River Cruising in Asia – Myanmar

Nicole Ballard

Myanmar (Burma) encapsulates mysterious ancient pagodas and monasteries, resilient and resourceful people, spiritual peace and a strong culture despite the ongoing complicated politics. It is surrounded by Thailand, Laos, China and India, and the capital city/international airport hub is Yangon (formerly Rangoon). You do require a visa to travel and the local currency is Kyats (pronounced: chats), the religion is predominately Buddhist but there are also Hindu, Muslim, and Christian people in Myanmar.

The main destinations tourists usually visit in Myanmar include Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Kalaw and Ngpali Beach.

All people really seem to know about Myanmar is that it is apparently unsafe, and nothing could be further from the truth. The media focuses on the ongoing conflict in Rakhine state, which is horrific and politically complicated, however, the rest of the country is safe with no sign of the fighting. Unfortunately misunderstandings and miscommunication by the media severely impacts the local economy and the tourism industry.

The general population is third world and tourism has slowly developed in the last 20 years – in fact, it is still developing, which is why hotels and touring are more expensive than most of South East Asia. Once you are in Myanmar food, drinks and shopping are very inexpensive and the locals are happy to welcome travellers from across the world. My husband got a haircut for just $3AUD which we were told is expensive as locals pay $1.

You can fly from Bagan to Mandalay (or vice versa) or alternatively drive uncomfortable roads for 8 hours but river cruising is a great way to experience local life and a wonderful way to recharge while stepping into another world!

Boy in Myanmar. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard
Boy in Myanmar. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard

PANDAW CRUISES

Pandaw offers various river cruises across Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China. There are cruise options for 2, 4 or 7 nights from Mandalay to Bagan or vice versa – and also Chindwin River, Upper Irrawaddy, Mergui Archipelago and a new trip Voyage to Nagaland to see local tribes.

Pandaw is currently building its 17th ship to join the fleet on Mekong in Laos in November 2018. Paul and Rose Strachan (UK) revived the concept of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that operated before the wars in 1865. In 1998 this modern unique style of river cruising was re-invented in Asia.

One thing we love about Pandaw is they have established a charity to build seven medical clinics and twelve schools in Myanmar and even assisted during the 2008 cyclone by converting ships to floating hospitals to assist the Burmese locals.

There are many cruise companies now across Asia rivers but this is a wonderful cruise company that supports the local staff, local people and the communities.

Pandaw Cruise Ship. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard
Pandaw Cruise Ship. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard

OUR EXPERIENCE IN MYANMAR

The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River is known as the Road to Mandalay (Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem called “The Road to Mandalay”) as at almost 2200 Km long, is the largest river that traverses from North to South and is an important commercial waterway. It is also the most popular river for cruising in Myanmar.

We sailed on the RV Kalaw Pandaw, which was rebuilt only four years ago and caters for 36 passengers. We were lucky to be on the last voyage of the season and had 17 staff looking after just 12 clients from UK, Europe and Australia. The voyage was a 7 night itinerary from Bagan to Mandalay and was a great balance of both exploring and relaxing. There are adventurous aspects, as the gang-planks are positioned directly on to the sandbanks but the staff are happy to assist and they easily haul your suitcase on their heads. One guest on our voyage was wheelchair bound, and the staff were incredible at helping her through the local villages.

When you stop at each village you will see the locals bathing, washing clothes, fishing and hauling supplies by wooden canoes, in the river that is their home.

All staff are local and are trained by experienced UK, European, Asian and Australian staff to learn new skills and cater for expectations of travelers from around the world. We were blown away by the friendliness, genuine smiles and attentive service of the crew, housekeeping and food and beverage staff, tour guide and purser.

The inclusive food is extremely impressive with daily baked bread, homemade yogurt, fresh local made salads (prepared with filtered water), soups and a la carte choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner with Western and local flavors ranging from roast duck, local seafood, beef, pork, chicken curries, vegetarian options, AND fantastic cakes and pastries. Dietary needs can be catered for. Our pastry chef loved dancing and singing and was a great entertainer. Hopefully he’ll be on your cruise too.

Juices, tea and coffee, soft drinks and local beers and spirits are included and we had nightly happy hour cocktails. Wine packages are available for pre-purchase.

Our air-conditioned cabins were very comfortable, our en-suite supplied with L’Occitane toiletries and housekeeping were amazing. The deck was delightful in the breeze, and a nice place to sit on a hot day with a cold local beer and a book borrowed from the small library.

On returning from local excursions we were welcomed with a drink and our shoes were cleaned by the crew prior to each excursion. The ship also carries mountain bikes, which you can also choose to ride through the villages or you can stay on-board if you want to spend some time relaxing.

We enjoyed local dancing and music shows, Burmese life and cooking demonstrations, and also a great film, “The Lady” directed by Luc Besson and starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi, the mother of modern democracy in Myanmar.

There are also a few precious surprises along the journey, which we will let you discover yourself.

We would definitely do another Pandaw cruise in the future. The majority of clients seem to be over 55 years well travelled with a sense of adventure, but it is definitely suitable for families, couples or solo travellers of all ages.

Getaboutasia always receives fantastic feedback on the service, food and cruises across Asia.

Temple in Myanmar. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard
Temple in Myanmar. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard

SHORE EXCURSIONS

Mingalabar (Hello) was our daily greeting as we set off on daily (usually twice a day) shore excursions to the local villages.

We explored by tuk-tuk, horse and cart, bus and also a bit of walking. It is fascinating to watch the locals feeding the monks and nuns and working hard to make a living without the technology and materialistic demands that western society has.

Local women, men and children wear ‘thanaka’ on their face for natural sunscreen and it’s also a mosquito/fungal repellent. It’s made of local yellowish white paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree, and ground with water on a circular stone.

We were impressed with the locals building their houses and watched them thatch and weave the bamboo that would become their walls. They also harvested plums, onions, vegetables and fruit and demonstrated amazing handicraft skills of weaving, cigar making, teak wood and marble carving, and terracotta pottery.

Highlights of the journey were the colonial British mansions set amidst the beautiful teak monasteries in Salay, visiting a Pandaw medical clinic, pottery in Yandabo, Ananda and Shwe-zigon pagodas in Bagan, Mingun Bell and Pagoda, Mandalay Hill , Golden Buddha, Ava monasteries, and the U Bein Bridge at sunset in Amarapura.

We saw monks and nuns in local monasteries playing soccer, as well as studying and praying. The only disappointing factor was the amount of plastic and rubbish on the river banks and it would be great if the locals could be educated how to dispose of waste.

Separate from the cruise, we also loved Balloons over Bagan – a breath-taking experience of hot air ballooning at sunrise over thousands of pagodas and forests in Bagan. Our Belgian pilot masterfully directed us safely across the incredible landscape with the rising dusty hot sun.

Monk in traditional clothing. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard
Monk in traditional clothing. Photo Credit: Luke Ballard

TIPS FOR YOUR CRUISE

It is highly recommended to extend the experience in Myanmar by adding a 3-4 day trip to Inle Lake to see the famous fisherman steering with feet, Burmese cats, local villages and tribes, hotels overlooking the lake, and vineyards.

The season for river cruising on the Irrawaddy for Mandalay to Bagan (or vice versa) is September- March/early April due to monsoons and heat in middle of year.

The Captain, engineer, and sailors have years of experience with the river flow, conditions and sandbanks – itineraries may change if they feel it is a safety issue.

You will need to remove socks and shoes for all temples, monasteries and pagodas so take a packet of disposable moist towels and wear slip on shoes. It is best to pack long skirts, light weight pants and cover your shoulders for religious sites otherwise you can buy a local “longyi” (skirt) that men and women wear.

Getaboutasia is an Australian authorised agent to sell Pandaw and can offer some fantastic sales and discounts. For example many sailing dates do not charge single supplements so it is excellent for solo travellers with wanderlust and for families as under 18 years are free on those dates also.

It is great value as your food, drinks, shore excursions, port taxes and staff gratuities are all included (except for local drivers and guides). We can also arrange luxury cruises if you prefer spa treatments, and a pool and spa.

Getaoutasia can assist with your flights from Australia, as well as discounted travel insurance, both pre and post-cruise accommodation and tours, and also internal flights to embark on your cruise. We can even book your additional options, like the hot air balloon – and we provide a handbook of advice for Myanmar covering health, money, customs, language and the online visa link.

Dreaming of an exotic adventure in some of the most enigmatic countries in the world? Contact one of our GetAboutAsia destination specialists for more information and inspiration on how to plan your cruise to Myanmar. We have extensive experience and knowledge of the region and can advise you on how best to plan your itinerary. 

Contact us today on info@getaboutasia.com or 1300 734 404.

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