Slow Burma

Its name apart, little seems to have changed in Burma since Kipling's day.

Ariel Leve reports.

I'm not a boat person. Aside from the motion sickness, I don't like being on something I can't get off when I want to. I'll go on a boat as long as it's docked. Though even that is not enjoyable. It's like sitting on a porch that sways.

But then came the chance to visit Burma - now Myanmar - to see some of the world's greatest ancient sights and experience what it's like to be lost in time. Eleven years ago, the regime ended 40 years' isolation and opened the country to tourism. Road to Mandalay was a chance to visit a place that has changed little since Kipling rhapsodised about it. There was only one problem: the road to Mandalay isn't a road; it's a river. And the trip on offer was a cruise. Cruise people are like dog people, I'd always thought. Fanatical. They travel in packs. I called Orient-Express to discuss.

The journey takes place on a beautifully refurbished river boat that steams at a slow pace up the legendary Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river, docking daily. There are many opportunities to get off and explore, and the river banks can be seen at all times. I found all this immensely reassuring. So I was off.

Someone from Orient-Express meets me at the airport. The first two nights are to be spent at the Governor's Residence hotel in Yangon (Rangoon), a magnificent teak mansion with a lotus garden and outdoor pool. At the Kipling Bar, sipping fresh lemonade, I'm anxious about the boat, but there are things that distract me, like the exquisite hotel food. A part of me would be very happy to stay put. It's so serene.

The next day, I explore the city - the tree-lined streets, the Victorian colonial buildings and the vast golden Shwedagon Pagoda, where eight hairs, said to be Buddha's, are enshrined. Hundreds of pavilions are encircled by Buddhists offering prayers. No Starbucks, no billboards or celebrity magazines.

Saturday morning is the transfer from the hotel to the airport. There is a lot to cover in seven days, but Orient-Express handles all the logistics. I'm handed my ticket and depart from Yangon for Bagan, where the four-day cruise begins.

Day 1: the first thing I notice, berthed on the Ayeyarwady, is the stillness of the water. But Bagan has 2,000 pagodas and temples. So I settle in my cabin - roomier than many hotel rooms - then spend the afternoon visiting pagodas and climbing one to see the sunset.

Day 2: in the morning there is a choice of exploring or resting - I choose resting. So far, so good. The boat hasn't moved. I recline in a lounger by the pool. Mid-morning I wonder when we'll set off, then I realise the river banks are moving. No waves, no motion sickness. This is smoother than a Rolls-Royce.

There are lectures, spa treatments, a delicious buffet lunch. The ship moors mid-river for the evening. After dinner, which draws on the cuisines of southeast Asia, there is entertainment - an epic Hindu play, or traditional Burmese dances. I prefer to watch a movie in my cabin. I look out at the moonlight on the water. I can't get over the stillness. I could swear we are on dry land.

Days 3 and 4: more of the same as we cruise to Mandalay, stopping along the way to see monks, villages, and the largest uncracked bell. We retreat when tired to the comfort of the boat.

I speak to an English couple in deck chairs by the pool. "This is a special way to see the country: you get the best of both worlds," says the husband. "And we're not even cruise people," adds his wife.

What distinguishes this trip is experiencing southeast Asia as it was 40 years ago, in all its natural beauty, while enjoying five-star luxury. Even the most jaded traveller will be bowled over.