In the spring of 2014, the lauded Orient-Express collection rebranded itself as Belmond—a move, the company states, that allowed the 45 luxury hotels, trains and river cruises that comprise the collection to rally around a promotable global brand identity—one that was free of a limiting association with their former namesake train, the iconic Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, not to mention the tricky licensing circumstances that name entailed.
And the company is, indeed, much more than one famous train. In fact, it operates no less than six luxury trains, spanning from Singapore to the Scottish Highlands to the steps of Machu Picchu, as well as Harper-recommended, destination-defining hotels in both established and up-and-coming travel locales across all corners of the globe.
One of those burgeoning markets is Myanmar (formerly Burma), the South Asian country which is welcoming tourists to its ancient cities, dense jungles and vibrant villages after decades hidden from the West. In addition to the stately Belmond Governor’s Residence in Yangon, Belmond has been operating the Belmond Road to Mandalay, an 82-guest river cruiser, along Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River since 1995. In July 2013, they launched the Belmond Orcaella, a smaller 50-guest barge named after a local species of dolphin, to traverse the narrower and shallower Chindwin River that stretches to the far north of the country.
We spoke with Eddie Teh, general manager of the Belmond Road to Mandalay and Belmond Orcaella, about the many charms of Myanmar and why a river cruise is the best way to experience them.
"The appeal of a river cruise is to see all these different places, all of these beautiful landscapes and villages and people, and your room follows you."
Andrew Harper Staff: What attracts travelers to Myanmar? What surprises them?
Eddie Teh: Myanmar recently opened itself up to the world. So there is a big attraction for rediscovering what feels like a new land. It’s really like going back in time for the travelers. They tell me, “You know, Eddie, the people seem happy.” They’re not begging for food like in some places. People grow their own food; they’re self-sufficient. It’s truly charming and surprising how friendly the people are, which leads to a beautiful exchange of cultures.
AHS: What sets a river cruise apart from other types of travel? What’s the appeal?
ET: The appeal of a river cruise is to see all these different places, all of these beautiful landscapes and villages and people, and your room follows you. It’s the best way to see the country, and a very gentle way to travel—sitting on the observation deck whenever you wish, constantly looking at all that’s passing you. The roads here are almost impossible to travel, but no matter where you go on a cruise you know you can come back to the comfort and safety of the ship.
AHS: What level of involvement do you have with the communities along the river?
ET: Belmond has been based in Mandalay for more than 20 years. Early on, the Belmond Road to Mandalay set up a school and found that a lot of the former students ended up working for us. Now we are involved with three community projects. We have doctors on all of our vessels, and part of their role besides caring for passengers and staff is that they create clinics. These are free clinics, and they can see more than 300 patients a day—that’s more than the Bagan hospital. The patients come from all over. They’ll share transport, and it takes some of them days to make the trip. So it’s a significant thing. The infrastructure here for healthcare is poor. There’s a real need to help people.
We also create pop-up clinics at villages along the route. The doctor will get off of the ship and treat villagers while the passengers are touring a site. Our trips have different purposes. Sometimes we are going to assess patients and their progress, but another is to see what people need and then bring supplies. On one trip we brought solar panels and set them up on schools and homes for an area that had never had electricity past 6 p.m. On other trips we set up wells, or build reservoirs. Our main aim is to complete the project. In these rural and inaccessible areas, prolonged projects are difficult to manage. So our goal is to start a project and get it done while we are there.
AHS: What are some of the highlights of the two cruises?
ET: For the Belmond Road to Mandalay, it’s arriving in Bagan. The city has a special charm and a very mystical sense to it with the ancient buildings. And you’re in this big vessel passing through all of these cliffs. Bagan is so beautiful in the morning. There’s mist in the air, and the sunrise is incredible. You can take a hotair balloon ride over the city and feel like Indiana Jones discovering temples. You can do the same by bicycle, and then you can get up close and really feel like you have discovered this ancient place.
Along the Chindwin, it would be arriving at a Naga village during the last part of a trip, and seeing the Naga tribe of people. It’s a small community at the very far northern border of Myanmar and India. It’s an amazing sight, all of the colors and costumes, the traditional dances, the children. They are known for their weaving skills and the colors and textiles are incredible. There is a lot of culture exchange with the guests, and an interest to see the guests and see what they do. They are a lovely and charming and musical people—there’s a sound they can make that has a totally different sound to it than anything in China or India or Myanmar. You just have to hear it.
AHS: Many travelers to Myanmar report not seeing other tourists during their entire trip. Because of that scarcity, is there a unique relationship between locals and tourists where you and your guides have a larger role functioning as bridges between cultures? Does this present any particular challenges or rewards?
ET: You generally won’t see other tourists when you visit Myanmar. In Bagan, during the peak season, yes—you’ll see many there. But for our travelers, you don’t see as many because we visit rural and less accessible areas.
The nicest thing is that the locals here are so charming and welcoming. The guides don’t have to do much explaining or preparation for the guests to understand that. Young children will walk up and give flowers to the guests, where in other parts of the world it could be more usual that they would be begging for food or money. So it’s very different and welcoming in that regard.
If there is a challenge, the biggest one is probably removing shoes and socks when entering religious places! I think there is some resistance to that because in some places the ground, perhaps it doesn’t seem as clean because of betel chewing, for example. So we carry towels for our guests to wipe off their feet and clean their shoes.
Some people find it intrusive to walk through the villages and go to someone’s house. But the guests are actually quite welcome. The people here are proud of their lives and livelihoods, and not ashamed for others to see them and their homes. This is somewhat different than the first-world where people might be more sensitive to others seeing their homes and their things, and so they feel intrusive. So the guides help to make them feel comfortable.
This article was originally featured in the Traveler magazine. Click here to read the full interview with Belmond's Eddie Teh.