Ancient temples, shimmering stupas and intriguing villages – a river cruise on the Irrawaddy with Pandaw is an extraordinary experience, says Rhian Colley

Buddhist monks dressed in their red robes walking down a road. Credit Getty Images
Buddhist monks dressed in their red robes walking down a road. Credit Getty Images

Silhouetted against the twilight sky, the grand structure in the distance almost looks as though it is made out of matchsticks. A cooling rain starts to fall and smiling local people accompany us on to the wet sandbanks, excitedly watching our every move.

We select a pretty rowing boat with a vibrantly-coloured umbrella and enjoy a tranqil crossing as we look up at the impressive U Bein Bridge, said to be the longest teakwood bridge in the world. Pausing in the middle of the lake, we enjoy the stillness. It’s incredibly peaceful.

As part of our Pagan & The Upper Irrawaddy river cruise with Pandaw, we’re enjoying a whistle-stop tour of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, where sandals are a must, despite the rain: there are so many must-see temples laced with gold and all involve barefoot exploring.

Myanmar’s rainy season has its advantages, most notably plenty of lush, verdant vegetation. Temporary housing made from bamboo can be seen along stretches of high-rise river water and residents wait for the water levels to drop again so their island homes are revealed to them once again.

It’s an insight into the versatile and practical approach to day-to-day living of the Burmese people; a unique view of a country and culture still relatively untouched by tourism. Muddy feet and unpredictable weather are all part of the Burmese adventure, but once on board the charming RV Katha Pandaw the outlook is rather more luxurious.

The ship is a simple but beautifully-made boutique vessel handcrafted from teak and brass, and with only 10 cabins it instantly feels like a very exclusive place to be. Our itinerary enables a relaxed exploration of Katha, once home to George Orwell and the setting for his novel Burmese Days, before before sailing on to Bagan, with its myriad temples.

After making myself at home in my spacious and authentic teak en suite stateroom, I soon realise that the journey ahead is designed for total relaxation – an opportunity to escape from modern technology completely. There are no TVs, internet or phones on board, and the complimentary bar involves a short wander out of the cabin to the comfortable open air lounge area, encouraging social interaction with fellow guests. As a single traveller, I found this small ship perfect for meeting people and I quickly felt at ease with my travel companions.

Our guide, Harry, is a 66-year-old Burmese grandfather with a warm smile and a wealth of knowledge and passion for his country.

Burmese children
Burmese children

We are travelling at an exciting time of political development, as the general elections are underway. The red flags of the National League for Democracy party fill the streets and polling stations are getting ready for action.

Our land tour of Mandalay allows us to soak up local culture with visits to stunning pagodas and the gold leaf workshop.

Back on board, we discover that the first night of a Pandaw cruise always celebrates the start of a journey. A delicious three-course meal cooked by the onboard chef followed, with live traditional Burmese dancing the evening’s entertainment.

When we wake the next morning we’re cruising steadily up the Irrawaddy. Early risers have been capturing the first sunrise and there’s a tranquil air of calm.

Breakfast is a buffet serving fruit, cereals and eggs of your choice made-to-order; I savour my eggs Benedict and admire the view as we sail upstream.

Over the course of our trip, Pandaw continues to surprise us with its attention to detail and service is impeccable. Before dinner each night, Harry shares his knowledge of different aspects of Burmese life, from healthcare to politics, and we get a real insight into his personal experiences growing up.

Harry and bartender Myo’s demonstration on the multiple ways to wear the traditional longhi – a long piece of material worn around the waist without tying a knot – is a highlight.
As we sail upstream we see local men and women dressed in intricately patterned fabrics and vibrant colours flash along the riverbank as they go about their daily business.

Later we dock at one of Burma’s largest villages, and perhaps the most famous, bustling Katha. The old police station where Orwell worked still stands, along with the house in which he lived. Motorbikes overtake our horse-drawn carriage as we travel along the busy road.

At dawn the next morning we venture off the ship and back into the village to watch the monks receiving their daily alms. Here we are pleasantly surprised to be invited into a monastery to see the Buddhist monks, young and old, getting ready for their daily walk in the glistening dawn light. The dusty streets and sounds of traditional live music create a feeling of harmony.

The further up the Irrawaddy we travel, the more remote the river bank life becomes and the less used to visitors the villagers are; children wave from their homes as their mothers wash pots in the river, and pigs and cattle wander around unattended.

A beautiful sunset on the banks of the Irrawaddy
A beautiful sunset on the banks of the Irrawaddy

Shallow water levels make navigating our vessel more challenging and it becomes clear why our ship has been designed to be so streamline.

A sharp thud indicates we have hit one of the many sandbanks passing ships have been gingerly avoiding along the way. We call in the help of small fishing boats and their two metre long poles to test the depth of water ahead and all the sailors jump to the rescue, creating an incredible amount of drama and suspense on the upper deck, which added to the sense of adventure.

Sailing once again, along the way we encounter a pod of rare river dolphins, and our captain slows the ship so we can take photos and enjoy the moment. We also pass through three stunning gorges with spectacular rock faces.

A highlight for everyone on our trip is exploring the ancient city of Bagan. The impact of the sheer scale of this kingdom is extraordinary and can only really be appreciated from a certain height. The archaeological zone has over 2,200 temples and a steep climb to the top of one of the largest in order to witness an impressive sunrise is a must. I walked all the way around to take advantage of the 360-degree panoramic views that stretched for miles, and watched horse and carts meander the windy tracks below.

The following morning we boarded an internal flight from Old Bagan to Yangon before the flight home. The National League for Democracy seemed to be taking the lead in the election, so we drove past party leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house en route to the reclining Buddha, one of the largest in Burma at 66 metres long, at the Chaukhtatgyi Temple.

The glittering Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk. Credit Getty Images. Credit Getty Images
The glittering Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk. Credit Getty Images. Credit Getty Images

Our grand finale is a visit to the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the most jaw-dropping of all pagodas in Burma. The sun illuminates the glistening gold stupa, encrusted with over 4,500 diamonds, the largest of which is a colossal 76 carats. The pagoda is bustling with monks washing statues, worshipping and meditating. Visitors are encouraged to find their ‘corner’, or shrine, for the day they were born. Standing in my day, Tuesday, it is said that if you tip an odd number of cups of water over the head of the Buddha and the animal that represents your day, you will have luck in life. My animal, I’m pleased to discover, is the lion. So I carefully fill three cups, close my eyes and hope for some magic.

Whatever the future holds, I will always have my precious memories from our trip to Myanmar, one of the most fascinating and special countries in the world.

GETTING THERE: A two-week trip to Burma, including seven nights full board on a Pandaw cruise, starts from £3,250pp. This includes all flights and transfers, boutique accommodation and private touring in Mandalay and Yangon. For more information or to book a cruise, call an Audley Travel Burma cruise specialist on 01993 838 105 (audleytravel.com).

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