WHEN the Scenic Aura carries its first passengers along the Irrawaddy River in September, it will be the smartest vessel navigating the lazy bends of the magnificent Myanmar waterway.
The riverboat, which is currently under construction in a Yangon shipyard, will feature a variety of eating and drinking venues, from fine-dining fancy to open-air casual, and will carry 44 guests in 22 cabins, with each stately suite boasting separate living and sleeping quarters.
The Scenic Aura will enjoy a 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio, with every traveller’s needs met by a butler while on board.
The 10-day journey from Mandalay in the heart of Myanmar to Pyay, 300km from Yangon, will offer dozens of opportunities for guests to disembark and explore the country.
And while travellers will spend hours on the ship – eating in restaurants with windows framing the view, or watching the world drift by from the alfresco sundeck – it won’t be the only waterborne sightseeing during Scenic’s Mystical Myanmar itinerary, which will take 18 days to do a loop from Yangon and will include a three-night stay at Inle Lake.
Taungthaman Lake at sunset
Mandalay’s rickety U Bein Bridge, which reaches 1300m across Taungthaman Lake, is the world’s oldest and longest teak span, built in 1850 across a lake that rises and falls with the seasons.
The lake supports nearby communities by providing a place to catch fish and water to feed farm animals.
While an amble across the bridge is a delight at any time of the day, a better option is to board one of the small boats waiting on the lake’s western shore to see the landmark from below, with Scenic guests arriving well before dusk – the most beautiful time of day – for pre-dinner drinks while watching the sky turn blazing shades of orange.
Boatmen pilot the small craft, standing on the stern and using a single paddle to propel the craft beneath the bridge to give travellers a better look at the historic structure.
The boats then gather near the middle of the shallow lake as the setting sun sinks behind the teak skeleton with the bridge silhouetted against the fiery sky.
Sightseeing on Inle Lake
Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s highest, hidden 880m up in the mountains of Shan State. Dotting the banks, tiny villages stretch 22km south from Nyaung Shwe town in clusters of stilt buildings that house schools, homes, workshops and temples.
Scenic guests spend a day zipping around the lake in long-tail boats, engine-powered versions of the famous “one-legged fishermen’’, which are controlled with a single paddle worked by foot. Cushion-covered armchairs, rugs and umbrellas make for an agreeable ride in the narrow wooden vessels.
After an early start, leaving the hotel on the lake’s eastern shore not long after the sun rises, there’s a visit to a bustling village market.
The location changes daily as stallholders, selling everything from home-grown vegetables to handmade silver jewellery, move around the district.
There’s a stop at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, where men gather to add layers of gold leaf to already plump Buddha statues, and time at a local home to watch women weaving with silk and lotus thread, before a cooking class and lunch, a tour of hidden canals, and a close look at local fishermen using the traditional one-legged approach to net setting.
Commuting to Dala
Scenic guests join locals on the optional “free choice’’ excursion to Dala, the multicultural neighbourhood sprawling along the southern shore of the Yangon River opposite downtown Yangon, and ride the modern ferries that complete the quick crossing several times an hour.
The boat steams past the city’s historic docks, offering views across vintage cargo sheds to the charming colonial-era buildings that define Myanmar’s largest settlement.
And the activity on board is just as interesting, with crowds of commuting Dala residents wearing bright traditional garb and feasting on hawker food during the brief ferry ride.
Once across the water Scenic travellers board trishaws with this mode of transport dating to the 1920s and featuring seats positioned beside a bicycle like a sidecar.
With a local pedalling, the tour takes in a candle factory, neighbourhood markets busy with commerce, and a fishing village where nets are repaired by hand.