Last updated: 05:00 AM ET, Thu February 04 2016

Wonders on the Irrawaddy: A River Cruise Through the Heart of Burma

Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Avalon Waterways | John Roberts | February 04, 2016

Wonders on the Irrawaddy: A River Cruise Through the Heart of Burma

PHOTO: Avalon Myanmar. (photos by John Roberts)

Sunrises dazzle in the morning river fog.

Sunsets do the same when filtered through smoke rising from the burning stubble of rice fields.

You find pleasant splashes of color everywhere during a voyage on Burma’s Irrawaddy River.

I traveled through the heart of Burma (aka Myanmar) on a cruise aboard Avalon Myanmar, a new 36-passenger, purpose-built boat for the shallow 1,300-mile waterway that bisects the Southeast Asian nation.

This country is just beginning to open to more Western tourism after decades of military rule, and it’s fascinating to see the early stages of Burma’s emergence. You are witness to people with new hope and opportunity.

Rising at 6 a.m. is not typically my routine. But on Avalon Waterways' Irrawaddy River cruise, you better get up early or you’ll miss those sunrises and a plethora of other activities.

The early hours are when things happen in Burma. We were able to give alms to a line of young monks dressed in traditional maroon-colored garb and see the village markets bursting to life.

READ MORE: What Boutique Hotels Tell Us About The 'New' Myanmar

We started our shallow-water river journey through Burma in Bhamo, a northern locale, and sailed south to Bagan. Along the way, we filled our days with wonderful adventures in a range of towns, from small fishing villages on the island of Kyun Daw to larger centers of trade.

On Avalon Myanmar, you can enjoy gourmet meals shared with friendly fellow passengers that feature Burmese creations, while cabins are luxurious — your bed facing out a large window that opens to a French balcony, serving as your calm view of the passing scenery each day.

You wake up in a new village or town each morning with a whole new set of wonders to enjoy, as each town offers something different. You might be in a fishing village one day, interacting at a market or stopping by to check out a resident's modest home. The next stop could be a former capital city with important golden shrines of Buddha in numerous temples or pagodas. Or a village that specializes in candies or ancient pottery.

Highlights included:

Irrawaddy Dolphins. It's not guaranteed, but we were lucky enough to spy a pair of Irrawaddy dolphins early in our cruise. It's estimated that fewer than 100 still exist in the Irrawaddy River. They have bulging foreheads and almost no beak (kind of like a beluga) and are known to work with fishermen in the rivers to corral fish into nets.

Elephants. We visited an elephant camp and nursery in an old teak forest. You can feed the retired and nursing mothers and babies and ride for short jaunts in the forest. You also may help bath them.

Markets. Bustling markets are the centerpieces of daily life for many Burmese people, especially in more remote northern regions. Villagers arrive daily to get fresh produce as well as chicken, pork and fish. Many homes have no refrigerators, so shopping is typically done twice a day for meals.

Temples, Pagodas and Gold. About 90 percent of the people in Burma practice Buddhism, and Buddha is the centerpiece of nearly all the historical sites around the nation, from the brilliant Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and Maha Muni Buddha Pagoda in Mandalay to the numerous temples and shrines throughout villages in even the most remote northern parts of the country. And the dominant color for the most important sites honoring Buddha is glittering gold. In Bagan, which is home to more than 2,000 temples and pagodas, we climbed the Sunset Temple to watch the sun go down over a brilliant valley filled with religious monuments in every direction.

PHOTO: Shwedagon Pagoda.

Monk life. Every Buddhist male in Burma spends part of his life studying and practicing as a monk. We rose early one morning to watch a procession of monks receive alms from villagers. Monks rely on donations from residents, and they eat twice a day.

At a small monastery for young monks at a later port stop, we were able to participate in the charity, giving alms (mostly sweet treats and a few sundries like laundry detergent) to a long line of monks ages four to 19.

Most people in Burma are curious about the strange-looking cruise tourists visiting their small villages, and the younger monks are especially personable and open to interaction. You will see monks all over the country. They often are very receptive to having their pictures taken (but don't touch a monk). In bigger cities like Bagan, Yangon and Mandalay, you'll even see monks using cell phones and snapping pictures of each other at famous temples they have traveled to visit.

READ MORE: Myanmar's Strange, Empty Capital City

As travelers, it's amazing to get to see the world in a new way in an exotic place. There aren't many true exotic locations left on this planet, and Burma probably will change greatly, and soon, as it opens up to the world. I suggest you try to get there now, while you can still see wonder and innocence in the people there as they interact with you and flash easy welcoming smiles.

Avalon Waterways has almost exclusive reach in the upper parts of the Irrawaddy River that we visited. This is where it's most serene and charming. People in small villages find us of great interest. Curious children happily follow along, sometimes for miles as we walk through town. The kids wander freely, posing and dancing for photos and singing songs. Adults also are happy to have their pictures taken and often will want to get a picture of themselves with you.


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