another unusual experience. One of the first things you notice when you visit Myanmar is that powder-like paint most women sport on their faces, often painted in a traditional make-up fashion. Another is that the vast majority of men wear the traditional longyi – a hugely versatile sarong type garment.
Thanaka has been used by the Myanmar people for over 2000 years. It is made from grinding the bark of a tree that is similar to Sandalwood. Painted on the skin, it gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn.
Back on the ship, we were invited to the most elaborate puppet show I have ever had the privilege to witness. Each short episode tells a story narrated through 36 string painted wood puppets that are elaborately dressed. It is hard to do justice to the skill of the puppeteers with words alone. One of us requested to play a tune and see if the younger Burmese would be able to work the puppet to the unfamiliar tune (Bohemian Rhapsody). He acquitted himself splendidly even though he’d never heard of Freddie Mercury.
This was dedicated to visiting Ava (Innawa in Burmese), the ancient imperial capital of successive Burmese kingdoms from the 14th to 19th centuries.
We got there on horse carts and visited some outstanding buildings including an ancient palace entirely built of carved teak.
The landscape alone is worth the drive, with the horse carts skirting water canals and tributaries to the main river, winding roads fringed by Tamarind trees and small settlements built entirely of bamboo.
Our pre-dinner entertainment was provided by some of the ship staff and consisted of a thanaka application demo and the myriads of ways the Burmese use the longyi – from a regular garment to a sleeping bag.
The cooking demo showed us how to make soup and the chef’s own speciality, crispy egg (breaded egg yolk, lightly fried).
The Thai chef, who was trained by a Michelin star French chef, produced his best and most indulgent dinner yet on that night:
Langoustine gratinee, foie gras tortellini and consommé, Tournedos Rossini, Chocolate Fondant and a selection of wines including Burmese red.
Properly speaking, the Strand Cruise could well be sold as a culinary cruise on its own merit, such are the versatility of the chef and the outstanding quality of the food. Imagine eating at some of the best restaurants in the world, whether European or Asian, all under one roof…
Special mention should also be reserved for the Strand Hotel manager Barthelemy Durand, “Bart”.
Bart has trained the staff to absolute perfection and is an excellent, entertaining and informative conversationalist. Do ask him to join you for drinks if you get a chance.
The other great communicator on the ship was Neville Joseph, the cruise manager. Ever-obliging, a great story teller and all-round mastermind on the cruise, there is little Neville doesn’t know about Burma.
Day 3 was also the day on which the entire 47-strong staff came to give us a spectacular send-off, given our early departure for Mandalay the following day.
We watched entranced as they lined the ship’s beautiful drawing room and saluted, one row at a time, until every last one of them exited the main reception.
Day 4 was reserved for visiting Mandalay, which is a sprawling trading town close to the Mogok gem mines.
Mandalay is not as neat or cosmopolitan as Yangon, but it draws a vast number of gem and jade traders primarily from China.
The jade market is the most extraordinary one, with people displaying their wares, from raw to polished jade, and doing brisk trade both at stalls and corners.
There are gold traders too, selling gold ingots in different sizes, and workshops demonstrating the ancient art of making gold leaf.
Although gem traders in general are aplenty, the famed Burmese ruby is not easy to find in either great size or quality – the best gems get to international traders directly from the mines.
The people of Burma
The last word should go to the best Burma has to offer: the Burmese people.
Talented craftsmen, hard-working farmers, resourceful city dwellers, young entrepreneurs and just ordinary folks going about their business are ever-obliging, smiling, hospitable, forthcoming…
Burma has an astounding number of temples and pagodas, quite different from those in Siem Reap but no less remarkable. It has a rich culture and a past that pulses through its veins, impervious to political agendas, economic vicissitudes and travel trends.
The food, although distinctly Asian, is nuanced enough to merit its own magazine or book feature.
We were saddened to find that the Burmese lose out on tourism income to the more developed and commercially savvy Thailand.
But to borrow a word from several of the Europeans we encountered on our travels across the country, what Myanmar has going for it is the absence of “contamination” or over-commercialisation. With spectacular beaches waiting to be discovered, untapped resources, a micro-economy bursting at the seams, ready to expand, and the human capital of a people who learn fast and strive to do better, Myanmar or Burma to give it its more exotic and better known name, is poised to become the coolest Asian destination for the travel cognoscenti.