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Trip Report Pandaw-up the Chindwin TR

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Until 2016 cruises up the Chindwin were restricted to the rainy season when the depth of the river was sufficient. We did not fancy cruising in the rain so we were delighted when Pandaw announced they were putting the low draft Zawgyi Pandaw on for cruises in the dry season. We jumped at their offering for 2016/7 New Year cruise and were rewarded by 7 days of warm unbroken sunshine.
Ours was an upstream departure which included transfers from a Mandalay hotel or Mandalay airport.
We chose the latter, the best choice as it turned out, and caught the 07.30 Myanmar National flight from Yangon (UB103 07.30-08.25) on a brand new 737-800, and were met at Mandalay Arrivals and transferred to the Chindwin in a modern comfortable MiniVan . After stopping off to view the unique Kaunghmudaw Pagoda on the way, we arrived at Pandaw in just over 2 hours. Those who elected to stay in Mandalay fared worse-they were collected from their 4 hotels in a bus – some were on the bus for four+ hours.
Now the Zawgyi- only 10 cabins and maximum 20 guests. Ours was full with a wide variety of nationalities-Aussies, South African, Bavarian, Swiss, Austrian, Kiwis and us two Brits, a really great melange. English was the common language and it was great that we all mixed and changed table partners daily so that we all got to know each other, and made friends quickly. No friction or clashes-super.
Food was really good, with great breakfasts (full English if needed) with a choice of 3 main courses for lunch and dinner and always salads/soups and cheeses as a starter for lunch with a choice for dinner. Their fresh hot bread would put many hotels to shame.
The chef could always provide grilled butterfish or an omelette when needed. Do note that the meat choice was a US portion and only trencherman could manage the steaks, joints and lamb chops.
Local beer, local spirits (first class) bottled water and cans of soft drinks are included and available on a ‘help yourself’ basis 24/7 although wine and premium spirits do have to paid for. Unlike other Pandaw boats there is no draft beer-my only regret. However,the complimentary evening cocktail could be lethal.

Cabins are comfy and have adequate storage space, good aircon, and being more modern than other Pandaw’s, the shower is large with powerful and constant hot water. Although there are no seats outside the cabins the main sun deck has loungers and plenty of seats for everyone. Laundry service is good and not expensive.
WiFi was not fitted (soon to be rectified) but most guests had bought SIM’s for their phones and had good reception most of the time-remarkable as the Captain told us that only in the last year had masts been erected and the towns up the Chindwin connected.

Back to the Cruise:-
On the first day we took a short coach trip through the important river town of Monywa to see the ancient Thandboodi Temple and the 3 Bawdhi Tahaung statues, all so different to those in Central Myanmar and Yangon. For travellers with Stupa fatigue they were the only ones we visited as the daily excursions for the rest of the week were very much seeing village and river life, with the occasional monastery thrown in.
As it was New Years Eve the chefs laid on a special dinner, with champagne. Paul Strachan, the owner of Pandaw, was accompanying us on the mini Kalaw Pandaw with his family and some friends. As we were all knackered from an early start, and would not make it to midnight, he decreed Hogmanay would be at 10.00pm and would be celebrated midstream with fireworks, and all Monywa was greeted with a fine Pandaw display from both boats, each trying to outdo each other.

The second day we visited Phowin Taung caves on the Western bank-again so different to others in Myanmar before cruising through stunning countryside before mooring overnight.

The Chindwin is special, so unlike the wide Irrawaddy, in that it is much narrower and steep sided as you pass through timber cladded hills. River life is fascinating with much commercial traffic including bamboo rafts and teak. The Chindwin is also opening up with the “India-Myanmar Friendship” road being constructed from Kalawa to the India border and there were river boats going North carrying new diggers and construction equipment.

Each day there were one or more shore excursions sometimes by tuk tuk, sometimes by pickup and more often on foot over paddy fields to visit isolated villages only accessed by river, there are no roads. Their only access for shopping is the weekly “boat shop” that comes by. We were warned that some villages are seldom visited by tourists and that the young children might frightened-and so it was with a couple of toddlers bursting into tears when they saw us. We were, however, greeted with typical Burmese wide smiles everywhere we went and, in isolated villages, we were always accompanied by a troop of youngsters-a bit like pied piper. The village elders always gave us a guided tour and made us most welcome.
We visited three of these remote villages and, to many of us, the visits were one of the highlights as you saw true Burmese life, something that you don’t see on the tourist trail. The bustling river side towns of Mingkin, Kalewa and Mawlaik were all truly fascinating -and we didn’t see another tourist!

Even with its 2ft draft our boat could not navigate further North than Mawlaik but we had a wonderful shore excursion in tuk tuk pickups to visit the old Colonial buildings, the golf course and after lunch the elephant sanctuary. The Pyer Swe elephant camp is for retired working elephants and is run by the Myanmar Forestry Commission. One retired tusker and six retired ladies enjoy foraging, bathing and being fed bananas and sugar cane by the visitors. One of the ladies, 50+, surprised her keepers when after 6 months she produced a baby girl! Life in the old girl yet. The youngster is now 6 months old and a right handful.

On our last day, at Kalewa, after a walk around the town and its bustling market we had our last lunch on board prior to transferring to our included flight from Kalaymyo airport to Mandalay and Yangon. The transfer, in an old local bus, was quite slow and bumpy for the first hour as the road is being remade as a highway but as soon as we cleared the teak forests it was a good road and we made the airport in 70 mins.

A few last remarks. Tips are included for the crew although there was a tips box. Most guests also tipped the guide and the purser. The purser Win Myo was excellent as was Min the guide. I also tipped our regular crew shore helper who was always on hand to give my wife, and others, a heave up and down the steep river banks.
Some days a few guests rested on the boat as the excursions could be quite strenuous but they had a great time watching the villagers washing and bathing in the river and bringing down their cattle for water. Guests who stayed on board were well looked after with tea and biscuits and access to the free bar.
Weather was wonderful for our cruise with 26C day but it could be cool at night and misty in the mornings so ensure you take long sleeve jumpers or wraps. Nobody “dressed” for dinner-casual is the norm and light clothes in the day for ladies and shorts, if not visiting temples, for the men. The boat does not have an internet connection for CC’s so take enough US$ for extras.

I would highly recommend this cruise to anyone who wants to experience real Burmese working towns and villages.
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