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The 'Road to Mandalay' returns to the river

This legendary ship sails the magnificent waters of the Irrawaddy. Here's your chance to witness the 'dawn come up like thunder' on the great Burmese river.

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The only real highway in Burma - also now known as Myanmar - is the Irrawaddy River, a stunning waterway that splits in two this verdant jungle country, rich in spirituality. Many boats make their way along its waters, but none compares with the nineteenth-century-style luxury voyage aboard the Road to Mandalay. As its name suggests, the vessel plies its way from the city of Mandalay, south to Bagan and as far as Bhamo in the north.

This old lady of 64, brought fifteen years ago from the Rhine to Burma by the owners of the Orient-Express group, was relaunched last year after major refurbishment and now, once again, offers her passengers the chance to discover one of the most remote corners of the planet without sacrificing the least comfort.

The vessel spent nearly a year in dry dock to repair the damage caused in May 2008 by the cyclone Nargis. The time was well spent, and ill fortune turned to good account, as the Road to Mandalay underwent a complete overhaul. Under the combined command of architect Francois Greck and designer Ali Kennedy, hundreds of skilled craftsmen took great pains to restore the ship to its former splendour and beyond. The cabins are even more sumptuous and spacious than before, as the capacity was reduced from 108 to just 82 passengers.

Three or four-day cruises between Mandalay and Bagan, or an entire week for those whose purses stretch to a return journey, are the most popular routes, which are available throughout the year except during May and June, when the service is interrupted to avoid the southwest monsoon.

During the day, guides from boat lead visitors around the temples, pagodas and monasteries of the cities that overlook the Irrawaddy. Back on board, the cabin windows provide a documentary-style view of the daily doings on the river. The local children splash in the shallows, and women bathe from the shore; fishermen and farmers go about their business among the rice fields of villages almost untouched by the modern world.

Also on board there's a small spa with gym, a lounge and a piano bar where talks are given, as well as performances by artists that come aboard each evening. There's also a high-class restaurant, but, perhaps best of all, a teak deck, where sun loungers are set around the swimming pool, provides a privileged vantage point to observe the languid flow of the great river that George Orwell described as "huge and ochreous, glittering like diamonds".

It's on this deck that early-risers will do well to gather on the last day, in the hours before reaching Bagan. Here they will witness the enchanting dream landscape of stupas (Buddhist reliquaries) looming from the jungle as they appear in the mist on either river bank like glimpses of a lost kingdom. And, if you can imagine a place yet more remote, the Road to Mandalay sets course a few times each year to the gorges and villages of Bhamo, in the north, almost on the Chinese border.

Ever since the cruises started, a procession of Mahamuni temple monks comes at the start of the season to give their blessings to the Road to Mandalay, and the fortunate few who sail with her into this magic and mysterious world like travellers from another time.

Tips & suggestions:
Prices range from around £1,500 per person for the three night cruise in a standard cabin up to £5,500 for the 11 night cruise in the best suite; prices include round trip flights from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay or Bagan, transfers and guided tours along the route, plus full board. Combined trips are available which include the three-day cruise aboard the Road to Mandalay as part of a longer visit to the country, with time in neighbouring Cambodia. Reservations can be made directly with Orient Express.

Further information:
Myanmar Tourism.

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