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Trip Report Northern Burma on the RV Pandaw II

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The thirty passengers going on this cruise flew from Yangon to Kalemyo on Sept. 4, 2014, and boarded the boat at Kalewa on the Chinwin River in northwest Burma. We traveled as far north as Homalin, then sailed south to Bagan, and, leaving the Chinwin near Mandalay, set forth north on the Irrawaddy River as far as the Second Defile (gorges) near Shwegu and Kyun-Daw. We then reversed direction and disembarked in Mandalay on Sept. 23, being aboard the vessel, altogether, twenty nights.

I have quite mixed feelings about this trip. They are both of a personal nature about myself and an evaluation of Pandaw. Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to go to northern Burma and my two visits to Burma twenty years ago, when most of the country was off limits to foreigners, fueled the desire. Getting to that remote area necessitated joining an adventure such as that offered by Pandaw. What I failed to realize was that there would be hours and hours, day after day, of unscheduled activity. I was bored out of my skull half of the time. One can read only so much. The sameness of the view---river traffic, small huts along the shore, women washing clothes on rocks beside the water---began to blunt the senses. Generally, we visited two villages ashore each day and, before long, I had to use discipline not to say, "if you've seen one village, you've seen them all." I was not alone in that sentiment. At the same time, however, visiting the villages, talking to the people, and see their living style was a highlight of the trip.

Now, about Pandaw, the staff, crew, and passengers. Of the thirty passengers, about half were from Australia. The rest were from the U.S., the U.K., and Sweden. It was a congenial group, but I found it stressful to have to make conversation at every meal and at the evening cocktail hour (when a briefing about the next day was given) with twenty-nine of my newest best friends. Accommodations were good and we passengers were pampered by the crew. As for food, I would give A+ for presentation and B+ for quality. The chef liked dishes to have dramatic appearances and he made inexpensive ingredients look like haute cuisine. As an example, he took a martini glass, put a little milk in it, added a few cubes of mango, and served it as dessert. The best food was the bread, whose baker rose in the middle of the night to bake fresh.

I regret to have to say that the guide, while kind, generous, and hardworking, should go back to his original occupation in the construction business. He was not a teacher and could not explain most things in an intelligible manner. He had a limited English vocabulary, his pronunciation was often difficult to understand, and he used Burmese sentence construction (object, verb, subject) so that we listeners had to reassemble as best we could what he was telling us. The Purser likewise had limited understanding of English. In dealing with these men, I went around in circles a lot.

I am sorry to end my report on a bad note. On Day 14, one day north of Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River, I developed excruciating pain in the lower abdomen. I'll save you all the details, but say that I was terribly ill for a week, then flew directly from Mandalay to Bangkok for medical treatment, and, after three days, returned to the U.S. The Digestive Disease MD in Bangkok diagnosed my illness as food poisoning. The persistent cough that I developed, which added to my intestinal misery, was attributed by the respiratory specialist to the wind and other environmental factors of the cruise. Making arrangements for me to fly to Bangkok and contacting my insurance company were a nightmare because of limited Internet access and telephone service. In fact, my insurance company failed to cancel my return ticket and I had to buy another one from Bangkok. The message here is that unless a tourist is in the immediate vicinity of Bagan or Mandalay, there is no professional medical treatment available in northern Burma. I still feel that I was a lucky woman, however, because of the exceptional care of the Pandaw staff, crew, and passengers. ZZ

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