Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Irrawaddy River Cruise - Mandalay to Yangon, Myanmar 2016


That’s a general greeting in Myanmar and also the name of the restaurant-bar where I celebrated my birthday and first tasted Burmese cuisine.  A birthday in Mandalay – how exotic it sounds! That was the night before we embarked on the RV Pandaw 11 for a 10 day cruise down-steam on the majestic Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the capital, Yangon, formally Rangoon; around 613 miles of relaxing cruising on a fabulous ship. WOW and WOW it was!
Family having lunch at Central Market

Clock tower Mandalay
Venturing out in the middle of town, which is laid out grid-form with numbered streets, we weaved our way along dusty uneven footpaths, through the display of various wares for sale until we came to Mandalay’s central market. It was buzzing and crowded and offered a wide variety of goods for sale in bulk, notably heaps of cosmetics and massive rolls of fabulous fabrics.  

Embarkation on the RV Pandaw 11 was smooth, in time for lunch and to meet and mingle with the other 36 passengers, an interesting mix of nationalities from England, Ireland, USA, Australia and Canada and NZ. The ship is beautifully appointed; it has 24 polished teak and brass cabins with L’Occitane toiletries in the bathroom and an excellent crew of 29.  The onboard cuisine was a delicious fusion of Burmese and European dishes.

Embarking RV Pandaw 11

Our cabin on Pandaw 11

The open bar on the sundeck

Before setting sail the first evening, the two guides for our cruise took us on an afternoon city bus tour which gave us a good look at the residential areas and the different manufacturing streets of Mandalay, which is the centre of Myanmar culture.  H & S regulations or unions are definitely nonexistent in any of the manufacturing or building sites or anywhere else in Myanmar.

 Holding the power lines up to drive underneath 
Wandering along the marble carving street we saw fabulous work being done by dedicated craftsman covered in marble dust.  No masks to be seen.  The faces of statues are left for the ‘masters’ to complete each piece. We visited a silk weaving shop – no silk worms just the finished product. The currency is a mix of Myanmar Kyat (MMK) and US dollars. I did not use either at this time; I was not tempted, although there were some stunning pieces for sale. 

The Gold Leaf Hammering workshop was fascinating but it was sad to see how hard these young guys (sans ear muffs) work pounding the gold with hammers for over 5 hours to result in the finest gauge possible.  The noise was deafening.

We visited the first of many pagodas, the Mahamuni Pagoda, said to be the most revered one in Myanmar.  How many times were we to hear that claim along the road to Mandalay!

Mahamuni Pagoda - notice the sign!

The highlight of the day was the world’s longest teak bridge, the 1.2 long teak ‘U Bein’ footbridge build in 1849. We watched the sunset over the bridge from small boats while sipping ‘sunset’ cocktails. Perfect.


In colonial times the river was known as the ‘Road to Mandalay’.  I’m sure you know the song! It is said the Irrawaddy gives Myanmar its life, one can see why that is so.  The river irrigates the plains, provides a staple diet of fish.  It is an important commercial waterway; grain and teak from highland plantations, oil and raw cotton are amongst other produce shipments transported for river side manufacture or to distant refineries.  Apart from that, this mighty river is beautiful and calm with amazing sunsets and sunrises. The tranquillity is only disturbed when noisy barges pass.

There was often a lot of fascinating activity on the river bank when we berthed. The people toil hard in poor working conditions for little money.


Our cruise took us through the heart of Middle Burma visiting small villages and towns to see local agriculture and manufacturing along the rich banks first hand. We got a glimpse of a timeless, lost Burma far from the usual tourist track.  In fact it is like a journey through the history of Burma and seeing Buddhist life and faith first hand.   Apart from the many many pagodas as we passed along the banks, we saw amazing rock carvings of Buddha. 

Ancient rock carvings of Buddha

Understanding a little of Buddhism is probably the key to understanding Myanmar. It seems everywhere one is surrounded by evidence of this very active religion or philosophy ..... Monks, nuns and literally thousands of pagodas, either temples or stupas and monasteries. ‘Pagoda’ refers to a temple or a stupa. One can enter a temple, a stupa is solid. Even the smallest village proudly supports a monastery with at least one monk.

How much longer in this temple?


 Going ashore would have been challenging if the Pandaw crew had not always happily given a helping hand up the often steep river banks.  Always worth the effort  as the excursions  not only highlighted the cultural side of Myanmar, the temples, stupas and monasteries but the opportunity to wander the many small villages and mix with the locals in as they went about their daily routines.
Crew give helping hand on steep bank

Village house fire safety - plastic bags of water and a ladder

Our two fabulous guides

Relaxing in a tea house

The girls have been shopping


We saw the cultural manufacturing activities such as traditional lacquer manufacture and terracotta pottery production from the riverbank clay, plus visiting wonderful markets full of activity and happy smiling kids playing along the banks, many Colonial buildings, some so magnificent they would make a perfect exotic film set and a colourful elephant  dance.  I had expected to see hawkers in Myanmar but there were none. I had also wondered about safely; I felt completely safe at all times.

Fabulous Colonial buildings


The Pandaw Cruise Company plays a important role in improving the life of the locals not only by bringing tourists to their villages but by using their services wherever possible – horse & carts, Cyclos, and trishaws, it  supports village schools, medical clinics and produce markets.



Some of our evening entertainment was provided by locals including a traditional puppet show and a classical Burmese Dance by the Mandalay Uni of Culture.   We had movies and our guides made demonstrations on wearing the Longyi, Tha n kha make-up and cooking fun and interesting.

Trying Thanaka, a skin card product mostly work by children and women

Thanaka is widely used in Myanmar


Learning how to wear a longhi


Bagan, the ancient city and World Heritage Site was an interesting visit.  Over 3000 listed surviving pagodas are sprinkled around the site which spans 25 miles with the main concentration of the monuments around the old city.  Our guide would have loved to show us at least half of these remaining 3000 pagodas which are dedicated to Budda alone.  He was finally persuaded 5 were enough.
We were more than happy to take his word that no two Pagan monuments are the same; some are colossal brick buildings, the architecture, relics, spires, wall paintings and sculptures all vary.


Visiting too many can be rather overwhelming and tiresome what with ‘temple dress’ and ‘shoes off’ before entering.   As one of our passengers fittingly voiced at the end of the cruise “we are somewhat stupafied”.

Our interesting fellow passengers included the English actor Nigel Planer and his delightful wife Roberta. Nigel was long haired hippy Neil in the cult, mad & manic BBC comedy ‘The Young Ones’.  He now appears in musicals in London and does some writing.  Nigel recited a very funny poem he had composed about our cruise at our farewell cocktail hour.  The 6pm cocktail hour was always full of fun & laughs. John Savage had his beloved well travelled uke and each night sang an amusing ditty about the daily activities. Others did their bit too. 

Nigel & Roberta Planer

Cocktail hour on the beach

The crew say goodbye with a song
We arrive in Yangon, the former capital, stands on the Rangoon River not the Irrawaddy. These rivers were connected by the Twante canal in the early part of this century.  Yangon is a city based on a grid plan with numbered cross streets just like Mandalay, however it is a much larger city.
Yangon boasts the amazing Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous shrine in Myanmar, constructed in 585BC according to Burmese accounts. It is still to this day being embellished with enormous jewels and gold leaf. It is a very social place where families, friends and pilgrims come to picnic and where the elderly come to prepare for their next life. It can be seen from most places of Yangon day and night, as the golden roof topped with a 70 carat diamond illuminates the city. 
The Shwedagon Pagoda from out hotel window.

Yangon has many striking well preserved and renovated examples of British colonial architecture, reminders is of Yangon’s past.  Many of these grand buildings are heritage listed.

Stepping back in time I splashed out on lunch with two fellow travellers, Nancy & Kathy,  in the dining room of the iconic and oh so elegant colonial Strand Hotel which opened in 1901.

Another famous tourist attraction is the sprawling covered Bogyoke-aung-san market sometimes called Scott market.  There are over 2000 shops which offer a massive selection of souvenirs and top class handicrafts such as puppets, jewellery, Shan bags and lacquer ware. One can easily spend at least half a day wandering here.
Shopping at Scott Market

We were in Myanmar at an interesting political time for this country.  On April 1st, the military-dictated government ended after over half a century and 70 year old Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was installed in Myanmar after its victory in November 2015 free elections. Although ‘The Lady’, as she is known in Myanmar, is denied the presidency because of the 2008 military designed constitution, she took a bold step and installed a close friend as president. The new parliament created the new position of state counsellor for Suu which puts her on a level with the president; she was also appointed foreign minister and became minister in the president’s office.  There is no doubt now that The Lady is the leader and civilians are in charge!  There is much optimism and wary excitement for a democratic future in this country.

Not everyone is happy with the change in government, it is a little of ‘wait and see’. What is certain is that change is on its way, now is the time to visit Myanmar before it is swarmed by tourists and the simple life and gentleness of this beautiful country is lost.

Sung San Suu Kyi


This journey on the RV Pandaw 11 has surpassed our expectations in every way. We will miss the evening cocktail hour in the beautiful saloon bar, the delicious meals, the top deck with the open bar and the attentive happy staff who became our friends.  Our fond memories of the Irrawaddy and the life on its banks will stay with us forever, as will the magnificent sunrises and sunsets.  Myanmar is indeed ‘The Golden Land’ of wonders.   

OH and there was not a mozzie to be seen.