A ccording to the people who know about these sorts of things, when Rudyard Kipling famously wrote about ‘the road to Mandalay’ he was actually referring to the Irrawaddy. This mighty river in Myanmar (formerly Burma) rises among glaciers in the Himalayas and flows for 2,100km into the Andaman Sea. Its non-Anglicised name, Ayerawaddy Myit, can be translated as ‘river that brings blessings to the people’. It’s certainly a blessing for me, as I’m here to experience the romance of this timeless stretch of water on the luxury, custom- built Sanctuary Ananda, on a five-day cruise that will take us from Mandalay to Bagan, the ancient temple site that’s home to a thousand spires. We check in to our floating home – and then immediately disembark to hit the streets of Mandalay. It may not be in-your-face pretty, but it’s a photographer’s dream, with something to catch the eye at every turn: women riding sidesaddle on motorbikes, brightly coloured open-air buses crammed with locals going who-knows-where, and shaved-headed monks and nuns collecting alms, wearing saffron-red and delicate pink robes respectively. Mandatory in Mandalay for first-time visitors is Kuthodaw Pagoda, aka the ‘the world’s largest book’. Here, surrounding a central golden stupa 70 (a dome-shaped shrine), are 730 white ‘caves’ laid out in beautifully serried, Instagrammable rows. Each one contains a single stone tablet inscribed with Buddhist teachings. The world’s largest book, indeed: we’re told that if you laid the slabs on top of each other, they’d reach a height of 20 storeys. And if you did nothing but read for eight hours a day, it would take you 15 months to get through them all (after you learned the ancient Pali language, of course). Farewelling Mandalay we finally set sail (is that the right term for a boat with no sails?) and spend some time exploring our luxe new digs. Hosting no more than 45 guests, there are 21 cabins spread out over three decks on Sanctuary Ananda. My luxury suite on the top deck is so spacious you’d forget you were on a boat if it wasn’t for the ever-changing scenery outside. There’s a bar (with resident mixologist), an expansive deck with plunge pool, a day spa (don’t leave without having a Burmese massage), great restaurant and even a library. Contemporary yet with a nod to local heritage and colour, it’s all super-chic and very, very comfortable. By late afternoon we’re back on dry land again, gazing out from the terrace of Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda to the temple-studded emerald hills of Sagaing. Afterwards, a visit to a local orphanage and monastic school is moving, sobering and uplifting, all at the same time.