Meditative State: Cruising Burma’s Irrawaddy River on the Road to Mandalay

Channel your inner Buddha on a Belmond cruise through Burma.

By Veronica Inveen

Dec 22, 2017

I’M CONVINCED THAT IF the combination of the setting sun’s golden light, the soothing sound of our vessel gliding through river, and the guiding voice of mindfulness teacher Brian Hilliard can’t help me slip into a meditative state, then nirvana probably isn’t in the cards for me. Taking a break from my half-assed attempts at enlightenment, I peek an eye open to catch a glimpse of the passing pagodas that dot the vast rural plains that border the Irrawaddy River.

In a country brimming with monasteries and glittering temples, where Buddhism is at the heart of its culture and meditation is a way of life, Burma is the one place I should be able to get mindful.

The Road to Mandalay at dusk

I’m onboard the Road to Mandalay, Belmond’s luxurious 90-meter-long vessel that makes three- to seven-day journeys between Mandalay and Bagan. This trip is the first of the boat’s many wellness cruises, and to kick things off, Belmond has teamed up with the duo behind Mindfulness Journeys: Hilliard and his partner Shannon van Staden, who have curated spiritually enriching activities to help foster mindfulness and self-discovery.

The words “wellness,” “spiritually enriching,” “mindfulness,” and “self- discovery” conjure a feeling of discomfort, even boredom, inside me. My foot falls asleep just from the thought of sitting cross-legged for long periods of time in meditation. In fact, all of a sudden I need a drink, because the likelihood of there being alcohol on this type of trip seems grim. But then I’m welcomed aboard with a glass of bubbly and handed an itinerary that isn’t merely alternating sessions of yoga and meditation, and things are looking up.

Days start with Tibetan yoga on the ship’s top deck, which doubles as an expansive exercise playground and the perfect place to watch the sun rise over the surrounding plains. Hilliard leads the group through a session of the fast-paced tai chi–like yoga practice—a style he calls “yoga for busy people” because of how adaptable it is to a hectic lifestyle. After learning the style only requires 15 to 20 minutes per session, it is already my favorite type of yoga. When we are all loose and ready to take on the day, fresh pressed juices are served on deck for those who have enough willpower not to immediately beeline to the sumptuous breakfast buffet that waits in the restaurant.

After an early tour through the town of Ava in Mandalay (guests choose to see the languid village by bike or horse cart, ending with a yoga session in a mango-tree orchard), the rest of the day is spent on the ship as we embark towards Bagan. The vessel is relatively small but all the essentials are there. Aside from a dip in the rooftop pool or a workout at the gym, downtime can be spent chatting with the onboard astrologer (who gives me a heads up that I’m going to need glasses in a few years), appreciating an exhibit of local art in the boat’s lounge, learning how to wear the traditional Burmese longyi in a staff-led demo, or attending a lecture on Buddhism.

Or you can waste away the afternoon at the spa—for the sake of wellness, of course. Two sweet therapists offer treatments that nod towards our romantic locale, such as the Manee Pura facial or the thanaka body exfoliant. After the sunset meditation session, I’m all kinds of rejuvenated for the cocktail party and multi-course dinner that follows.

When I wake up the next morning, I’m pleased to see that Bagan has been delivered to my cabin door. The city’s celebrated pagodas make a pleasant backdrop at breakfast before we head out for our morning tour. About a dozen of us choose to take Bagan by bike; others decide on a historic tour of the site or a visit to a market and home of a local family. At the end of our 12-kilometer bike ride, we have the option to settle our heart rates by meditating with Hilliard and van Staden in one of the ancient temples. Unfortunately, my hangover is starting to catch up with me.

But the highlight of the day is catching the sunset from the top of a pagoda that offered uninterrupted views of the plains, with Htilominlo Temple, one of the more grandiose of the bunch, taking center stage.

Even though I was never able to clear my mind enough to successfully meditate, the languorous nature of the cruise—no mandatory activities, minimal Wi-Fi, plenty of free time between activities—in combination with the unspoiled, gentle environment of our Buddhist locale made me feel undeniably more grounded. The unpretentious, easy-going approach to mindfulness as preached by Hilliard and van Staden was a revelation, too. “Don’t try so hard,” Hilliard told me, “Just sit up straight like the Buddha and give your mind the opportunity to slow down. It’s not really such a big deal.”

Keeping his suggestions in mind, I maintained impeccable posture the whole journey home and tried to just be with myself instead of scrolling mindlessly through my phone. It could have just been the residual reverie of Burma, but for a brief second or two I think I was meditating. and; three-night Road to Mandalay cruises from US$2,656 per person, all inclusive.


Meditative State: Cruising Burma’s Irrawaddy River on the Road to Mandalay

Channel your inner Buddha on a Belmond cruise through Burma.