- Myanmar has become a more familiar destination for tourists in recent years
- But the north-west of the country, near the Indian border, is still less seen
- The Chindwin River is ideal for a leisurely cruise through the Sagaing region
As I spy a gaggle of women at the market staring at me and giggling, I know my attempts to carry off the local dress have backfired badly.
I’ve never been one for sarongs, but in my enthusiasm to embrace all things local on a cruise deep into the remote interior of Burma — or Myanmar, as it’s now known — I foolishly opt to try the local equivalent, known as a longyi.
It’s an eye-catching mainstay of Burmese attire, worn effortlessly by the men and stylishly by the women — but, alas, not by me, on whom it resembles a ragged mass.
Golden domes in the rainforest: Burma’s Buddhist heritage is endlessly visible
Yet this doesn’t detract from the simple pleasure of exploring the riverside town of Mawlaik near the Indian border, where few Westerners venture.
This former hub of British rule before independence in 1948 still carries traces of colonial times, from the distinctive clock tower to the nine-hole golf course where I practise my putting skills.
Dating from 1916, it is said to be linked to the famous St Andrews course in Scotland, with members apparently able to play at both.
But, like most of the towns and villages along the Chindwin River in the northwest Sagaing region, it is the market that’s the hub of local life, with its narrow passageways wiggling past stalls selling unrecognisable fruits, unfamiliar spices, piles of salted fish and fresh flowers.
There are picture opportunities at every turn, from the women whose faces are painted with thanaka paste, made from tree bark and widely used as a sunscreen, to locals smoking large cheroots or chewing on betel nuts, a popular stimulant that stains their teeth blood red.
Tourists are so rare here that we even became an attraction for the villagers, who whip out their mobile phones to take pictures and pose beside us.
A world away: Burma was closed to the world under military rule, but has bloomed of late
One elderly lady strokes my arm, babbling away, clearly fascinated by my pale skin, while others gaze shyly before replying in kind when I call out the local greeting: ‘Mingalaba.’
Unlike villages along Myanmar’s main Irrawaddy River, which have grown used to foreigners, our Chindwin cruise — from Monywa (a three-hour drive north of Mandalay) to the town of Homalin — takes us into true off the beaten track territory. We don’t see any other tourists for the entire week.
Few boats can sail here because the river is so shallow, and that has kept this region and its people refreshingly unspoilt.
As our craft, the RV Zawgyi Pandaw, pulls into the muddy bank, we are greeted by wide-eyed, chirping children who trail behind us in Pied Piper-like fashion. We plod along dirt tracks and past stilted houses with thatched roofs as we dodge ox carts and youngsters careering along on battered old bikes.
Some of the most heartwarming encounters are in the schools, as we hand out pens and sweets to pupils whose eyes light up as we teach them the hokey-cokey, which proves to be the perfect ice-breaker.
There are fascinating encounters with octogenarians who remember invading Japanese troops sweeping through their villages during World War II, with one woman recalling how retreating British soldiers whisked her to safety across the mountains to India, just 20 miles away.
As we sail northwards, this mountainous border makes a beautiful, jagged backdrop beyond the paddy fields and tropical terrain, broken only by the golden glint of Buddhist temples scattered like jewels across the lush landscape.
The river also becomes busier with cargo boats piled high with giant oil drums and packed, noisy passenger ferries.
Taking the slow boat: Burma’s broad rivers are ideal for a leisurely cruise
The vessel is a contrast to our peaceful riverboat, home to just 12 of us. It combines the best of rustic charm and modern comforts, with a cosy lounging area on the top deck, where we spend lazy hours reading or admiring the views.
Mealtimes are social, house-party-type affairs as we tuck into bread, freshly baked on board, and four-course feasts of delicious fish, stir-fries, creamy soups and curries. Everything is served with the gentle smiles of our friendly Burmese crew.
All too soon, the week is up. But even our last day in Homalin, on the edge of the Nagaland tribal region, proves memorable when I meet a tribesman whose grandfather fought with British forces and whose ancestors had been head-hunters.
‘It’s OK, we stopped in 1970 and it only happened when there were misunderstandings,’ he responds casually, when I ask about this gruesome ritual.
Now I’m all for tradition, but this is one age-old custom I am relieved has died out.
Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com, 01993 838 000) offers a 13-night package comprising two nights in Mandalay, a seven-night Pandaw sailing from Monywa to Homalin and two nights in Yangon, with overnight flights on Thai Airways via Bangkok, from £4,250pp.
Courtesy: Daily Mail Online