An exotic Myanmar river cruise on the Belmond Orcaella

In ASIA, CRUISES etc. by Janice and George12 Comments

myanmar river cruise

Our horse cart clip-clops along a sand track, stirring up swirls of red dust as we weave around Bagan’s brick pagodas while on a Myanmar river cruise.

Once a magnificent kingdom, Bagan is studded by some 4,000 temples and stupas built by the kings of Myanmar between 1044 and 1287. Burnished by the rays of the baking sun, they spread out as far as the eye can see.


myanmar river cruise

myanmar river cruise - oxcart ride in bagan

Each is unique. Some are crumbling relics overgrown with weeds and bougainvillea, but most are fantastically preserved bell-shaped structures and ornate pyramid-style monuments that look like giant wedding cakes.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to envision the “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes” that Marco Polo once wrote of.

myanmar river cruise - monks

Belmond’s close connection with Myanmar with Belmond

We’re spending eight nights aboard the luxurious river cruiser Belmond Orcaella on Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River.

Belmond (the new name for the old Orient-Express group of luxury hotels, trains and rivers ships) has a long history in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It launched the Belmond Road to Mandalay in 1995 – and that Myanmar river ship (since refurbished) mainly sails between Bagan and Mandalay to the north.

Our vessel, the newer Belmond Orcaella cruises the southern river stretch between Bagan and Myanmar’s booming capital, Yangon.


myanmar river cruise

Our Myanmar river cruise is a leisurely one

After leaving the bustle of Yangon, the first few days of our Ayeyarwady River cruise are languorous ones.

We lie under pink umbrellas by the pool, sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade while gazing at the river traffic – long barges hauling sand for construction, rafts festooned with bamboo huts and fluttering laundry, skiffs with fishermen in conical hats reeling in their nets.

myanmar river cruise - belmond orcaella


myanmar river cruise - tea on deck

After lunch (perhaps grilled river prawns with lemongrass and a New Zealand sauvignon blanc), we usually head to our stateroom. With polished wood floors, king-size beds, contemporary Burmese furniture, ensuite bathrooms (stocked with Bulgari amenities) and sliding glass doors to take in the views, the 25 staterooms are restful retreats from the outside world.

Later, we might enjoy a lecture about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader of the National League for Democracy, or a lesson on how to tie a longyi (the traditional wrap-around skirt worn by locals).

But we also leave the sanctuary of our river ship on shore excursions.

myanmar river cruise - belmond orcaella


Myanmar river cruise excursions

Our first is to the country village of Danuphyu.

We hop on trishaws and are pedaled to the colorful market.

myanmar river cruise - trishaw ride

So many fruits and veggies! There are mangoes, carrots, lettuces, herbs and straw baskets of red chilis and other spices.


Outside of Yangon, 80% of the people don’t have electricity, but they eat well. They love their sweets too. A turbaned vendor hacks off a slice of dry “cake” made from rice flour and palm sugar for us to try.

We notice many girls and women have their faces and arms smeared with thanaka, a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark (worn as a cosmetic and sunscreen).

Then we stop by a cheroot-making shop where four women deftly roll up yellow cornhusk cigars, pausing occasionally to puff on their own fat cheroots.

When we return to the Belmond Orcaella, tied to the riverbank, our trishaw driver gives us a huge grin, displaying a mouth stained red from chewing betel-nuts.

Another afternoon, we visit the splendid Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay. It’s said to date back to 589 BC and contain hairs of the Buddha (its name, “Shwesandaw,” means the “golden hair relics”). Red-robed monks walk softly about, some chatting on their cell phones.


As pale-skinned foreigners, we’re still a rare enough sight here that some locals want to take our picture.

The closer we get to Bagan on our Myanmar river cruise, the greener the banks of the silty Ayeyarwady become. Golden pagodas sprout up among tall palm trees, and we see villagers washing their clothes on the river banks.

One trip by ox cart takes us to Gwechaung Fort, designed by Italian architects for the Burmese king in 1860 to keep the British at bay (though it fell in a day).

We’re always intrigued by the local conveyances for each excursion, and this primitive ox cart ride is the most unusual.

And challenging! We’re seated on cushions on the wooden cart, while the driver sits or stands between the two oxen, tapping them with a stick to make them move. It’s very bouncy and we have to hang on tight to avoid sliding off.

myanmar river cruise - oxcart ride


Back onboard, we surrender our dusty sandals to waiting staff, who will later deliver them to our stateroom, magically clean once again. And we eagerly accept the welcome-back drink – this time, fresh mint, dragonfruit and soda.

That evening, we’re treated to a special stirfry and barbeque dinner in the Min Hla Fort. Torches and candles shed flickering light on Burmese dancers swaying to music played on traditional xylophenes and harps.

And our lovely ship staff? They’re here too, refilling our glasses with champagne.

There are more memorable outings too on our Myanmar river cruise. Like our tuk tuk ride to the gilded Myathalon Pagoda in Magwe, which draws people from miles around during religious festivals. And our wander through Salay village to a fancifully carved teak monastery, now a quaint museum.


We visit Bagan at the end of our Myanmar River cruise

But the best – Bagan – awaits at the end of our Myanmar river cruise.

We learn a temple is a structure that can be entered, while a stupa is solid (“pagoda” refers to both). And, surprise! Who knew many Bagan temples have fascinating murals and Buddha statutes inside?

myanmar river cruise - temple painting


myanmar river cruise - pagoda


Our favorite is the 12th century Sulamani Temple.

Demon head sculptures decorate the outside (to prevent bad spirits from crossing the threshold). In the inner chambers, beautiful wall paintings in red, green and black colors show daily life at the time – a decorated elephant, a woman having her long hair brushed, a man smoking a pipe.

myanmar river cruise - sulamani temple

myanmar river cruise - sulamani temple bagan

It strikes us that, in many ways, life in Myanmar hasn’t changed much. The present is knocking on the door. But for now, it’s as exotic a country as you could hope to visit.

And we can’t think of a finer way to experience it than cruising on the Ayeyarwady River, the country’s lifeblood, on a river ship like the Belmond Orcaella.


About the Belmond Orcaella

Launched in 2013, the Belmond Orcaella is one of the most elegant riverboats to book for an Ayeyarwady River cruise in Myanmar.

Built for longer 7- to 12-night voyages on both the Ayeyarwady and Chindwin Rivers exploring the country’s more remote regions, its décor is contemporary, with lots of gleaming hardwood floors, panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, Burmese art and huge bowls of roses.



We particularly loved how much space there is. The 12 “standard” staterooms with king beds range from 258 to 344 square feet in size and have Juliet balconies (there are also 9 smaller staterooms with twin beds and 4 much larger suites).

Each stateroom also comes with a wooden closet and separate chest of drawers adorned with leather handles, desk and poufy stool, satellite TV, air-conditioning, iPod docking station, bathrobe and slippers – plus useful gifts like hand fans, sun creams, collapsible straw hats and his-and-hers Shan bags. With a polished wood door, floor and countertops, the ensuite bathroom reminded us of colonial times (though the roomy glass rainshower and abundant Bulgari toiletries are decidedly modern).


Lovely touch: a fresh carnation is placed on your bed each day.

A huge, shady outdoor lounge with potted plants on the top deck has intimate seating clusters of cushioned wicker armchairs and sofas (cocktail parties are also hosted here). We listened to lectures in the piano bar while sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade, and lounged by the small pool under pink umbrellas at the stern (where Tai Chi classes are offered at sunset).

myanmar river cruise - bagan


Practical information for this Myanmar river cruise on the Belmond Orcaella

  • Rates start at $5,500 USD p.p. for this 8-night Myanmar river cruise from Yangon to Bagan.
  • All meals and house wines, shore excursions, champagne cocktail parties, lectures and the return flight from Bagan back to Yangon are included in the cruise rate.
  • In Yangon, we stayed at the Savoy Hotel. (See our review of this lovely colonial hotel.)
  • For more information about this river cruise, visit the Belmond Orcaella website.

Images not taken by us are courtesy of Belmond.

Our magazine feature on our luxury Myanmar cruise

A version of this story was first published in the Fall/Winter, 2016 issue of the Canadian magazine, Cruise & Travel Lifestyles. Click on the image or see here to read a PDF of our magazine article.


Janice and George Signature


  1. It seems as though now is the time to visit Myanmar before it gets swamped by mass tourism. A riverboat seems like a way to immerse yourself in the country yet not give up any comforts.

    1. Author

      Yes, like the Galapagos and Antarctica, Myanmar is one of those places you want to visit soonish if you can :-). And a riverboat is a delightful way to see many of the top spots in the country…

  2. Wonderful post, Janice. I was sure I’d already left a comment here, but as it doesn’t show, either it went into the abyss, or I was dreaming! Myanmar definitely looks like a dream. Your wonderful photos have drawn quite an ethereal mood for us.

  3. Your pictures caught the atmosphere of Myanmar so well, Janice. I’ve read a lot about this place but I’d love to visit it in person. The river cruise must have been quite a treat, what a luxury! It seems expensive however. $11,000/couple for a week plus the airfare… I wish I could be invited on one like you (ha,ha,ha!)

  4. What an exotic voyage! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your river cruise in Myanmar, a part of the world that is completely unknown to me. The accommodations sound wonderful and the photos accompanying your post are always excellent.

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