Hohler Report: From Yangon to Mandalay

Yangon – Monsoon clouds were hanging low over Yangon, when I arrived there in mid-July to join the Pandaw 2 cruise ship, one of the ten luxury ships the company is presently running to explore the mighty rivers of mainland Southeast Asia such as the Mekong and Irrawaddy (modern name Ayeyarwady). All Pandaw ships are built new, designed, and finished in teak and brass as replicas of colonial river steamers, which once constituted the famous Irrawaddy Flotilla Company as the largest privately owned fleet of ships in the world.

The old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) was established by Scots in1865 and lasted until 1942, when the entire fleet went down because of the Japanese invasion. The IFC was marvelously revived in 1995 by Scottish entrepreneur Paul Strachan, who discovered an original paddle steamer called Pandaw and undertook its restoration. Thus, the Pandaw company was born and a unique concept of river cruising was created.

Having done the Pandaw Mekong River Expedition in 2011 from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam (7 nights) as well as the Chindwin and Upper Irrawaddy longer cruise in 2012 (20 nights), I was dreaming for a long-awaited chance to travel on the Lower Irrawaddy River from Yangon to Mandalay. This dream came true, when I was booked into the last available cabin on RV Pandaw 2, cruising from Yangon to Mandalay during July 20-August 3 (14 nights), actually the route of Kipling’s Road to Mandalay.

The RV Pandaw 2 was built in Yangon in 2001 and features 24 cabins on main- and upper deck, all open onto promenade decks that run all the way round the ship with personal seating facilities. There is a comfortable dining room, a bar lounge and a spacious sun deck to climb to watch the constant river life passing by. When I entered the ship anchored at the Botataung Jetty along the busy Yangon River on the late morning of July 20, I knew that I was in good hands, because the level of care and service on board the ship are outstanding.

Most of the 40 international passengers booked on this river cruise arrived before the first lunch was served in the dining room. The most important person on the ship, next to its captain, is the purser, who was called Ko Myo Kyaw. He personally greeted all the incoming guests and handed out the cabin keys. There were mostly Australian tourists on board with only 3 Americans, 1 Thai-German couple, and 4 tourists from Switzerland. The Marine Crew List mentioned 9 persons, all Burmese, including Captain U Tun Tun Win, while 12 members of the Ship Crew List mentioned were responsible for the kitchen, bar, housekeeping and laundry services. Our official tour guide was Daniel, an Indian-Burmese, who masterly organized the daily sightseeing and presentation program.

Our first afternoon program led us to the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddhist Monastery, where a huge Reclining Buddha with a length of 72 meters can be seen, and the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, which we visited for sunset, realizing that the Buddhist religion is a driving force in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Towering more than 100 meters above Yangon City, the Golden Shwedagon is one of the wonders of the world and some 2,600 years old. Modern Yangon is the main gate of Myanmar, but still keeps its reputation as the Garden City of the East with now 6 million inhabitants. Back in the ship, we had our excellent dinner (3 choices possible!) and first night’s sleep on the river.

We cast off from downtown Yangon around 6.00 o’clock with the first tide and entered the Twante Canal, which connects the Yangon River with the rest of the Ayeyarwady Delta, which is the rice bowl of Myanmar. After a two-hour cruise we reached the rural village of Twante, which features a clock tower and lighthouse. It was raining, so we cut short our way to the potteries and visited the morning market instead. Two hours later, we departed and stopped again for an afternoon walk in Maubin, with its store houses and a golden pagoda. It is here that the mighty Ayeyarwady really flows. Later we continued to Nyaungdon, where is a big bridge spanning the river, to moor for the night.

On July 22, there was Full Moon Day and the beginning of the Buddhist Lent season. We departed early in the morning and reached our next destination Danubyu at 9.00 o’clock. On a riksha we drove to a monastery, where the grave of fallen General Mahabandula exists, who was shot during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). There is also the rest of a small fort at the muddy riverside. In the town’s golden pagoda was a festival held and on the way walking back to the ship, I passed a mosque, Baptist Church, and the clock tower. The whole afternoon was reserved to cruise to Hinthada, where we moored for the night nearby and had to change the pilot.

Next morning we departed early to Myanaung. On the way, we passed a ship formation dredging sand and panning gold from the river. At 14.30 o’clock we reached Myanaung to visit its colonial buildings, pagodas and market. Even an Internet café was open! At 17.00 o’clock we left the town for overnight near Tonbo, which is already located in Bago Region outside of the flat Ayeyarwady Delta.

Next day’s highlight was already reached early in the morning before breakfast. At 7.30 we approached the sandstone cliffs of Akauk Taung, where a myriad of Buddha images were caved and chiseled on the western side of the Ayeyarwady river bank. A very impressive site to visit! Another 3 hours later we arrived in Pyay (formerly Prome). On the busy Strand Road was the new Pyay Strand Hotel near an Indian Rama Temple. On a traffic circle near the market was the statue of the national hero Aung San on a horse.

After lunch on board, we visited the ancient city of Tharay-Khit-Taya (formerly Srikshetra), which was an important center of the Pyu civilization (5th-9th centuries). At the Hmawza Museum, there was a valuable collection of bronze figurines, Buddha statues, beads and silver coins. Leaving the old town, we stopped at the conical shape Phaya Gyi Pagoda.

Finally, we continued to the more famous Shwe Sandaw Pagoda on a hillock in the modern town, which gives a panoramic view of the perfect location along the Ayeyarwady and the new bridge across the river. From there, you can reach Rakhain State by a well-kept road farther in the west. Actually, Pyay is a logistic port for Pandaw Cruises, as alternative tours start from here to the northern part of the country. At 17.30 we left Pyay on the way to Thayetmyo in Magway Region, which was the former frontier post between British Burma and Royal Myanmar following the Second Anglo-British War in 1852.

We reached the pleasant former colonial town of Thayetmyo at 9.00 o’clock and by way of horse-cart visited the big and colorful market and the oldest golf course of the country from 1887. We left Thayetmyo at 12.00 o’clock and cruised the whole afternoon towards Minhla, which was reached only the next morning. Minhla was visited because of its impressive brick fort built by Italians in 1860 to protect the Royal Seat of Mandalay from the British until 1885. At this historical place, I remembered German explorer Dr. Adolf Bastian, who in November and December 1861 sailed on the Ayeyarwady upriver from Yangon to Mandalay. He left a detailed diary from his trip to read.

In the afternoon of July 26, we reached the provincial town of Magway at 15.30 o’clock and had enough time to walk up to majestic Mya Thalun Pagoda, which was built like a castle on the eastern side of the riverbank. In the evening, after the daily briefing and dinner, we had the opportunity to watch the documentary movie by Paul Strachan on Burma’s Forgotten Fleet. Next morning, we visited the market with smiling people everywhere and left Magway before noon to cruise the whole afternoon towards oil-rich Yenangyaung and Salay. In the evening, there was time for another informative movie about the Life of the Buddha.

On July 28, we reached Salay at 9.00 o’clock in the morning and inspected its main attraction called Youksaun Kyaungdawgyi, a wooden pillared monastery with extremely intriguing carvings and 19th century old antiques. We continued to Chauk, where is another new bridge across the river and donkey-like oil-digging towers to see. Late in the afternoon we finally reached the pagoda-studded plain of Bagan in Mandalay Region and anchored on the western Ayeyarwady bank near the Tantkyi Taung Hill, which was ascended by 4-wheel drive jeeps to watch the sunset over Bagan on the other side of the river from the golden pagoda platform. It is said that Buddha once visited here and predicted the building of Bagan in history (1044-1287). On the way back, we were entertained with a typical elephant dance performance by the villagers.

Next morning we departed early to the mooring place on the other side of the river near the AyeYar River View Resort. At 8.00 o’clock we started our sightseeing in Old Bagan and visited the steep Shwesandaw Pagoda, Ananda Phaya, Myingaba Gubyaukgyi and Bagan Lacquer House in New Bagan. After lunch back on the ship, we continued to visit other pagodas until sunset. Later a traditional Burmese Puppet Theatre was shown on the sundeck. The Golden Shwezigon Pagoda and the market of Nyaung U was visited next morning, before driving back to the ship and leaving at noon towards Sagaing.
The river was getting much busier on the stretch from Bagan to Mandalay than before. We still could see the extinct volcano Mount Popa in the distance. In the afternoon we reached the new Pakokku Bridge, which is part of the planned Thailand to India Highway, and changed the pilot there. After that, we stopped in a pristine riverside community near the confluence with the Chindwin, where we watched the production of toddy wine gained from the sugar palms, and continued for a night stop out in nowhere. Next morning we continued cruising to the village of Yandabo, which is famous for its pottery production and an orphanage school sponsored by the Pandaw Company. In the afternoon, we stopped in Myin Mu to change the pilot again and continued to Sagaing, but stopped short in view of the old Ava Bridge across the river to spend the night.

On August 1, we reached the final mooring place of RV Pandaw 2 opposite Sagaing Hill called Shwe Kyet Yet. After breakfast, we departed by bus to Mandalay, where we visited the wooden and pillared Shwenandaw Monastery as part of the Old Palace architecture, Sandamuni Pagoda, and the famous Mahamuni Buddha covered with gold leaf. Back to the ship for lunch, we used the afternoon in nearby Amarapura to visit a silk factory and U Bein Bridge to experience the sunset there. Later in the night, there was a classical ballet dance performance by trainees of the cultural institute of Mandalay University on the sundeck.

Next day, we enjoyed an excursion to the old royal town of Inwa (formerly Ava) and visited the pleasant Bagaya Kyaung Monastery, entirely built with teakwood. By horse-cart we passed the new archaeological museum of Inwa and later returned to the boat.

The last afternoon of our journey was used to drive over by bus to Sagaing, where we visited a silversmith workshop, a nunnery and the sacred Soon U Ponnya Shin Pagoda for the sunset. Back on the ship there was an opulent farewell dinner and cocktail reception, where the entire crew was present. Many passengers were sure that this was not their last Pandaw cruise to come. And is this not the best recommendation for a future Pandaw cruise?

On August 3, the time for disembarkation had arrived. As Mandalay has an international airport, most passengers took a plane directly back to Yangon or Bangkok. Some others continued their traveling by flying to Heho in Shan State to visit Inlay Lake or some other places in Myanmar.

What remains is a memory of a fascinating and fantastic Pandaw cruise on the River of Kings, our mighty Ayeyarwady, which all in all is some 900 km long from Yangon to Mandalay and took 15 days to complete. A real comfortable adventure indeed!

For further information: www.pandaw.com