Following on from a successful visit to Amsterdam back in November, I was eager to expand our Travelwise River Cruise portfolio. River cruising is a fantastic way to visit numerous spots along a rivers course without the hassle of re-packing or taking transfers and internal flights. Not to mention they are much smaller boats than their seafaring big brothers so easily provide a much more intimate travelling experience. Sea cruises are like Holiday resorts on water whereas River Cruises are more like floating Boutique Hotels.
The river cruise world is vast; offering cruises throughout Europe and beyond. It was after sharing my river cruise training experience with the team at CLIA, I was amazed I had been offered a cruise with Pandaw. Only being familiar with the main European river cruise giants such as AMAWaterways, Scenic and Emerald; Pandaw was not on my immediate radar. After doing some further research, I suddenly realised just how lucky I was to be offered to join a Pandaw cruise in Myanmar. Pandaw pride themselves in offering luxurious cruising such as Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Myanmar.
Before my time in Travelwise, I had travelled to South East Asia. I had visited Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, but as my travel time was limited to 2 months, Myanmar felt just out of reach that time round. Myanmar had always been on the top of my ‘to do’ list, having heard stories of the thousands of pagodas littered across Bagan as well as the vast towering golden temples of Yangon. Myanmar felt like a dream world that hid in the shadows offstage whilst Thailand danced in the limelight. Last year Thailand received over 60 million tourist visitors whilst Myanmar only had around 3 million.
I wouldn’t say I fit the typical client profile for traditional river cruises; the river cruise client being an older generation. But I was keen to join the cruise for 7 nights and see what the fascination was all about. Anyway, age is just a number right?
Our first day was spent flying out to Myanmar via Bangkok with Thai Airways. A smooth and seamless connection got us through Bangkok and into Mandalay where we transferred to our river cruise ship; the RV Orient Pandaw, that would house us for the week. After a brief freshen up and a light lunch we headed straight into Mandalay to explore the local arts, crafts and sights.
Mandalay is a bustling & busy town with the familiar honks from taxis and mesmerising (and rather risky at times!) flow of traffic. We took time to explore the local trade shops selling items ranging from intricate teak carvings to light and delicate gold leaf. Rising from another dusty road we experienced the marble and stone carver’s street, which made carvings and statues of Buddha from the white, milky lumps of stone. We stopped off at the various temples dotted across Mandalay, including the impressive teak monastery Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung. Mandalay felt like a lost world untouched by western tourism.
Once back on the boat for the evening, the crew impressed us from the word go. With a welcome cocktail waiting for us, this was certainly a lap of luxury that we could get use to for the week. Our twin stateroom was beautifully arranged for our arrival; beautifully decked out with a sumptuous wooden interior coupled with a small en-suite shower room. It was too easy to simply unpack before heading up to the sundeck to enjoy sundown with a cool drink in hand.
An early start waited for us the next day. Although we had moored up at Sagaing overnight, it was an early sail to Mingun. A wonderful buffet breakfast welcomed us each morning. Fresh coffee, delicious pastries and even local fresh fruit made for an excellent re-fuelling for the day of excursions ahead. Our first port of call was to visit Mingun. Here we visited the Mingun Temple; which what was once the attempt of the world’s biggest temple constructed back in 1790 but stopped after 25 years when the King Bodawphaya fell ill. It is now an impressive pile of bricks complete with enormous cracks from an earthquake back in 1838. Close by, we visited the largest ringing bell in the world; originally intended to join the grand stupa of Mingun. Our final call was the Myatheintan Pagoda, founded in 1816 by the prince Ba Gyi Daw for his beloved queen Sinbyume. Modelled after the mythological Mt Meru, it represents the seven great rivers and seven great mountain ranges; this impressive white temple is the Burmese equivalent to the Taj Mahal.
Our afternoon tour led us up to the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda in the Sagaing hills. Here we were treated to panoramic views over Mandalay, Sagaing and the Irrawaddy River. After soaking up the peace and tranquillity overlooking the river valley, we headed down to Amarapura for sunset. Here lies the U Bein bridge; the largest teak bridge in the world. Upon arrival we were greeted by a typical parking lot for the visitors’ coaches along with the swathes of stalls selling fruit, souvenirs and ice creams. It felt like this was a place the locals would come to hang out and relax. After a brief step out onto the bridge itself, we were rounded up just in time for sun set. We headed out onto the lake to park up just in front of the bridge with the golden sun falling to the horizon in the background. This, along with the cocktails brought to us by our very own bar staff, made for a romantic end to the afternoon.
A more leisurely pace started us off the following day. We were treated to a cooking demonstration of preparing a traditional Burmese ginger salad. This was a mix of crunchy peanut and salad textures with a fiery hum from the ginger and chili. We were also introduced to the Burmese Longyi; their traditional dress, as well as the use of Thanakha; the familiar yellow make-up found throughout Myanmar. This is produced from the Thanakha bark ground into a paste mixed with water. This is then applied to the face and skin as a natural sun screen, beauty product and even used to relieve some of our insect bites. Understanding the local culture, food and way of life certainly gave us a better understanding of life along the Irrawaddy for the locals.
Our afternoon excursion was to Yandabo Village. Here they create thousands of identical terracotta pots from the riverbank clay, by hand. The pots are traditionally used as water storage pots and can be found dotted throughout the Burmese townships. There are slight variations of the pots which include perforated bottoms; these are used as rice steamers. But the vast majority of the items made here are the pots. These are each turned by hand out of a lump of clay. The pot then goes through various stages of beating out to a larger and thinner design. The final steps beat marks into the pots for a more aesthetic and decorative look. The pots are then fired in a large bonfire style, open air kiln. The pots are stacked around fire wood, coated in straw then open fired to produce the terracotta pots. These are everywhere throughout the town; broken pots making up walls and attractive garden boarders, with the large and finished pots basking in the hot sun. Strangely enough at the end of the tour there was no chance to then purchase the earthenware, but instead these are sold and traded along the river between the local riverside communities.
The next day we were off again to explore another local township and district typically found on the Irrawaddy. This time we embarked on a tour by tuk-tuk to the local food market in Pakokku. Here you could find all flavours found across the Far East. Anything from baby aubergines to galangal and dried spices to pharmaceutical products as well as longyis and Burmese souvenirs could be found at this sprawling market place. The chefs from the RV Orient Pandaw also joined us; here they collected ingredients for the next few days. We were then treated to another culinary demonstration upon our return to the ship. Our fantastic guide Ko Myo Win Nyunt showed us examples of the many weird and wonderful fruit and veg found in the market. Our evening treat was to join the crew and fellow guests for a beach party – Burmese style. The ship carefully moored up on one of the sand banks in the middle of the river late afternoon. The crew then unloaded comfy chairs and small drinks tables and organised in a large circle. In the middle a bonfire was lit and we were all invited to enjoy a few drinks and some music around the bonfire. A real unexpected surprise put on by the crew.
The next day excursion was visiting more of the riverside towns and villages along the Irrawaddy to see the home life of the locals. Their weathered and worn bamboo huts standing amongst the dirt track roads, but behind the fences and walls were smiles and colour of the families who lived within. The children were always first to rush out to the front gate to greet us as we passed often trying their best to sell us their hand drawn postcards. The beautiful old colonial-style houses set in a sleepy town would have made a picture perfect set for a film.
The tail end of the cruise trip was focused on Bagan; Home to over 3000 listed pagodas, temples and monuments, this was another area I was excited to visit. These beautiful, ancient structures were dotted throughout the 42 square km site, each trying its best to peak up above the tree line. The different temples and pagodas each range in size but each share the same warming brown glow in the Burmese sun light. We visited a lacquerware workshop too where we learnt about the making process of this popular Burmese homeware; the dark glossy dishes, bowls and even large desks and chairs were all sat gleaming in the souvenir shop upon the end of our tour. As a final farewell to Bagan our last experience was watching the sunset over Old Bagan with each temple gradually fading with the setting sun.
A river cruise down the Irrawaddy is a fantastic, relaxed and easy way to get see Myanmar. Although Bagan and Mandalay remain popular regions to visit they are still relatively difficult to get to unless using the small internal flights. Stories of 16 hour bus rides or tiresome train journeys still seem to be the normal way to travel around Myanmar. This is where cruising with Pandaw has its merits. The shallow draft of the cruise ship allows access into the much smaller & unexplored areas along the river, allowing you to travel in style and comfort whilst enjoying the numerous stops along the way.
Joining the RV Orient Pandaw was a truly unique experience. With its own structured and engaging itinerary, you were always in the loop of what you would experience each day. The food was fantastic on board; at no time were we left feeling hungry or thirsty. The fine dishes span a range of cuisines with the most popular being the delicious & locally sourced Burmese dishes. As an all-inclusive board basis, throughout the week we could enjoy a range of drinks to keep the Burmese heat at bay. The crew on board were the real stars of the show. Over the course of the week we got to know each of the crew members. Every one of the team went over and above their call of duty to provide a relaxing environment all through our stay. They were happy to share their stories and experiences whilst providing a warm and friendly service from the morning buffet breakfast to the evening dining service.
Contact us to discuss your own adventure to Myanmar