A week on an Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer

Our riverboat home for a week

We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.

My agent contact, as always, was quick to respond when I voiced my concerns. She did her own research and found that only 12 of the cabins were booked and the cabins were the same size and layout as the original. I felt much better after her reply and after seeing deck plans that showed we were actually gaining a deck and more common space.

Outside our Upper Deck cabin

Sure enough, on boarding, we found a charming and spacious teak wood riverboat. Teak deck loungers, wicker sofas and potted plants give a wonderfully period feel to the boat. Modern touches like air conditioning, common-area wifi and updated bathrooms make for a luxurious cruise. The crew pampers us so much it’s almost embarrassing. Food has been elegant, fresh and plentiful, exceeding expectations. There’s a nightly happy hour on the sun deck with appetizers. Musicians and dancers from a Mandalay school boarded last night to provide a surprisingly high-quality show to our little group of twenty.

Lots of room on the Sun Deck of the RV Orient

We’re only into our second full day as I type (on a teak lounger, watching river life pass by), but already we’ve had several well-thought-out excursions including a sunset outing where we were rowed out, 4 at a time, in small boats for the perfect view. When our oarsman stopped our boat and positioned us among others to watch the sunset, our guide and crew paddled up to deliver cocktails in champagne glasses. Lovely!

Cocktails on a rowboat near Mandalay

We spent our first day aboard moored at Mandalay. After lunch, we were taken on local excursions, first in large tuk tuk trucks to a hilltop pagoda with sweeping views, then by motor coach through Mandalay to the sunset rowboats. As we drove through Mandalay, we got a surprise treat when our bus came upon a sticky rice street party. When we were all curious, our guide Yen asked our bus driver to stop so we could get out and mingle with a group of young men who were dancing (to music blaring, in typical noise-loving Myanmar fashion, from across the street) around two big paella-style vats of cooking sticky rice. They welcomed us to their bash, most dressed in green polo-type shirts…save for one young man who showed up to great fanfare dressed in women’s clothes.

The next day the ship sailed upstream to the village of Mingut before returning to Mandalay for the night.

A “taxi” at Mingun. Thankfully, we could just walk from where we’d moored.

The approach to Mingun is impressive with the large brick remains of a square stupa looming over the river. At first, I wondered if it was some dramatic natural rock formation, but as we walked up to it, we could see the thousands upon thousands of bricks comprising the structure which was severely damaged over a century ago by a violent earthquake. Huge cracks cut through the stupa threatening to cleave large sections of the building away.

Mingun stupa, severely damaged by earthquake

Two enormous lion statues are also in ruins nearby. The king who ordered the building of the structure hoped to build the world’s largest stupa. Instead, our daily briefing describes the Mingun stupa remains as the world’s largest pile of bricks. You’ve got to love Burmese “bright side” thinking! Along the same lines, they describe the huge nearby bell as the “second largest bell in the world that can be rung.” They admit that the largest bell in the world is in Russia, but say you can’t ring that one. Of course, “ringing” the Mingun bell doesn’t involve an interior clapper, but rather pounding on it with logs on the outside.

So, I think I’ll end here with the focus on the boat and our first days. I’ll post more about the river cruise stops later when and if I get time, internet, and the inclination.

Practical info:

I booked our Pandaw Cruise via Happy Travel Asia. My agent, Ms. Hong Nham, was exceedingly responsive and helpful. I am very happy with her and the agency. Our cruise was a Mandalay – Pagan – 8 day/7 night downstream cruise. The total price for the two of us in what was originally to be a main deck cabin on the Kindat and was upgraded to a upper deck cabin on the Orient was $3,352.00. We paid 30% upon booking in July and the balance in November for a February cruise.

All cabins are identical in layout, cozy at 16m squared, and totally paneled and outfitted in teak wood. (Even our shower has a louvered teak door!) Each cabin has two single beds that can be configured as one large bed. The front is further from the engine, but closer to bridge crew activity and the horn. The stern has crew activity as well.

There is a lot of noise on the Irrawaddy in general and boat traffic starts early. Engine noise on passing boats can be almost absurdly loud; it seems you’d have to try to create a motor that loud. No one navigates the river after dark as it is perilously studded with ever-shifting sand bars. We’ve been stuck once for a few hours. Boats moor for the night and villages are quiet soon after dark as well. Our boat had considerable engine noise at times, depending on the maneuvering. The higher deck must be quieter than lower one simply because it is closer to the engine, but that is simple deduction, not personal experience. Front cabins seem to be quieter than those near the stern, but pulling in and extending the gangplank is said, by those with the bowmost cabins to be extraordinarily loud. Despite the occasional noise, nights are quiet and we sleep well.

Local beer and spirits (gin, rum, vodka and whiskey) are included. Wine and premium (non-Burmese) spirits are extra, but not unreasonably priced.

The makeup of our particular group is all British save for 3 Americans (including us) and two Frenchwomen. We have an English-speaking guide who goes everywhere with us when ashore. We’re as well looked-after ashore by helpers who greet us with icy disposable wipes after each stop where we take off our shoes (every temple and monastery) so we can clean our feet. Very nice.

Some stops require climbing up dirt or sand banks which could be difficult for persons with mobility issues. Crew do stand along the way to lend a hand and help, though, and at least partial steps are dug out to make the going easier. We had no problem at all with any of this.

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