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I had planned to spend the entirety of August with my family in Amman. And the Sanctuary Ananda should have been dry-docking in Yangon’s Thilawa Port: its hull sand-blasted and re-painted, steadily taking bookings for the coming high season.
The pandemic changed all that.
So it was that I and several other residents from Yangon were welcomed aboard the Sanctuary Ananda in August, offered a chilled banana sesame colada and introduced to our guide for the cruise, Vijay, who took us on a whistle-stop tour of Mandalay.
It was still early. Along the Strand Road pariah dogs were yawning and crates from the vegetable night market were still being loaded onto trucks. Tall, spry and of Gurkha-heritage, Vijay was buoyant and energetic, and rattled-off a commentary of what we could see through the coach window as the city shook itself awake.
We had all visited Mandalay before but it is the foolish expatriate who believes they know everything; much healthier to assume you know nothing. This is what we did, and as we motored down 84th Street Vijay surprised us by informing that this had once been called “Hoover Street”, named after Herbert Hoover who arrived in Mandalay as a partner in an international mining company in the early 1900s. (Hoover is one of five US presidents to have visited Myanmar, and the only one to have lived here). Living with his young family in Maymyo, Hoover declared that the Burmese were “the only truly happy and cheerful race in Asia.” During his time in Myanmar, Hoover made millions from silver mines near the Chinese border before returning to the States to be elected President in 1929.
The Sanctuary Ananda’s tour would normally take guests to tourist honeypots such as the Mahamuni Pagoda, Shwenandaw and the Kuthodaw “World’s Largest Book.” These were all shut due to the pandemic so instead Vijay took us to walk around the exterior of Kuthodaw before visiting a gold-leaf workshop and the wood-carving quarter. Here we admired not only ornate statues of Lord Buddha, Burmese kings and the wily alchemist Zawgyi, but also unlikely figures such as the Egyptian gods Ra, Shu and Horus. These incongruous carvings had been furiously varnished and they were so tall they even towered over Vijay who, in answer to our puzzlement, wrinkled his nose, looked up at Ra’s crooked beak and said that some hotels like them.
We returned to the boat and set sail for Mingun.
Sanctuary Ananda was custom built by local craftsmen and her maiden voyage was in November 2014. She is part of the Sanctuary Retreats portfolio of luxury safari lodges and expedition ships. The Lodges are peppered around Africa while their cruise ships sail up the Nile and the Yangtze as well as the Ayeyarwaddy. This August, the Sanctuary Ananda is the only one hosting guests.
The ship’s design is accentuated with features of Burma: there is plenty of wood with gold finishing; Pathein umbrellas adorn one wall of the restaurant and their partnership with Yangon’s River Gallery ensures a rotation of contemporary Myanmar artwork on the walls.
There are 14 Deluxe Suites. Each is en suite with a monsoon shower and private balcony. The four Luxury Suites include an indoor seating area and complimentary laundry. The Owner’s Suite is the largest of its kind on the Ayeyarwaddy, incorporating a king-size bed, large veranda with sun loungers, a bathtub, as well as a private guide and exclusive dining experiences.
On this trip, our meals were all served in the Talifoo Restaurant. On that first day, the two dozen of us guests flocked in for lunch, shaking hands and nodding heads, giddy with expectancy. The gaiety increased throughout lunch – supported by the Gérard Bertrand Gris Blanc Rosé of Pays D’Oc that flowed freely – and by 2.30 we were ordering espressos in the Kansi Panorama Bar from the barman Mon (he asked our names once and never forgot) and the mammoth unfinished pagoda of Mingun loomed into view.
The approach of the Sanctuary Ananda had been spotted and by the time we struck ashore an excitable crowd of hawkers had gathered to greet us. All women, they accompanied us in a merry gaggle offering us fans and jade bracelets. They followed us on motorbikes to the pagoda (one even managed to perch on the seat with our tuk-tuk driver) and to the Mingun Bell, standing quietly, patiently, as Vijay outlined the history of King Bodawpaya. It was very hot and by the time we reached the Hsinbyune Pagoda we retreated into the shade of a tree for sugar cane juice.
The bawdiness of the hawkers at Mingun put a brave face on what is a desperate situation for those who rely on tourism for their livelihood. It has all but dried up and we were to be the last travellers to Mingun for a while. As the number of live cases creeped up in Rakhine State, Mingun announced that it would no longer be welcoming visitors.
The crisis of undertourism was even starker at Amarapura. This is where in recent years some tour operators had stopped sending clients due to the crowds; the place where a scuffle between jostling tourists broke-out in a monastery courtyard.
None of that when we visited.
At dusk we hopped into little boats and paddled out to the U Bein Bridge. Most shops and stalls were boarded up. There were no hawkers and the bridge itself was empty. We drifted to a lone stump of tree protruding up from the water. Crew from the Sanctuary Ananda paddled up to us and passed over Taittinger to drink as the sun sunk beneath the clouds. My boatmen handed me a cheroot and together we puffed in the gloaming.
Due to the pandemic the itinerary on board the ship was fluid. Tim Buma, acting-Cruise Director, would occasionally gather us around, cocktails in-hand, quieten us and deliver the briefing on the following day’s activities.
Tim is Director and Board Member of Sanctuary Retreats Myanmar. He has been the Director of Operations of the Sanctuary Ananda since 2016. He knows the boat inside-out and, as the regular tour director is grounded in Thailand, has taken on the role of on-board Cruise Director until further notice.
He is the perfect host. Well-turned out but not pompous; authoritative and unruffled. One passenger described him as duck paddling furiously under water, floating serenely on the surface.
“All of this does not just happen by itself”, he says to us in the Talifoo Restaurant, as a lunch’s first course of Inle tomato with sweet corn and prawn salad emerges. This in response to one guest’s question: But what do you do all day?
Tim jokes about kneading the croissant dough himself and stoking the fires in the engine room. But in truth, over the years he has built a strong team. And in this team he has faith.
They do not put a step wrong. Upon returning from excursions our shoes are taken away for cleaning and we are presented with wet towels scented in lemongrass, and chilled fruit juices. One lady one time, expresses her preference for watermelon, and subsequently after every excursion next to our juices of pineapple and orange is waiting her solitary red watermelon juice.
The waiters remember whether your prefer still or sparkling and ensure your wine glass is always topped up. The barmen are fun too. Upon ordering an espresso at 11AM, you may will be encouraged, deadpan, to make it a martini. The face mask covers any smile but in the eyes is a fleeting twinkle.
It was perhaps due to such assiduous hospitality that on the morning of Day Three some of us were feeling fragile. We had arrived at Monywa. It was infernally hot and as the infatigable Vijay led us boldly off the ship and to the waiting coach, someone behind me grumbled something about “mad dogs and Englishmen.”
We drove to the Bodhi Tah Taung forest where a 130 metre-high Standing Buddha has been built, the second tallest statue in the world. Completing the kitschy trifecta is a 95 metre-long Reclining Buddha and also a Sitting Buddha. We were then led to a shaded glade overlooking a large pond where Sanctuary Ananda had arranged a gourmet picnic. We fell upon the salad and sandwiches provided and relished the breeze. Looking upon the Buddhas reflected in the surface of the water, we shared ghost stories from Yangon and one of us frowned at his wine glass and said it never seems to be empty.
This was followed by a long afternoon in the pool on Sanctuary Ananda’s sun deck. Mon brought champagne and made Bloody Marys with extra pepper, extra tabasco and – I’m quite sure – extra vodka. We were now heading south along the Chindwin, racing downstream and at speed passed beneath a low bridge with whoops and cheers and slippery hands fumbled to reach phones.
At dusk we moored near a flooded patch of farmland. Boys in sampans paddled gently with fishing nets and indifferent cows marooned on small islands grazed on the crops. The colours of twilight went from saffron to mauve to black until nothing but the sound of crickets and chanting from the monastery filled the sky.
On the Yangon Deck is the Thanbyadine Spa by L’Occitane. L’Occitane only partners with one spa per country and in Myanmar, that partner is the Sanctuary Ananda. I opted for the deep-tissue relief and sixty minutes later I sat in a blissful stupor, sipping lemongrass tea and nibbling on a jasmine cookie.
“Prepare to be pampered!” Tim had boomed on the first day upon check-in.
By breakfast on Day Four, looking back we regarded this promise as a threat.
The buffet was an army of yoghurts and jams, fresh fruits and muesli. A la carte we could order eggs scrambled, boiled or poached; they could be fried over-easy or sunny side up, made into Thai Omelet or as Eggs Benedict. Chili, chive and capsicum could be added with hash browns, crispy bacon or grilled tomato on the side. Chef could make waffles and crêpes with maple syrup and blueberries, stir-fried chicken, vegetable spring rolls and Shan Noodles with crushed peanut.
Through the morning of Day Four we passed pagodas and pylons, steaming south down the Ayeyarwaddy. By lunchtime we had arrived in Bagan. Vijay took us out once more. As it was in Amarapura, the lack of tourists – the lack of people in general – was not exhilarating, but unsettling. Dogs barked lazily at us, as if not use to seeing tourists, but didn’t bother to raise themselves from the shade. Lacquerware was being sold at startlingly low prices.
Word got around that there were tourists in town.
One man on a motorbike raced past us as we approached Thatbyinnnyu Pagoda – his face one wide grin. Happy day! he called out. I wondered how he could be so confident that we would buy something. He had already laid out his paintings by the time we approached the pagoda.
Vijay took us to watch sunset from an embankment in Old Bagan. There were a few others there. Three teenagers sitting in a huddle playing music on their phones, some elderly cyclists stretching, a man flying a drone.
In the course of sunset, the chubby painter who had arrived on motorbike had made a few sales. As we boarded our coach to return to the jetty he was packing up.
“I thank you from my family,” he said to us. His broad grin had now been replaced by a wearied expression of intense relief. I felt pained that we had not bought more. Travel restrictions are an inconvenience for some. They are much than that to many others.
Large fruit bats, larger than I had ever seen before, swooped about our boat like a guard of honour, as we chugged back to the Sanctuary Ananda. That evening we would dine on scallops, and cauliflower soup, seared sea bass … The next morning as I was packing, there was one bat, late-to-roost, still soaring above the ship.