We were very impressed with our cruise on Katha Pandaw on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar in October 2013. I had read all I could find of the history of this troubled nation, novels set in the country and Yangon newspapers on line in the ... Read More
We were very impressed with our cruise on Katha Pandaw on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar in October 2013. I had read all I could find of the history of this troubled nation, novels set in the country and Yangon newspapers on line in the months before our cruise.
Our itinerary was the least "pagoda heavy", went well beyond the Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay tourist strip and into the farms, small industries and villages of Myanmar. We were not disappointed.
Before, during and after our cruise we were overwhelmed by the friendliness, generosity and warm welcome of the people of Myanmar.
Pre Cruise: We flew Jetstar from Singapore to Yangon, staying 3 nights at the Chatrium Hotel from where the Pandaw cruise departed at 6 a.m. Chatrium is a comfortable hotel, buffet breakfast, wifi included and all that goes with a 4/5 star hotel. A $US4.00 air-conditioned cab ride to Yangon city centre, $8-10 to the airport. Reviewed on Trip Advisor. www.tripadvisor.com
We arranged pre- and post-cruising, transfers, internal air and some guiding with a local agent. After the guide’s introduction we were comfortable exploring Yangon on our own in cabs, on foot, on the ferry and the iconic circular train.
Post Cruise: One night Mandalay, two nights Lake Inle before flying out of Yangon.
The Ship, Katha Pandaw: Pandaw ships are teak panelled, in the style of colonial river steamers. RV Katha was the smallest of the fleet, 16 air-conditioned, twin bed cabins, with ensuite bathrooms, 6 upper, 10 lower deck. There is no elevator. Cabins are small with adequate storage for our clothes and suitcases. All have sliding glass doors and screened external doors opening to the shared deck. The nights were cool enough in October for us to sleep with the air-con turned off, the glass doors open and the screened doors shut. Bathrobes, safe, unlimited bottled water, hair dryer, shampoos etc and one electrical converter plug provided. No phone, TV, minibar or teamaking tray; hot and cold drinks are available in the bar. Cabins are immaculately maintained and usually serviced during breakfast. Light sleepers should avoid cabins adjoining the crew area and wheelhouse because the crew are up and about earlier than passengers need to be.
The ship does not cruise at night so engine noise did not disturb our sleep.
There are large shaded open-air sitting and dining areas on the upper deck, always a comfortable temperature, with pull down transparent weather shields (used once). Larger Pandaw boats have enclosed air-conditioned sitting and dining areas. Deck plans, itineraries and much more on the website www.pandaw.com
The Cruise 600 Miles, See All Burma: 14 days cruising up the Irrawaddy River from Pyay (Prome) to Katha and down again to Mandalay. We left the Chatrium by air-con coach at 6am to join the ship at Pyay, a six hour drive with two comfort stops. The first, Taukkyan War Cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon, allowed enough time for a quick wander.
For us the itinerary was an excellent mixture of archaeology, ancient and modern history, life in Myanmar, performances by very talented local dancers, singers and puppeteers, visits to exquisitely carved teak monasteries, to magnificent pagodas, to local markets, potteries and other small traditional industries, to farms and to villages and some of the schools and medical clinics financed by Pandaw Cruises.
In Katha the ship hosted an early breakfast for the local monks. Another highlight was seeing six of the extremely rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin from the ship. Dolphin sightings are not guaranteed.
The river is the artery of the country. We never tired of being on the upper deck, returning the smiles and waves of the ever welcoming hard-working Burmese. The smiles welcomed us to a moment of their lives, as they worked the fields, tended crops and animals, built bamboo houses, flew kites, fished, washed, swam, carried the production of this fertile valley to the river and loaded boats with drums of oil, bamboo poles, teak logs, vegetables, clay pots, fish, sacks of rice, beans, peanuts, and sacks we could only guess at, then transported these on low barges, small motor boats or bamboo rafts.
Passengers: Only 8 of the 16 cabins were occupied by 15 passengers from USA, UK and Australia aged 40-70+, all keen to experience and enjoy every experience the cruise offered.
The Crew: The guide and crew’s attention to our comfort, our special needs and wishes was amazing, as good as any cruise or land tour I have experienced, including Silversea, and considerably better than many others. At pagodas a crew member assisted those who struggled to bend to remove/replace footwear, guarded our shoes and distributed wipes for our feet when we emerged. On returning to the boat our shoes were removed and cleaned for us.
Our guide on this cruise, San, was outstanding. San is knowledgeable, articulate, fluent in English and alert to British, Australian and American senses of humour. He gave enough information to arouse our interest but never enough to be boring. San had more information for those with a special interest and was happy to answer random questions about life in Myanmar. Through him we were invited to join two wedding celebrations, experiencing again the generosity and warm welcome of the people of Myanmar.
Our purser, Than, ran the passenger services very well, ably supported by the stewards, chefs and housekeeping staff. They made it an exceptional experience.
Excursions: Included in the fare, except fees for cameras at some sites and for elephant rides. A small tip ($US1/Kyat1000) for local drivers, performers etc. was appreciated but not required. The variety of excursions and events is outlined above.
Excursions usually started after breakfast, returning to the ship for a long lunch break and departed again later in the afternoon. We were cool and comfortable on board in the hottest part of the day.
In small towns and villages we walked, in the larger cities we had air-con coaches but often we rode trishaws or horse drawn carts (2 passengers per cart) and for the defile, a local boat. All within the scope of two not very fit, 70ish Australians. There was always a crew member to help us climb a steep river bank or hand us into pony cart or trishaw, whether we needed help or not.
For those with serious breathing or mobility problems, wheelchairs or walking frames, it becomes more difficult. There are no docks. Every outing we crossed the gangplank and climbed the sandy river bank. If the bank was particularly steep, the crew cut steps for us and offered a strong arm to lean on. The roads and paths we followed were often unpaved tracks or broken pavement or we walked across ploughed fields to villages. Sometimes hills and flights of steps were unavoidable.
Meals and Drinks: Meal-times occasionally varied to suit the excursion program. Usually breakfast was 7-9am, lunch 1pm, dinner 7.30pm, after the evening briefing by guide and purser. Tea and coffee, biscuits, fresh fruit and cold drinks were available from 7am. No cabin service or variation of meal times is offered.
Breakfast was buffet with an “eggs cooked to order” station, fresh fruit, cereals, toast, pastries, tasty Asian style soups, bacon, tomato with dishes of either noodles, fish, sausages or baked beans.
Lunch was soup, delicious breads made onboard, a salad buffet, a choice of three hot mains (menu offered at breakfast) or a hot mains buffet, followed by pudding.
Dinner was soup, starter, choice of three mains (menu offered at lunch) and pudding.
Every meal had a vegetarian option.
We thought the meals were varied and delicious, vegetable, fish, chicken and pork dishes were particularly tender and served with interesting sauces; the curries were excellent but quite mild. I didn’t eat salads till I was quite sure my fellow cruisers felt no ill-effects. They didn’t, and I regret missing two days of super salads.
We notified two food intolerances at booking and on arrival and were alerted to any dish that might contain these foods. I do not know how much provision can be made for those with very limited diets or limited food preferences.
Soft drinks, local beers, local spirits and mixes were included in the tariff and freely available. Carafes of wine were provided at dinner only. Bottled wine could be purchased from the bar.
Dress: Casual. Trousers/skirts below the knee and sleeves covering shoulders were required at some pagodas and feet must be bare to enter pagodas and monasteries. All footwear, including orthotics must be removed, so slip-on-slip-off shoes or flip-flops are good for those who can walk to/from the site in them.
We needed a hat, comfortable clothes for hot weather, a waterproof and a light jacket or shawl for cool evenings/mornings and the trip up river to the second defile on a breezy local boat.
Our travel doctor advised long sleeves and trousers between dusk and dawn as mosquito protection, so we showered and “smartened up” into these before dinner.
Laundry: We were warned that the laundry was done in river water. Clothes were returned in excellent order and charges were very reasonable.
Medical: Our travel doctor prescribed a malaria prophylaxis which we took and other just-in-case medications, which we carried along with basic patent medicines and didn’t use any. Seek medical advice before travelling and carry sufficient supplies of your regular medications, “just-in-case” drugs, insect repellent and sunscreen.
Money: ATM in Yangon and Mandalay only. We changed some US dollars for kyat on arrival at Yangon airport and later withdrew kyat at ATM in Yangon and Mandalay. We were told to bring only crisp, unmarked, unfolded $USnotes of recent issue but less than pristine notes were accpeted. Pandaw took credit cards for on-board expenses exceeding $200, othersise cash, $US preferred but kyat accepted. We followed Pandaw’s recommendations for tipping the crew.
Communications: Wifi was free but available only near bigger cities. The ship’s phone received calls; our Myanmar travel agent phoned me re a booking change.
In October 2013, Australian mobile phones did not get signal in Myanmar and foreigners could not buy local SIM cards. We declined a $10/day SIM card rental at Yangon airport. This may change with many visitors coming for the SEA Games in Yangon in December 2013.
Conclusion: For us this cruise was perfect. We travel for interesting destinations and appreciate well informed guides. We like to try new foods (from “safe” kitchens) and appreciate clean comfortable cabins with ensuite bathrooms. We want to get out, meet the people and learn about the country. Pandaw worked for us. Images of the river, pagodas in the mist and the smiles of the people are imprinted till Alzheimer’s messes with our brains Read Less