After closing its doors to the West for half a century, Myanmar has reopened, inviting all to come and discover its treasures, ancient palaces of kings long gone, legends and mysteries told in stone. And the world is expected to come.
These are the early days, perhaps the best, and with ill-equipped roads and railways, there is no better way to explore than by river. Public ferries crisscross through glistening green paddies; old teak fishing boats can be rented by the day.
And now, there is the luxury riverboat cruise. In late July, the Orcaella made its maiden voyage on a 1,600-kilometer journey deep into Myanmar's interior, almost to the border of India. It is operated by the Orient Express, the group that runs luxury hotels, trains and boats globally.
It's not a handsome ship from the outside. As the cruise's first 30 travelers board in Mandalay, it seems squat and square and a bit worn out. But once we step over the gangplank and enter the roomy lounge, our impression changes completely. Totally remodeled from the hull up and gracefully furnished, it is a space where all of us immediately felt relaxed.
Over the next 12 days we will tour sights rarely seen by foreign tourists: villages left back in time, gilded pagodas filled with Buddhist statues, thousands of them long neglected.
My cabin is spacious, with hardwood floors, fresh flowers and a walk-in closet. Best of all are the glass sliding doors facing the wide river, where one can lie in bed and watch the world glide by.
We travel first for six hours along the mighty Irrawaddy River, more than 400 meters (yards) wide. The shores are almost level with the land, the brush low with a few large trees.
Every hut or fishing boat we pass generates loud greetings. Groups of children wave and call. Water taxis carry passengers from one riverside village to the next, and huge, heavy boats laden with teak head downstream.
When we reach the confluence with the Chindwin River, we meet our first obstacle. The captain slows our 25-cabin ship to a near-standstill and struggles to navigate around a small whirlpool. The shifting sandbanks make it difficult to read the riverbed.
Eventually we pass, continuing north on the Chindwin along the melted waters of the Himalayas. We slice through sandstone cliffs and patches of forest, but this is rare. For long stretches, sometimes days at a time, the view is