Myanmar: Down the Irrawaddy in Colonial Splendor

The Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon, the Irrawaddy—all are great rivers of the world. But one is almost unknown to even the most adventurous of travelers. Yes, the Irrawaddy. The name dances off the tongue, much like the savory spices of its country—Burma—or Myanmar, its official name since 1988. A land of golden pagodas and gentle Buddhist people, Myanmar is bordered by China to the north, by India to the west, and by Laos and Thailand to the east. With a limited infrastructure, the country’s superhighway is the Irrawaddy River, the “Road to Mandalay,” as it was called in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. The river flows from the Himalayas south to the Andaman Sea and is as mystical and colorful as the country through which it meanders. Ox carts are a common form of transportation, men wear long skirts called longyis, women paint their faces with a tree bark paste, and everyone chews betel nut, flashing burgundy grins at passers-by. It’s a land where kingdoms prospered and the British once ruled. Pandaw Cruises, the largest river cruise company in the region, has been a pioneering force in the country for over sixteen years. Determined to recreate the atmosphere of travel in Burma in the 1920’s, its ship cruises the Irrawaddy with the grace of a bygone era. Like the Buddhist way, Pandaw has found the perfect balance of opposites—that of adventure and luxury. Nirvana is not far off.

Pandaw, a Pioneer in Myanmar Tourism

It all began in Burma with Scotsman Paul Strachan. An intrepid traveler, historian, and author, Strachan spotted the old paddle steamer Pandaw rusting on the banks of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay. The ship had been built in the shipyards of Glasgow in the 1920’s by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., at one time the largest privately owned fleet in the world. Perhaps it was Strachan’s destiny to restore the ship to its past glory. And restore it he did. The Pandaw, refurbished to its original elegance, began carrying tourists down the river in 1995. Thus, the beginning of Pandaw Cruises and the unique river expedition concept it continues today. A Singapore-based company, its head offices are in Scotland. It recently established sales and reservations offices in Chicago as well as in Breckenridge, Colorado. Pandaw expanded to the Mekong in 2003 and to Borneo in 2008. Today it boasts a total of six ships with the addition of the 16-cabin RV Katha Pandaw, which is to set sail on the Irrawaddy in early January, 2012. Two more ships, slated for the Mekong River, are under construction in Pandaw’s shipyard in Ho Chi Minh City along the banks of the Saigon River.

Cruising the Irrawaddy

A colonial teak boat, the Pandaw II was built in the shipyards of Rangoon and is a replica of the original Pandaw. In the words of Paul Strachan, Pandaw founder, “We produced a ship of great beauty and we offer a cruise of four-star quality.” With teak decks, shining brass accents, potted palms, and twenty-four well-appointed staterooms, the Pandaw II is an elegant ship. Staterooms are 168 square feet and designed for maximum space. All are twin-bedded rooms with rich wood paneling, ample drawer and closet space, a desk or vanity, granite counter in the bathroom, and a window and door that open to the outside promenade deck. But most time aboard the ship is spent on the shaded observation deck, lounging on comfortable rattan couches, drinking cold Myanmar beer or cups of tea served by the ship’s gracious crew.

Pandaw’s “New Golden Land” ten-night cruise begins in Burma’s old imperial capital of Mandalay—at the country’s midsection—and continues for 315 miles to the historic city of Prome (Pyay). Each day is a mix of leisurely cruising past gilded pagodas set against a backdrop of jungle and on-land exploration. The Pandaw II, as do all of the fleet’s ships, has a shallow draft and can saddle right up to the river’s edge. No waiting for tenders or Zodiacs to transport you. After a hearty breakfast, the gangplank is set out, passengers climb the riverbank for the morning land excursion. At times it’s a walk right into a remote village, the river its only gateway to the outside world. Or an air-conditioned bus, a waiting horse and cart, a jeep or trishaw can be the mode of transport to the day’s destination. A daily itinerary can include visiting a pagoda, an ancient monastery, British fortifications, colonial towns or perhaps the U Bien footbridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. As is Pandaw’s tradition, surprises happen. Champagne appears as we drift in gondolas near the U Bien bridge; candles are set adrift, floating downstream as they flicker out of sight on our final night on board; a local wedding in progress becomes an unscheduled stop in the day.

A highlight of a trip to Myanmar is a day spent at Pagan, a 26-square-mile plain of 4,000-plus pagodas that date back centuries. The ancient capital city of Burma, Pagan is a World Heritage Site and rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in scope and sheer amazement. We arrive at one of the stepped pagodas at dusk, climbing to a view of thousands of spires rising above the greenery, the distant Irrawaddy shining in the sunset. Returning to the ship at mid-day and sunset, all are appreciative of its air-conditioning and comfort! The doting crew offers wet toilettes for our hands and takes our shoes to clean. All meals are of gourmet standard, a mix of European and Asian dishes, well prepared by the ship’s chef, complimented by baked goods from the resident pastry chef. Meals are served by crew who remember how you take your coffee or which cocktail is your favorite. Watching the sunset on the Irrawaddy, gin and tonic in hand, is one of life’s most delightful experiences. Especially since all local liquors are complimentary!

Tourism in Myanmar

According to Bangkok based Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), 2010 marked a record high in foreign visitors to Myanmar. An estimated 300,000 tourists visited the country, a 30% increase from 2009. “We anticipate this pace to continue,” Tom Markwell, Chicago-based VP of Sales and Marketing for Pandaw, assured Travel World News, confident that the 8% U.S. arrivals will increase. Interestingly, with the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, in November, a media blitz about Myanmar has turned the eye of the U.S. travel industry towards the country. Recent articles in publications like National Geographic Traveler extolling the beauty of the country and its people can’t hurt either. Markwell added, “Group tour operator requests have increased dramatically over the past few months because of all the press Myanmar has received.” The warm, spiritual and compassionate nature of the Burmese people is in sharp contrast to the military government—and many believe that traveling there supports the people with our tourist dollars. “The positive effect tourism can have on the Burmese people is invaluable,” Markwell continued. “It improves the overall quality of daily life in the most direct way possible.” Not only has Pandaw built schools but it operates a hospital ship on the river with support in part from passenger donations. The company also employs locals as staff and crew that puts much needed money in their pockets as well.

As Donovan Webster wrote in the latest National Geographic Traveler article on Myanmar, “I lament that Burma has been lost to many in the travel world.” With the help of Pandaw cruises and the growing information available to the travel industry, that may soon change.

Pandaw Cruises, 800-798-4223,,