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Loved Myanmar, but it will be a while before I want to see another golden pagoda


Jan 3rd, 2019, 09:22 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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Shandy, The Pandaw cruise was on my third trip to Burma. It was a wonderful cruise, far off the tourist track. We saw a few Westerners in the town, Monywa from which we departed. It's about an hour north of Mandalay. The cruise ended at Homalin, and we encountered a few Westerners there who had been on a group trek in northern Burma.

Personally, I don't think a cruise (even a Pandaw cruise) is the best introduction to Burma, One really needs time on the ground to begin to get a flavor for the place. I consider Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon the must-see places for a first trip.
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Jan 3rd, 2019, 11:56 AM
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Kathie: I have to agree with you. I am really pleased that I opted for the 8 days on the ground before joining the cruise. I think I would have been short-changing myself if I had done the cruise alone. As much as I enjoyed the cruise, and I really did, I think the best part of the trip was the time at Kalaw and Inle Lake.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 02:46 AM
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It’s just occurred to me that I don’t think I mentioned another reason why I chose Pandaw was because they have a number of trips where there is no single supplement. Likewise the family with the two children on the trip didn’t have to pay for the children on this particularl trip. The two children, about 9 and 13, really enjoyed the trip and were actually telling mum and dad they wanted to do another one at the end of the trip. They were seriously considering booking out one of the other ships which sleeps only 12. The crew looked after them very well. In their case they had a part Asian background and had travelled there several times and were well versed in many of the more exotic foods available and weren’t put off by any dirty conditions etc and were very happy to explore and see everything. The purser said it was a delight to have them on board as they have had children before who simply wanted to spend the whole time on facebook etc and weren’t interested in walking around the numerous temples. Of course, its up to the parents to decide whether their own children would enjoy it. Incidentally, there is wi-fi available on board up in the main salon/deck. Occasionally we were out of a range but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Over the first two days we visited various temples and pagodas around Bagan. This varied from the more important and elaborate ones with explanations from our guide (who was with us for the full trip) to time to wander around some of those slowly falling to pieces and no one else around so that we could simply soak up the atmosphere. In the late afternoon we were taken to one of the higher spots at Bagan in order to watch the sunset and likewise the following night. The sunsets in Myanmar were amazing. Never before have I been anywhere where the sunset EVERY day was wonderful. I had so many sunset photos that I just stopped taking them in the end.

We visited a number of workshops during the week and of course there were always things to purchase but at no time did we feel pressured to make a purchase. We were always shown how the goods were actually made which generally was quite interesting. The difference in quality was very evident between what was available direct from the workshop to the cheaper mass-produced stuff available at the markets so, if you wanted quality, you knew you would be getting it at the workshops. Workshops that we visited were lacquerware making, cigars, pottery, weaving and my favourite being the gold leaf making - very interesting, I had absolutely no idea of the effort involved.

At major tourist sites, particularly around Bagan, you will be importuned by children trying to sell you things. There was also a group hanging around where the ship was docked. Some of the children were only about 5 or 6 trying to sell you their very childish drawings. I considered buying one of the drawings simply because the children were so cute but I was told not to do so. There have been cases where parents are not sending the children to school because they can make, what to them, is a reasonable/good amount of money from the tourists. Likewise, I learnt the hard way not to brush off the young ladies with a ‘maybe later’. Each time I returned to the ship the same young lady would be there who of course remembered my name (they usually started off with ‘what’s your name’, ‘where are you from’) And then it would be ‘but I’ve waited for you to come back, you said you would buy something later’ which made you feel a heel, even though you know its all part of the patter.

Of course not all children are trying to sell you things and I did love interacting with them at the smaller villages and they were often delighted to have their photos taken. If mum/dad were around I would ask permission which usually amounted to me pointing to my camera and then the children. The problem was they would then want to pose in a very formal way! Our rather eccentric English lady who had been to Myanmar many times brought along on this trip one of those Polaroid cameras which print out the picture on the spot. She was a great hit with the children when she gave them the photo afterwards. M was really quite amazing. I think she probably ate only 3 dinners with us for the trip. Each night she would be off with some of the crew members, eating at their house, going to a bar with them for karaoke or watching the English soccer at a bar which they apparently love. When there was the cane ball match between our crew and one of the other crews she bought them all fake Manchester United shirts to wear for it. Not once did she choose what to eat off the menu, the chef cooked a meal specifically for her from her favourties. . When we went ashore for an excursion she would go ashore as well but, as she had seen the main tourist sites so many times, she would wander with 2 or 3 of the crew and find a local tea house to sit at. One crew member whom she had asked for was there to just look after her and treated her like she was his favourite grandmother. In fact she had handpicked most of the crew aboard. In the case of one of the chefs, who had unfortunately had to be laid off because of the drop in tourism, they specifically got him back for the cruise and we ended up with two head chefs for the trip. She loved them and they loved her. She was actually staying with one of the crew members between her back to back cruises on this trip.

Nearly every day there were two excursions off the ship. We always came back to the ship for lunch and we were happy to because of the hot and humid weather. The afternoon one generally left about 2.30pm so there was time to just sit around and talk, read, have a nanna nap etc before heading off again. Every time you got back on the ship the crew would be waiting with a cold drink and would whisk your shoes/sandals away to be cleaned. I fell in love with the ‘snow towels’. These were individually wrapped little moist towelettes to clean your hands/face etc, but the snow ones had been frozen. When you were feeling way too hot they were like manna from heaven. As you have to take off your shoes every time you visited a temple they also had a plentiful supply of towelettes to clean your feet before putting your shoes back on. Make sure you pack footwear that you can quickly take on and off because you will be doing it multiple times a day. Most of the locals just wear flip flops.

I liked that rather than arranging mini-buses everywhere for the excursions they mixed things up, we had horse and buggy rides, tuk tuk’s, small boats and bicycles (only if you wanted to).

Several times in the evening we had on-board entertainment provided by locals, a puppet show, traditional dancing, an elephant dance (off the ship). I think that all the cruise lines would be doing the same thing. We also had a couple of ‘movie’ nights, one explaining the connection between Pandaw and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company which was very interesting. I had no idea that the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (Scottish/Burmese company) was the largest private ownership of ships in the world in its heyday or that they scuttled 600 of their own ships just before the Japanese arrived in World War 2. The other was on the life of Aung San Suu Kyi.

We visited the village of Salay which I thought was charming, whether you get there by boat or by land. There is beautiful old British Colonial heritage house which has been restored and you can stay at. Otherwise just visit their café in the garden and gift shop. As this village was not on the tourist radar until a couple of years ago there are no hordes of girls and children trying to sell you things. It gives you a chance to see the locals going about with their normal lives. Hopefully, it doesn’t become too touristy over the next few years.

Obviously we visited a number of monasteries and pagodas. The workmanship involved in creating them was amazing and many of them were beautiful. We saw some stunning views from hill tops where you could see literally hundreds of pagodas dotted around the landscape – and I’m not talking about just Bagan.

One afternoon we visited one of the medical clinics that Pandaw has established. I loved the story about bringing the contraceptive pills to the locals but it hadn’t resulted in a decrease in the birth rate. It turned out the locals thought that as the men were the more virile sex it would be better if they took the pill!

There were no specific places for the ship to dock, it would just pull up beside the river bank and tie some ropes to a stake in the ground. Two or three times we stopped at places where the crew had families and I met some of them. For me, it was these sorts of experiences that were the best part of the trip. I watched the crew playing cane ball (similar to volley ball) against another Pandaw crew one night, watching children bathing and playing in the river and seeing the locals go about their day to day lives. Along the river there was plenty of housing (if you can call it that) which were no more than just a make shift roof with no walls but the people generally seemed happy and everyone looked well fed. Myanmar is obviously a very fertile country and it seemed that basically everyone (outside of actual cities) could grow food for themselves.

It was the major full moon festival of the year whilst we were there and we pulled up on a large sandbank in the middle of the river. The crew lit a bonfire, set up fairy lights and flares, we had music, cocktails and food, dancing by and with the crew. I’m sure the crew had even more fun than we did. They love their dancing and singing and a couple of the younger crew members really know how to dance. We lit candles to float down the river and little hot air balloons to go off floating into the night, all complete with a huge full moon. There were fireworks we set off and in the distance we could see each of the villages letting off their own fireworks. It was a magical night.

The U-Bein bridge not too far from Mandalay is well worth visiting. It was the longest wooden teak footbridge in the world (1.2km). You can walk across it and it’s famous for watching the sun set behind it. There is a myriad of small gondola type boats to take you out on the lake whilst you watch the sun set. As we were sitting in our boat I remarked to the other couple with me that the only thing missing was our late afternoon cocktail. Less than 2 minutes later another gondola pulled up beside us and there was our bar man mixing cocktails in his gondola to hand over to us - Bliss!

Mandalay itself is a big city and I was glad that I hadn’t allocated extra time to it over and above what we already saw as part of the river cruise. I think a couple of days is probably quite adequate.

Well, that is the end of my trip and report. I hope that it proves useful to those who are considering the fascinating country of Myanmar as a destination and thanks to those who followed along with my journey.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 03:03 AM
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The cane ball match between the two Pandaw crews

We visited a girl's monastery. I hadn't even realised there were monasteries just for girls.

U-Bein bridge

Local transportation by an enterprising farmer

The 'wedding cake' pagoda at Mingun

The 'world's largest book' at Mandalay. Each individual pagoda contains one stone tablet being one page of the book - over 700 of them.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 04:40 AM
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My God, these are beautiful !!!
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Jan 4th, 2019, 06:09 AM
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Really enjoyed tagging along. Your cruise sounds like the perfect complement to the rest of your trip. Thanks again for sharing some of it with me.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 07:54 PM
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Thanks so much for writing!
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Jan 6th, 2019, 11:19 PM
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You’ve detailed The Pandaw experience so well. Apart from the wifi, it hasn’t changed much from our trip nearly 6 years ago ! We also had an eccentric English repeat customer on board, although she was quite frail.

Excellent report which I thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you.
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Jan 7th, 2019, 02:28 AM
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Satoric: It might well have been the same lady. She is on the older side and rather unsteady on her feet although I don't think I would go as far as saying "frail". Having been on both the Irradwaddy and Mekong do you have a preference as to which you preferred? I haven't really considered a Mekong one because I've spent a little bit of time in Vietnam before and have also been to Siem Reap so I feel, that to some extent, I would be repeating things I have done before. I do like the sound of the one on the Red River (quite off the standard tourist route) through to Halong Bay which I haven't been to yet.
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Jan 8th, 2019, 04:15 PM
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Thank you so much for your detailed descriptions and beautiful pictures! I am going to give up the idea of the cruise, and instead use the money for a longer time on land, using your 8 days as a base, so I was glad to see the comment about "not doing a cruise on your first trip". Also, that you thought it worthwhile to go to Kalaw. I think I will get in touch with One Stop.
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