Sanctuary Ananda review: A luxurious way to explore Myanmar

Trip Reports
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All the guide books will tell you not to visit Myanmar (Burma) in April: it's low season, so some places will be closed, the heat will be an intolerable 40°, the Thingyan water festival will cause havoc and you will be drenched in the streets by children wielding Super Soakers.

This did, in fact, turn out to be completely true, yet none of it detracted from my enjoyment of this country's rich culture and history, or from the warmth of the people. For anyone looking for a trip that gives you a different "wow factor" every day, please add Myanmar to your list…but with a note to avoid April if possible!

My itinerary was a classic programme designed to cover the highlights: three nights on board a river vessel, travelling between the historic royal cities of Bagan and Mandalay, book-ended by visits to Yangon and Inle Lake. I travelled with Sanctuary Retreats, who also offer longer cruises which cover the same stretch of the Irrawaddy in greater detail, as well as the dramatic gorges of the Chindwin River when it becomes navigable at the end of the rainy season.

Despite the growing numbers of foreign visitors, tour operations can still be challenging and you should be prepared for occasional power cuts, slightly chaotic domestic flights and some communication difficulties. The best operators are those who have invested in retaining their staff and have an established support network throughout the country. I felt fortunate to be travelling with companies who are well-versed in the quirks of Myanmar and whose staff always seemed one step ahead of the river's unpredictable nature. Within the space of three days my cruise director had to deal with an earthquake, fast-rising water levels and logistical problems caused by the New Year festival, yet from the point of view of the guests everything ran smoothly.

The Sanctuary Ananda is one of the most luxurious and modern ships on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), and I was extremely impressed by the quality of the cruise. There are 20 veranda suites, all beautifully decorated with touches of local artwork, and the food is a mix of Asian fusion and interesting Western options. Service was unobtrusive yet friendly, and I loved the little touches of luxury such as the locally-crafted gifts that appeared in my cabin each night.

The Ayeyarwady itself was not so impressive - much of the scenery is an underwhelming mix of sandbanks and dusty fields - but it was while sailing that the local guides really came into their own. We enjoyed masterclasses covering traditional fashion, meditation and cooking mohinga (fish soup with noodles). Ashore Bagan was the highlight I was expecting, where we learned about the intricacies of the pagodas' architecture, but I was also delighted by the chance to sit and talk with a group of novice monks at a local school. People were very proud to show off their heritage and seemed to love meeting visitors - a holiday to Myanmar is really a cultural exchange.

The wonderful tours continued after the cruise when I travelled to Inle Lake, where mountains rose in the distance and the lowland areas were covered with lush paddy fields. A brightly coloured gondola whisked us through the canals towards the floating gardens, which was probably the most memorable part of my whole trip: utterly tranquil and a fascinating demonstration of how communities adapt to their environment.

I could have happily spent three or four weeks exploring Myanmar, but a shorter trip through the cultural heart of the country seems like the perfect way to begin.


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Theresa Hall, Mundy Cruising
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Theresa is a Senior Cruise Consultant at Mundy Cruising

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