River Blessings

River Blessings

Myanmar Shwe Kyet Yet

This season marks 20 years since Belmond’s river cruises in Myanmar have supported health and education initiatives along their routes. We look at the increasing role their ship doctors have played over the past two decades.

It is Saturday morning in Myanmar. Outside a small building in Bagan, close to a beautiful old wooden monastery high above the Ayeyarwady River, a long line of people wait patiently to be seen. Some have travelled for two days to be here. Some have pooled resources to come by truck. Others have walked so many miles without shoes that their feet require treatment. They are here to see the “famous doctor”, Dr Hla Tun, who arrives aboard Belmond Road to Mandalay to mete out his services at Belmond’s Free Clinic.

Local life in Myanmar

It is likely that Dr Hla Tun will see 200-300 people today—numbers are up during Myanmar’s cool season. In the past 11 years he has treated more than 150,000 patients for free or subsidised according to their circumstances, up and down the country. Patients are offered accommodation at the monastery and treated to lunch at the clinic—vast black pots of curry and rice.

The Free Clinic is just one of the projects set up by Belmond in the past two decades, a result of contributions from guests aboard Belmond Road to Mandalay and its sister ship, Belmond Orcaella, and of the exceptional expertise and passion of Dr Hla Tun and Dr Oo Ko, the Belmond Orcaella medic. For travellers voyaging along Myanmar’s breathtaking waterways, it is a way of giving back to the communities that welcome them.

“We are the only ships in Myanmar that have full-time doctors on board,” says General Manager Eddie Teh. “We travel to really remote areas that sometimes can’t be reached by road, so it gives us the perfect opportunity to support the community.” Both doctors treat the passengers and crew on board their respective ships, as well as giving free clinics and health checks in stops along their routes.

Two new buildings have been added since the clinic was built: one is a physiotherapy room; the other an eye clinic where reading glasses are distributed to the elderly. It appears Dr Hla Tun’s quiet, kind manner proves a tonic whatever the ailment. “Some patients may have a cold, but going away with some paracetamol having seen the famous doctor makes them feel instantly better,” says Eddie. Near the clinic, stalls and small businesses have popped up. “In some ways we have generated a small economy,” he adds.

Belmond has also built or renovated 25 schools in the region. The first was launched in 1995 simultaneously with Belmond Road to Mandalay, when a nursery school was built at the ship’s embarkation village outside Mandalay. Since then, two dozen more have been added at other riverside halts. Ongoing funding is provided to support teachers’ salaries, food, stationery and scholarships. Some of the brightest students have gone on to university or good jobs—some are now employed as staff on the ships.

Belmond Road to Mandalay

Pop-up clinics are another development. Dr Hla Tun started running them for victims of the fierce cyclone season in the villages along the Ayeyarwady River. During the devastating tropical storm Nargis of 2008, he made 66 trips into the worst-hit regions. On Belmond Orcaella, Dr Oo Ko has set up further community projects, including irrigation and storage tanks for drinking water, along with the provision of solar panels in villages with no electricity.

The projects have certainly engaged the support of guests. Trainee doctors or retired medics volunteer their services or donate to specific projects; through them such innovations as the eye clinic have come to fruition. It is inspiring to see how even the smallest donations can radically change lives. And remember, if you have any old reading glasses, bring them along on your next trip.


A Monk in Myanmar
  • Total students in schools: 3,000
  • Cost of building a school: US$6,000-8,000
  • Cost of a primary school student’s stationery for one year: US$4-6
  • Scholarship for high-school students or college students: US$300-500
  • Victims of Cyclone Nargis helped by Dr Hla Tun: 35,000
  • Weekly patients visiting Bagan clinic: 500-800
  • Cost of a course of antibiotics: US$5-8
  • Children supported in orphanages near Maymyo: approx 1,000

by Alice Riley-Smith