On July 22, Orient-Express will launch a new river cruiser, the Orcaella, which will sail on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Named for a species of dolphin that inhabits the river, Orcaella (‘Or-kay-la’), was built in the colonial capital city of Yangon. The 200-foot-long ship was designed with a shallow draft allowing it to navigate less-explored waterways through remote regions of the country, dubbed the Golden Land for its gilded pagodas. With a capacity of only 50 guests, the Orcaella will offer seven and 11-night itineraries from Yangon to Bhamo near the Chinese border. The ship will also navigate the Chindwin River, passing through scenic gorges as it sails through western Myanmar and ventures as far north as Homalin, only 30 miles from the Indian border.
Excursion highlights include climbing the Shwesandaw Pagoda at sunset for panoramic views of Bagan’s entrancing landscape dotted with thousands of pagodas, attending a traditional monks’ noviciation ceremony, playing 9-holes of golf on an old colonial course, exploring caves housing 492 Buddha chambers carved into the hillside just outside of Monywa, or riding a train into thick Kachin jungle where you may encounter working elephants in the Burmese teak forest.
“The main attraction of heading up to that part of the world is that those villages have seen very few visitors,” explains Eddie Teh, general manager of Orient Express’ Myanmar cruises. “Some have never seen foreigners, so there are curiosities on both sides.”
Orcaella allows passengers to indulge in authentic cultural experiences in isolated areas and then return to an air-conditioned stateroom and a luxurious floating hotel staffed by a crew of 40. Each of the 25 river-facing cabins, 17 of which are suites, allows you to take in the passing scenery with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and Juliet balconies. The ship also offers three spa treatment rooms and a small gym. On the upper deck, you can lounge by the swimming pool, have lunch, or just watch the shoreline and the bustling river traffic float by.
Recent democratic reforms are rapidly transforming Myanmar, which has suffered from decades of brutal repression under the rule of a powerful and corrupt military dictatorship. While certain regions are still embroiled in ethnic strife and religious violence, tourism is steadily growing. Americans and Britons who had avoided the country for decades so as not to lend economic support to the regime are now eager to explore this fabled place that has been cut off from the world for so long.
Orient Express has offered Ayeyarwady cruises on the Road to Mandalay, the Orcaella’s larger sister ship, since 1995. Teh reports that bookings have more than doubled for the Road to Mandalay recently, so the Orcaella’s launch is well timed to capitalize on Myanmar’s emerging status as a hot travel destination. Prices start from $5,040 per person for a seven-night cruise and include all onboard meals, excursions, transfers, and domestic flights. Guests on both the Orcaella and Road to Mandalay can extend their itineraries to visit Ngapali, Inle Lake, Bhamo, and Yangon, where Orient Express operates The Governor’s Residence, a charming colonial-style mansion with 48 rooms and suites on lush grounds with gardens and a tiled swimming pool.
“Myanmar is unique,” says Teh. “It is a very big country in Asia with a very high literacy rate, but at the same time people are so charming, so humble, and so innocent in many ways. Organize your tours and travel around specific things and leave some room for the people.”