Secrets of the Irrawaddy
Our Marketing Executive, Laura, recently enjoyed a Pandaw river cruise along the Irrawaddy exploring the highlights of untouched Burma. Read her exclusive review:
In March I joined Pandaw River Adventures for a 4-night Irrawaddy river cruise from Bagan to Mandalay on board the Orient Pandaw. Burma is a mystical land of glistening lakes, legendary rivers, emerald forests and remote villages unchanged for centuries. An intensely Buddhist country, it is home to ancient temples, shimmering stupas and intriguing monasteries.
Upon landing in Yangon a local guide took us on an informative tour of the city which is Burma’s spiritual heart, thanks to the glistening Shwedagon Pagoda, the breathtaking Buddhist monument around which everything else revolves. A visit to this magnificent pagoda is a must, to see the devotees and monks worshipping and meditating amongst the shrines and statues. The huge gold stupa is encrusted with over 4,500 diamonds and sparkles brightly in the Burmese sun. In downtown Yangon the streets are lined with crumbling yet impressive colonial architecture, colourful open-air markets and lively street vendors.
I flew from Yangon to join the Orient Pandaw in Bagan and settled into my cabin. The ship is a replica of a vessel dating from 1865 and is hand-crafted in brass and teak, with an elegant colonial atmosphere. Pandaw ships offer the chance to explore remote and often hard-to-navigate rivers and coasts on a journey that is designed for total relaxation. There are no TVs or phones on board and the Wi-Fi is not always reliable, however this encourages social interaction with other passengers and we all quickly became friends, making this a perfect cruise for single travellers. My air-conditioned cabin had beautiful wood panelling, a lovely bathroom with an excellent shower and French windows which opened onto a table and two wicker chairs on the walk-around deck outside. The covered sun deck with bar is the perfect place to sit on a teak lounger and watch the stunning scenery pass by, or enjoy a cocktail with new friends.
Meals are served in the main deck restaurant, with large, floor to ceiling windows that can be opened up to let a refreshing breeze blow through. Burmese food is a unique blend of Thai, Indian and Chinese influences. The food on board is amazing, and the chef is happy to accommodate any dietary requirements. Breakfast is buffet-style, and for those who would like to try it, a traditional Burmese breakfast is also available every morning. For early risers breakfast is preceded by coffee, tea and light bites on the sun deck. Lunch is served either buffet style or standard sit-down, while dinners are four-course affairs. Coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer and domestic spirits are complimentary and the waiters remember your favourite drink and keep you regularly topped up!
At cocktail hour on the sun deck the guides give briefings on the following day’s itinerary. Cultural events and activities offered on board range from puppet shows to cookery demonstrations, ship tours and presentations on Burma’s history. An unforgettable experience was when the ship tied up on a sandbank one evening and the crew organised a barbecue cocktail party on the beach. We danced around a bonfire whilst the captain sang local songs, the crew set off fireworks and the local villagers came and joined in.
The fascinating excursions were the real highlight of the cruise. Accompanied by the ship’s tour guide we visited a wide range of pagodas, temples, monasteries and stupas (remember to cover your knees and shoulders when visiting temples, and take off your shoes). An experience never to be forgotten was climbing the Shwesandaw Pagoda to see the sun rise over the ancient city of Bagan and its 3,000 monuments. We took a local tuk tuk to Pakokku and explored the lively local market and cigar factory, saw the pottery-making process at the famous Yandabo village, visited an intriguing lacquerware workshop and enjoyed a horse-drawn cart ride to the ancient monasteries of Inwa. A trip up the Tant Kyi Taung Mountain to the magnificent hilltop stupa gave stupendous views over the Irrawaddy river, and was followed by a traditional elephant dance performance at a village and a quick game of football with the local children!
Pandaw support a number of clinics in the Bagan area and we made a rewarding visit to one of these clinics to meet a doctor and learn about his work with the local villagers. Another highlight of this cruise is a boat trip on the Taungthaman lake to watch the sunset behind the famous U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. After each excursion we were welcomed back on board with a cold towel and a refreshing drink, whilst our shoes were taken away to be cleaned.
Tradition runs deep in the golden land of Burma. Women decorate their faces with Thanaka paste, men wear the sarong-like longyi and clothes are washed in the river. A cruise on a Pandaw ship is the ideal way to see the traditions and cultures of remote Burmese communities. It is perfect for those who wish to travel in comfort, yet have an adventurous spirit and a desire to discover new places.