A new all-suite river ship, the creation of local craftsmen, sets sail on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar next month
There is no greater confirmation of the current status of Myanmar as the planet’s leading adventure travel destination than Jeremy Clarkson’s BBC television special earlier this year, in which the Top Gear presenter raced 10-ton trucks through primeval jungle and past temple pagodas and ox-drawn carts, astonishing monks and peasants alike.
Less than three years after the country’s military regime reluctantly relaxed 50 years of totalitarian control and isolation, this unlikely, even bizarre, BBC event was further enticement for the explorer tourist to pay it a visit.
Much of this Buddhist backwater, held in check by the generals who allowed little Western investment for fear of revolution, is preserved as if the British Raj had just decamped. In Yangon our red-brick buildings of state still stand as powerful remnants of empire.
However, change is afoot — with billions of dollars of investment pouring in. And to combat the degeneration of national culture, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the party democratically elected to govern the country, insisted the Burmese people have a major hand in redefining their nation.
Evidence of their innovation and drive will be seen next month on the Ayeyarwaddy, when Sanctuary Retreats, a new name on the fabled river, launches its first boat there. Following its maiden cruise in November, Sanctuary Ananda will sail itineraries of between three and 11 nights in 2015, the longer trips also taking in the Chindwin, an exotic, little-travelled waterway that snakes towards the Indian border.
Delivered ahead of schedule, Sanctuary Ananda was built by Burmese brothers U Soe Naing and Myo Aung, who were born in Nyaunglebin, a farming town 100 miles from Yangon. Their progress in a generation is reflective of the new Myanmar. Their mother and grandmother laboured long hours in rice fields around their rural home; their father was a builder.
Sanctuary Ananda, built in the Thein Phyu shipyard in Yangon, so supporting the local economy, has 21 spacious suites with large private balconies, accommodating up to 48 guests. Five luxury suites will include private butler service.
All combine authentic interior furnishings made of local fabrics, teak and lacquerware with contemporary luxuries, including an iPod docking station and iPad television connectivity. Luxury suites have an additional indoor seating area. Food will have a Burmese focus, including dishes from the country’s 135 ethnicities.
U Soe Naing told me: “My brother and I are Buddhists. The goal of Buddhism is to get to Nat Pan Na (a peaceful place). This is achieved through living a good life and meditation, a philosophy that is reflected in the ship. It’s the kind of place I would dream of staying myself.”
It is the tenth boat they have built but, says U Soe Naing, the most beautiful. “There will be almost one crew member for every passenger and our suites are among the biggest on the river. We’re very proud of her.”
U Soe Naing originally trained as a civil engineer but could not support his family on a small income. “I have seven siblings and when my parents died I had to take over parental duties,” he explains. So he retrained as a radio officer on foreign merchant ships before going back into construction with his brother.
The turning point in their lives came when they were building a hotel swimming pool. “A Scottish friend, Paul Strachan, asked us to restore a ship owned by the government, which we turned into a river cruiser. After that he asked me to build a new cruise ship. I had no experience of how to do it but we had help.”
An unashamed promoter of his country, he adds: “Myanmar is not developed like the rest of Asia, so the best thing about it is the people. And now that we have freedom they are happier.”
As is the case with most river-cruise operators in the country Sanctuary Retreats intends to plough some of its profits into community projects, such as medical surgeries and children’s education, in the hope that there will be more people like U Soe Naing to help take Myanmar forward.
Sanctuary Ananda was named in homage to a Buddhist temple at Bagan, where more than 4,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. The 170ft Ananda Temple, shimmering with gold, is one of the finest and its name means “extreme happiness” in Sanskrit.
That seems a happy omen for the first new Ananda in 1,000 years — and its passengers.