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Irrawaddy cruise, Burma

Author: John M. (More Trip Reviews by John M.)
Date of Trip: January 2001

By about 9 pm we were back on board seated at one long table, and eating biscuits, chocolate and whatever the crew had managed to find. They also broke out more spirits, wine and beer.

Come the next morning, we discovered the crew had worked tirelessly right through the night, and the galley had prepared hot breakfasts for everyone. During a briefing over coffee and tea, Win told us that we would be steaming non-stop to Mandalay for repairs before continuing our cruise - a decision that brought rousing cheers from the passengers.

I thought to myself: "God, these Pandaw addicts are tough". One retired Melbourne surgeon was on the wrong side of 85, while there were a number of others in their early 70's.

By that night, as we entered Mandalay Harbor at sunset - the view was memorable - people had all but forgotten what the crew had started referring to as the "unfortunate incident". And the storm had resulted in a strong bond forming between all the passengers, as at the time it had been a harrowing experience.

During the afternoon of the next day in Mandalay we drove to U Bein, scene of a 1.2km teak footbridge - the world's longest - and after walking to the halfway mark we moved to small rowboats and at sunset enjoyed cocktails on the water, served from an ice cooler that Win had loaded aboard his own vessel. It was pure luxury.

The following day, at the usual morning briefing, Win explained to us what had happened during the "unfortunate incident". Using a white board and diagrams, together with a large model of the Pandaw IV, he talked about what had been a freak occurrence - the first time such an incident had happened in the 15 years the Pandaw has been operating. By that stage, his explanation was like water off a duck's back as we had all become so engrossed in the beauty of the cruise.

At the conclusion, a Scottish passenger stepped forward, and on behalf of the passengers asked that the crew be congratulated and thanked them for their outstanding performance during the storm.

As one day melted into the next, we enjoyed on-shore excursions through ancient villages, visited stupas and monasteries and whiled away the hours enjoying views of the river from the massive sundeck - which since Mandalay was sporting a new tarpaulin to shade us from the heat of the sun.

At nights we were entertained by Burmese dancers and traditional puppet shows, attended films about the Pandaw's vitally important role in Cyclone Nargis and the company's Mekong cruises, or listened to lectures and watched slide shows by one of the passengers, an American geologist who has travelled through China and Mongolia.

A highlight was stopping at Katha, where we travelled around the streets by horse drawn carts, and saw the old home where George Orwell is supposed to have written his best selling novel "Burmese Days" while working as a police officer in the Upper Irrawaddy city.

Another was passing through the second and third Irrawaddy defile - where the river narrows and has cliffs and hills on either side. The second defile is especially stunning with towering gorges lined by forests of teak, dwarfing the Pandaw IV.

We also saw stone masons carving massive and intricate Bhuddas, marvelled at the way in which about 60 grams of gold can be beaten into more than 5,000 pieces of gold leaf, and visited silver work shops.

As we exited the second defile, the vessel swung through 180 degrees and began the return journey to Mandalay.

In Mingun we moored for the night and wandered through the massive ancient unfinished 50 meter high Pa Hto Daw Gyi Pagoda (it was meant to be 150 meters in height) and also saw the world's biggest working bell.

At Sagaing, one of Burma's major meditation centres, we visited one of more than 1,000 hermitages and sanctuaries where some 5,000 monks and nuns live. Burma has, in fact, more than half a million monks, while Mandalay alone has in excess of 5,000 temples and stupas.

On our final night - the 10th - there were farewell cocktails on the sundeck at dusk where we were introduced to each of the almost 30 crew members including the captain and first officer, bar tenders, chefs, housekeepers, stewards and laundry staff.

We departed the Pandaw IV at 7 am the next day and drove to the Mandalay airport where we happened to arrive at the same time as one of the Burmese generals. I subsequently discovered he was Major General Myint, from the Defense Department, and he greeted us like long lost relatives, shaking everyone's hand in front of television news cameras. Obviously we were his public relations exercise for the day.

That the vast majority of the passengers were repeat clients - many had done two or more Pandaw cruises - is testimony not only to the quality of the cruises, but to the exceptional service, food and drink on board.

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