Having previously traveled in Myanmar, I knew that despite its recent huge popularity the country's tourist infrastructure is still a work in progress. Thus, a seven-night cruise amidst the comforts of the RV Kalaw Pandaw seemed the optimal solution--a floating teak-and-brass hotel room with meals, drinks, and excursions provided. We would stay in place on the boat while the scenery around us changed. As it turned out, for over a day we would stay stuck in place on a river bank.
Our pre-/post-cruise arrangements included airport transfers in Yangon, a stay at the Five-Star Chatrium Hotel, and a day's worth of sightseeing in Yangon with a private guide and driver. Our Pandaw guide, Michael, was exceptional--knowledgeable, flexible, and thoughtful. We noted to him in passing that my wife was diabetic and needed to eat small meals frequently to keep her blood sugar level constant. We were quite touched the next morning when Michael presented us at the airport with a small bag containing fruit juices, biscuits, fruits and other snacks for my wife. It was a thoughtful gesture that went far beyond the call of duty.
Life aboard the Kalaw Pandaw quickly assumed a comfortable routine. Our favorite spot was a quiet shaded spot on the top deck at the front of the boat where there were some deck chairs and a tiny ship's "library" consisting of paperback books and magazines. From this vantage point, we were able to enjoy the view and breeezes and even saw a pod of endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins. Other passengers staked out spots in the lounge area aft or in the bar amidships. With a crew of 25 for 16 passengers, service was attentive and personalized. Our tours were for the most part well organized and informative. While the meals were sometimes bland, we were nevertheless impressed with the inventiveness and sheer range of what the Head Chef and Pastry Chef managed to produce in the tiny galley kitchen below. The inclusion of Burmese favorites including Mohinga soup and Tea Leaf Salad was a great touch, and I wish that Pandaw would serve more traditonal menu items. The free happy hour every evening was also something that everyone looked forward to.
Our ship managed to get stuck in a sand bank while sailing upstream to Kyauk Myoung. The crew managed to free the boat after about two hours. To our dismay, the boat managed to ground itself on the exact same stretch of river the very next day while were were sailing downstream. This time, the efforts of the crew were to no avail, and we were stuck for 26 hours until some fishing boats came by and pulled us off the sand bank with some clever rope work. Throughout the ordeal, there was little (actually zero) communication from the Captain or other senior crew, and the only crew member providing updates was our barman, who turned out to be fairly well informed about what it was that the crew was doing to extricate the ship from our predicament.
Our schedule never quite recovered from the delay, and we had to eliminate two of the highlights of our itinerary--the ancient capitals of Ava and Amarapura. It was a bit annoying that the parts of the itinerary that Pandaw decided to retain included a shopping visit and a trip to a Pandaw-supported charity project in an otherwise nondescript village outside of Pagan. It would have been far better to have dropped these inconsequential stops in favor of retaining Ava or the Amarapura visits.
All told, I would do the trip again even with the unfortunate delays and our truncated itinerary. The Irrawaddy is magical, and experiencing the river on the Kalaw Pandaw was an unforgettable experience.
The cabins are small but perfectly serviceable, with two comfortable beds (with plenty of storage underneath), decent closet space, nice quiet airconditioning and adequate lighting. There is an ensuite shower and bathroom. The only flaw in our quarters was that--to be blunt--the bathroom stunk of urine that had seeped into the wooden floors. The cabin attendant tried heroically to clean and deodorize the toilet area but the air freshener would last for a few hours and then wear off. Yuck. While the wooden floors and wall paneling are pretty to look at, I would recommend that Pandaw consider using a different flooring material for their bathrooms.Guests should know that you pretty much provide your own entertainment on board. While Pandaw advertised that a wifi connection would be provided, this turned out to be the Purser allowing guests to tether their tablets/phones/laptops to his telephone internet. This excruciatingly slow jury-rigged connection worked once while we were docked in Mandalay, but did not work anywhere else. Also, I highly recommend trying to obtain a cabin near the front of the ship, as the cabins aft (especially on the lower deck) are much closer to the throb of the engine noise.