AS WE PULL up our chairs for dinner on Kalay Pandaw’s sun deck a group of four youngsters arrive on the river bank, assuming the default squatting position which they maintain effortlessly for the duration of our meal. For them watching us eat is akin to a living soap opera, as in the Burmese village western visitors are a rare sight and we’re just as much a novelty to them as they are to us.Occasionally we wave to provide a bit of added interest, which provokes giggles and a delighted reciprocation. After dessert we decide to throw them one of the footballs we bought earlier that was destined for a local school. Our guide had advised us to give any gifts direct to teachers, but we felt the unwavering attention paid to our rather pedestrian dining display deserved a treat, and they ran off shrieking into the night. The fact no others appeared was testimony to the fact that children haven’t cottoned on to begging, and our entire cruise along the Chindwin was totally free from hassling hawkers, tourist tat and the more unwelcome trappings of travel.
In a destination where the shining tips of bell-shaped pagodas, or stupas, are an omnipresent sight above the treetops, and the amazing 412ft standing Buddha outside Monywa is the largest in the country, the land renamed Myanmar by the oppressive military dictatorship that governed from 1962 to 2011 is full of extraordinary sights. Yet, for me, it was the quiet, gentle people and unplanned experiences that created a really lasting impression.
Pandaw cruises go deep into the remote heartland, and our voyage took us from northern Homalin, a border trading town close to India that’s been built up on gold, one of Burma’s rich natural resources, to our final mooring less than a hundred miles from Mandalay.
The journey began with two nights in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, a sprawling and chaotic city despite the ban on motorbikes. A taxi ride through clogged roads to the fabulous jewel-encrusted Shwedagon pagoda provided our driver with plenty of opportunity to read his paper, but the 12-acre complex sited on a holy hill and known as the ‘crown of Burma’ was well worth the traffic jams. The landmark city centre Sule Shangri-La hotel provided a serene sanctuary after picking up souvenirs in nearby Bogoke Market, built by the British in 1926 and still commonly known as Scott Market.
Next morning’s breakfast is an expansive feast of western and Asian dishes. Without realising it was destined for juicing, I ask a waiter if I can have a slice of honeydew melon I spot behind the counter. Without batting an eyelid he takes my plate and says he will bring it the table. It arrives with the random selection of fruit I’d already taken reconfigured into a small work of art.
Suitably fortified, we head to the domestic airport where a ‘lollipop man’ walks around flagging up the next departure, a novel and sensible alternative to unintelligible announcements. In Homalin the traditional two-deck riverboat Kalay Pandaw is waiting, and after a welcome cocktail and nibbles on the top deck, which also serves as an open-air dining room and bar, we settle into comfy cabins. Like the rest of the vessel they’re decked out in teak and brass, a homage to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that plied the waters during colonial times.
Carrying just ten passengers (Kalay means baby), our fellow crewmates are a jolly, well-travelled bunch of Americans and Aussies keen to explore new horizons. With its ultra-low draft, Kalay Pandaw can navigate the furthest reaches of the Chindwin which are inaccessible to other vessels during the dry, low water cruising season.
Days are spent notching up the river miles on our downstream journey and stopping off for once or twice daily excursions. We follow our guide, Thaw, through dusty villages where each community, however small, has a monastery and gold or white-washed stupa. One day we are beckoned in to join a Buddhist festival, sitting on the floor and sipping green tea at tables laden with sweet rice cakes, fish from the river and crunchy ginger salad.
Another afternoon we’re given the option to explore on the ship’s mountain bikes and five of us set off, following purser Win past lush fields with grazing water buffalo, shaven-headed nuns clad in pink and the usual complement of Pied Piper-like children. The rutted tracks left after the monsoon season claim a 60% casualty rate among the members of our party, resulting in grazed shins, assorted bruises and dented pride.
Next morning at breakfast Win declares: “No more bikes, from now tuk-tuks!”
Our replacement transport duly arrives to take us to the next village. Unlike Thailand, with its factory produced tuk-tuks, the Burmese version is a Chinese motorbike with the rear wheel removed and a compartment attached that seats up to eight. It’s not unknown for the top-heavy vehicles to topple over, especially on bends, but in our case it turns out to be far safer than cycling.
We visit a market piled high with unfamiliar fruit and vegetables. Another stallholder demonstrates the effectiveness of his $5 waterproof watches through a submerged display in a tin bowl. Women, their faces adorned with circles of the distinctive yellowish cosmetic thanaka, weave past with large baskets perfectly balanced on their heads.
It’s still festival time when we reach the busy town of Monywa. Street food vendors are selling everything from pancakes cooked over fiery open braziers to roasted crickets, thankfully prepared earlier. Scary tattooists make their mark at makeshift roadside stands and a swooping fairground ride carries the neon-lit warning “people with heart attacks are not allowed”. Back on board, cool towels are given out and our shoes handed over for the complimentary cleaning service, which amounts to a zealous scrubbing in the river and makes flip-flops and plastic shoes advisable. At night Kalay Pandaw is moored, and as we enjoy the sundowner of the day, expertly mixed by Win, whilst the two chefs create dishes from fresh, local ingredients, often purchased at the market earlier in the day. There are western options at each meal, but by day two I’ve swapped cereal and eggs for a Burmese breakfast of soup or noodles flavoured with coriander, lemon, sesame seeds, garlic and a touch of chilli.
From here we spend a couple of nights in Mandalay, and as the setting sun is mirrored in the Irawaddy we reflect on our unforgettable voyage through ageless landscapes. But with the dawn of much-needed democracy time will not stand still, so visit now before it changes forever.
Luxury Links: www.audleytravel.com , www.pandaw.com , www.shangrila.com/yangon/suleshangrila ,www.ayarwaddyriverview-hotel.com
Jeannine Williamson 1/11/16