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Trip Report Third Time and Still Charmed: Kathie and Cheryl take a Pandaw Cruise

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I have long wanted to take a Pandaw cruise. I followed the ups and downs of Paul Strachan’s company over the years and even corresponded with him about a cruise several years ago. I worried, though, that as independent travelers, we would feel constrained by the cruise. Dogster encouraged us to take a Pandaw cruise and said we could be more independent on the cruise than I thought. But I struggled to find a cruise I wanted that ran at the time of the year I was in SE Asia.

This year, I had flights in and out of Bangkok, but other than visiting Bangkok, we had no other plans. We considered some time at Sukhothai or returning to Penang, for instance, but neither of us was excited about these options. Finally, I stumbled across the Pandaw Chindwin cruise, 7 nights in the far north, well off the tourist track. The only problem was that there was just one cabin left, the owners cabin, which made the cruise quite expensive. But after some deliberation, we decided to do it. We booked the cruise at the end of July for November, then needed to get everything else in order. I immediately emailed Santa Maria, our agent in Yangon and booked three nights in Mandalay before the cruise and three nights in Yangon after the cruise. By the time I got up the next morning, I had a reply from Santa Maria saying they had booked our requested hotels.

Getting there: We had booked business class tickets to Bangkok using our United miles. Our routing was Seattle-Seoul on Asiana then on to Bangkok on Thai, arriving about 2 am. We spent a few hours in the Novotel at the airport, then back to the airport to fly to Mandalay on Bangkok Air. We usually fly Thai to Myanmar, but Thai flies to Mandalay only a few days a week, and not on the day we needed. We opted for Bangkok Air, as it flies out of BKK. Air Asia also flies to Mandalay, but they only fly from DMK.

Upon arrival at Mandalay, we were met by a driver arranged for us by Santa Maria. There are now taxis at the Mandalay airport (last time we flew in, there were none) but we were glad we had arranged a car and driver to take us to the Rupar Mandalar, a bit over an hour drive. We changed money at one of the bank exchange desks at the airport. Money is no longer the issue it used to be. You will get the official exchange rate at the airport exchange desks, and while you need to have pristine $100 bills, it’s not like the old days when you needed a wide variety of perfect US cash to pay for flights, hotels and admission fees. You can pay for almost anything with kyat now. Also, the exchange desks will exchange other currencies, notably, Singapore dollars, Euros and Pounds. There are also ATMs that accept foreign cards, but the local ATMs charge about US$5 per withdrawal.

At the Rupar Mandlar, they have added some new rooms – lovely and larger than the older rooms. Pools are under construction, so we received free cocktails on our first night and buffet or set dinner every night as compensation. However, we opted to order a la carte after the first night, remembering how good the food was. The a la carte food was excellent. Breakfasts were as superb as we remembered.

Mandalay: Mandalay is not our favorite city, but we needed to be there to catch our cruise from Monywa. So we thought we would make the best of it. We had loved our time at Sagaing in 2011, so decided we would spend a day there. Unfortunately, our day at Sagaing was a bit of a disappointment. Apparently we had seen all of the best sites on our last trip. We did enjoy seeing the 40 caves temple again, but were surprised at how many more Western visitors there were. We were glad to have the opportunity to stop at the nunnery, which we had not done last trip.

I researched what else we might do near Mandalay. I found additional ancient cities around Mandalay that are not often visited by foreigners and found a guide, Pho Se, who would gladly take us to some temples, monasteries and Buddhist ruins in the Kyauk Se area. (He can be reached at phosemdy@gmail.com) It was an all day trip, and we saw maybe half of what he had wanted to show us. The drive there was over an hour, sometimes on very bad roads. I had the thought that this is why a cruise to more remote sites is such a great idea. Several of the sites were fascinating with layers of temples, and Buddhas inside Buddhas. Cheryl made a difficult barefoot climb to visit a cave temple. I stayed below at a monastery. They brought out their oldest monk for me to meet – he was 104. I also had a long talk with several locals about the upcoming elections. If/when we get back to Mandalay, we will contact Pho Se again and will visit some of the sites we didn’t get to this trip.

Saturday morning was the day we had been waiting for – the day we started our cruise. A bus came to pick us up at 8:00 that morning. The bus made two more stops, the Inn at the Red Canal, which looks charming from the outside and the Mandalay Hill Resort, which is huge and impersonal-looking. We picked up 7 more passengers. It was a 3 hour drive from Mandalay to Monywa, where we boarded the ship. I had the idea that the ship would be at a dock… We stopped on a road running parallel to the river, climbed a few steps up, crossed another road, crossed a muddy area, then boarded a ship that wasn’t ours, walked through it and another ship before coming to the Kalay Pandaw. It is a beautiful teak ship. The name means “Baby Pandaw” as it is the smallest of the Pandaw ships, with just 5 staterooms. We were given our keys and our luggage was brought to our stateroom immediately. We unpacked – there is lots of storage space. Our owner’s suite is very spacious, with a curved bank of windows along the front of the room.

I would describe the cruise as a luxury adventure cruise. While Pandaw has cruises on the Irrawady where there are now many other cruise ships, their specialty is off-the-beaten-track cruises. Pandaw now builds its ships in Myanmar or VietNam, further contributing to the economy of these countries.

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