Our first cruise on the Irrawaddy was on the Road to Mandalay in 1996 and in 2004 we joined a Pandaw expedition cruise from Bagan to Bhamo and enjoyed it so much we waited for Pandaw to start cruising from Yangon so we could complete the navigable part of the mighty Irrawaddy.
The full Itinerary can be found here
and a shorter version joining the vessel at Prome here
We joined their December cruise-the same boat, and the same cabin of our original cruise. Welcome home...
The cruise was 70% full-all English speaking pax, a mix of the UK and the ex-Colonies, and included 7 singles who were quickly assimilated to mix with the couples. A few had travelled to Myanmar before but most were first timers, although seasoned travellers. Ages varied from early 40's to late 70's but age was no barrier on this cruise
We were quickly welcomed aboard, our luggage was in our cabin before us and we were soon on the top deck casting off in the Yangon river.
Small but cosy, surprisingly good storage space, good aircon and a compact but good bathroom with shower. Water is piping hot but takes a bit to come through and loo flushing is a bit of an art. Two is good-seven means your technique is wrong. A great feature is having your own lloyd loom seats and table outside so as to watch the river go by, supping a Mandalay sour...
Housekeeping was excellent with really efficient make over after breakfast and a full turndown during dinner. Laundry was cheap, efficient and flexible (cool wash, iron then on hanger etc) with an average price of only $2
FOOD AND DRINK
Excellent food, a mix of Asian and Western but chef would cater for all tastes and allergies. Buffet breakfast with hot A la Carte and mostly A la Carte lunch and Dinner but with a substantial choice for buffet starter and dessert/cheese. Fresh bread with every meal-we toured the super kitchens and the chef was ever-so proud of his bread maker. There was free seating and generally most moved and mixed, with a few notable exceptions who developed squatters rights on a certain table.
All water, tea & coffee, local soft drinks, beer and local spirits are included as is also a cocktail of the day at the briefing before dinner. The local spirits of Gin, Dark Rum, Whisky, Light Rum and Vodka are excellent and if you were not a wine drinker you could have a zero extras bill after 14 days.
The DIY coffee/tea/drinks station on the main deck was open from 6am till late. There was plenty of chairs/loungers on the top deck to seat everyone and when cruising this was the choice of many, whether reading, chatting, drinking, dozing or just watching the river traffic go by.
We had film shows, presentations, marionettes, dance troupes on many evenings but nothing late tg-most were wacked out and ready for bed after a long day.
We were blessed with great weather starting in Yangon at 32C and finishing at Mandalay at 28C,cloudless skies with low humidity. Evenings were cool at 15/18C and then, and when the boat was motoring against the wind ,long sleeves were needed.
On many days we had two stops and, because of the distance we had to cover, the boat cruised as late as it could before mooring at a deserted river bank before setting off at dawn the next day. Only in Bagan and Saigang did we moor in towns and near other cruise boats.
Many of the stops in the early part of the cruise were at small delta villages where we were the only tourists and a curiosity to the villagers who took more photos of us than us of them. Even in remote places there were phone shops and even little stalls sold SIM top ups. Cheap Chinese handsets have flooded the country and many stall holders had phones-some bigger and fancier than ours.
The real eye opener was the difference in undeveloped, in tourism terms, towns and villages and Bagan/Mandalay.
For the first 9 days we never came across foreign tourists and had the local villages such as Maubin,Danabyu and Myanaung to ourselves. Even major towns of Pyay, Thayatmyo and Magwe were tourist free and as I have already said, we had more photos taken of us in the local markets than we took of the village scenes. We were never approached by sellers, never saw a beggar and the children just wanted to say mingalabar, not expecting pens or sweets. One market lady apologised when her kids said "money" as they had mispronounced "morning"
It was a real shock to the system when we hit Bagan and Mandalay when we saw the tourist hoards, most of them being Burmese, not foreigners!
The two big highlights of our cruise was visiting these river towns which are still the real Myanmar and for me-watching and photographing the river traffic which varied from bamboo rafts, through a variety of barges carrying rice or aggregates to the occasional fancy Belmond Gin Palace Cruiser.
Every boat, big or tiny waved at us passing-except the Belmond Orcaella pax who could not be bothered to get up from their luxury sun loungers around their pool, nuf said.
We were accompanied on the visits by our Burmese guide and also a few crew members to make sure we kept up and did not fall behind. They also helped with local shopping -SIM cards, antibiotics, camera memory cards, gifts etc. The cruise stops cover many places in Burmese history and we visited stupas, village markets, old forts, colonial buildings, agricultural workhouses,potteries, and even a golf course founded in 1885 complete with grazing cattle on the fairways.
On return to the boat after each trip our shoes were removed for cleaning, a cold drink was offered and, most importantly we had an antiseptic hand gel-this was also mandatory before all meals.
WiFi and MOBILE RECEPTION
WiFi was intermittent and only in the main villages when moored and only on the sun deck. There was always a good signal using a local SIM, both for calls and data- there always seems to be a mast on sight along the river.
Some pax took Malarone, others just sprayed and covered up and there were very few bites-and non on the boat itself. Once we got to Mandalay we were invaded by tiny moths in the evenings.
This January in Myanmar, especially in the dry dusty zone, coughs and colds and especially sore throats , were rife everywhere. Wherever and however you travelled, boat, coach or aircraft there were coughs and sneezes everywhere from tourists and locals alike. Most on Pandaw ended up with a sore throat or cough but only a couple had travellers tummy-certainly not due the food coming from the galley.
The Purser was very helpful dishing out remedies and also very efficiently treating a couple of cuts-he and the other first aiders are trained by an International medical company.
This is not a inexpensive cruise although many had booked early to get discounts. Some booked direct, some as part of an Agents package and arrived through a variety of airlines and airports-Bangkok, Singapore ,KL, Taiwan etc etc. Other cruises of a similar length could be 50% more . Pandaw is a traditional teak fitted river expedition boat with no pool and certainly no jackets for dinner although many of the ladies dined in very smart casual.
As has been reported in other reviews on extended trips, there can be a touch of tribalism towards the end and this cruise was no exception. Nothing serious and not country specific. It did not detract from the pleasure of the cruise-in fact it could be quite amusing to observe.
If there was a criticism it is that language skills of the purser and guide were not of the best although one could not fault their efficiency enthusiasm and dedication to our care. Pandaw, as the original cruise company on the Irrawaddy, has found their staff being poached by the many start up cruise companies .There are now 10 cruise companies and 35+ boats plying the Irrawaddy-15 years ago there were 5 boats so the problem will not go away, with the fancy boats paying top $ for the best guides.
this was a memorable cruise, good value for money and a delightful time spent on a boat of real character. They are planning short cruises around the delta which we plan to join-and maybe a Chindwin expedition?
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