When considering how best to visit the somewhat mysterious country of Myanmar for the first time, a river cruise had honestly not occurred to me. But then, thanks almost entirely to social media, I saw more and more mentions of various luxury river cruises that sail on the mighty Ayeyarwady River, either from Bagan to Mandalay or the reverse. The trips looked amazing and seemed to highlight some of the country’s most iconic cities and experiences. So when it came time to plan a much needed vacation, I leapt at the opportunity to experience life on the Strand Cruise.
Legacy of The Strand
First opening its doors in 1901, The Strand in Yangon is one of the world’s great historic luxury hotels. Throughout the decades, The Strand has been the place to stay in this part of the world, attracting luminaries throughout the ages from Orwell to Bowie. It was, and still is really, at the geographic center of cultural life in Yangon, and although it’s changed hands many times over the years, it still stands. Through wars, neglect and political upheaval, The Strand Hotel has always remained at 92 Strand Road and now, thanks to a massive remodel last year, it’s been returned to its former glory but with all the modern conveniences. A couple of years ago the owners decided to bring that same level of luxury, service and comfort to the water and launched The Strand luxury cruise.
The Ship and Onboard Life
Now in its third season, The Strand Cruise is the latest luxury cruise to hit the river, taking a maximum of just 56 passengers in 28 cabin suites to some of the most remote and beautiful areas of Myanmar. The Strand Cruise truly is an extension of the hotel in nearly every way. That beautifully designed lobby of the hotel is reflected in the teaks and colors of the boat and even the cabins felt more like hotel rooms than cramped cruise ship berths. Walking into my bedroom for the first time I couldn’t believe I was on a boat, every amenity and special luxury touch I loved about the hotel was there onboard the ship as well. This isn’t an easy achievement, but The Strand has turned a nice hotel stay in Yangon into an all-encompassing travel experience in Myanmar.
But that was purposeful. The ship was built to order by The Strand, every design detail and embellishment carefully selected to represent the best of Burmese luxury and refinement, while also being a cozy place for guests to relax. Within a few minutes it was easy to forget that I was on a river cruise ship. The room was spacious, well designed with warm teak wood floors and floor to ceiling windows allowing the landscapes to be the showcase, as they should be. The bathroom was the largest I’ve seen on a river cruise ship with amenities that mirrored my experience at The Strand Hotel in Yangon. Add in conveniences like air conditioning that actually kept up with the temperatures and onboard WiFi, and it’s a modern experience as well as a classically designed one.
My only wish is that the itinerary had been longer than 4 days, but that’s the norm for the ship – trips are either 3 or 4 days depending on which direction along the river you’re traveling. But it was more than enough time to get to know the ship and all of its incredible little touches. By designing the ship themselves, The Strand guaranteed a certain level of sophistication but also of ease for the traveler. Nothing seemed out of place or forced, from the stunning pool deck to the lounge with specially made board games with a Burmese twist, all of the spaces and features coexist in perfect harmony. Aside from the public spaces, the food was of course one of the highlights of the experience, just as it is at The Strand Hotel in Yangon. Employing different themes for lunches and dinners throughout the voyage, each dish is individually prepared, creating a restaurant experience on the water, which many times does not occur on some river cruise ships. It felt as if I were enjoying a fine dining experience at every meal because, well, I was. Even breakfasts became an important occasion, choosing between a myriad of choices and, after just the first day, servers remembered my preferences and insatiable need for coffee.
That level of service is what is most impressive though, and transforms the experience into something truly special. Being met with a smile by every staff member, those same individuals remembering all of my likes and dislikes, which I think is noteworthy for such a short cruise. That’s no small effort and has been missing on some other cruises I’ve taken. Ultimately, remembering that I like Diet Coke at dinner doesn’t make or break a trip, but it’s a welcome embellishment, it made me feel special and valued and that, that is ultimately what luxury travel is all about.
I wasn’t sailing on the Ayeyarwady though to enjoy perfectly cooked eggs. I was there to experience Myanmar for the first time, to see and learn as much as I could and The Strand became an integral partner in the adventure. Immediately after landing in Bagan the experience started and just as quickly I knew that I would be well looked after throughout the week. The Strand not only uses local guides and experts at every stop along the river, but the groups are never more than 5 or 6 people. They want to keep everything intimate and special, ensuring everyone enjoys what really is a bucket list adventure for most travelers.
The excursions include some of the country’s most famous sights such as the main temples in Bagan, the highlights of Mandalay and other important sites along the way like Mingun and Amarapura. But The Strand also includes special experiences during the trip like horse drawn cart rides to major sights and special embellishments I don’t want to spoil.
More than that though, The Strand Cruise enabled me to see and experience Myanmar in a way that was perfect for me and my travel style. Since it was my first trip to the country I wanted to see some of the most important sights, while also learning as much as I could along the way. I also just wanted to BE, to enjoy the moment and the incredible otherness that traveling in Myanmar can be like at times. The Strand enabled this in ways I could never have duplicated on my own, all with flair, comfort and ease. It was the ideal way for me to experience Myanmar and I know I’m well prepared to further that education the next time I visit.
The Strand Cruise exemplifies everything that luxury travel should be in the 21st century. During the cruise I had the opportunity to chat with most of the other folks sailing with me that week. We all came from a variety of backgrounds, but we also had a lot in common. Most of us were between 35-50 years old, came from professional backgrounds but, more importantly, we all had a fierce love of travel and a strong, unabiding desire to see the world. None of us would have elected to sail with The Strand had we not believed the experience to be immersive and personal while, simultaneously, creating special moments and offering certain luxuries that are impossible to find elsewhere. It’s a special combination and, from my experience, not easy to execute, but The Strand accomplishes this lofty goal of immersive luxury with ease.
The modern traveler does not want to be removed from the places they visit, they want to get up close and personal and to really and truly experience special places around the world. That’s especially true I think for the luxury traveler who understands the inherent value of experiences over things, of memories over mementos. The Strand is the ideal embodiment of these ideals, offering up incredible experiences in a dreamlike setting with ease and comfort. I can honestly think of no better way to experience Myanmar and I hope, very sincerely, to return and further my own education into the culture of this wonderful country.