Crooner Frank Sinatra put Burma on the map according to our self-proclaimed entertainer on the RV Pandaw 11 as we gathered at the wharf for a 10 day cruise from Mandalay to Yangon. (Rangoon)He immediately engaged in a discussion with a more historical thinking passenger who espoused the true historic traditions of the country. “On the road to Mandalay” was a global hit for Sinatra. Well the ‘road’ actually referred to the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Rangoon explained the historian, as passengers gathered around to glean some of the history of what is now Myanmar. Rangoon is now referred to by its native name, Yangon. The lyrics came from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1890 about the British soldiers yearning for an exotic life in Burma.
We embark on the RV Pandaw 11 and at lunch mingle with the other 36 passengers, a mixture of nationalities from England, Ireland, USA, Australia and Canada. Before we set sail that evening, our guides took us on a city tour to residential and manufacturing areas. No sign of any health and safety regulations or unions in any of the manufacturing plants or building sites.
Wandering along the marble carving street, Buddha craftsman are covered in marble dust, no masks to be seen. The faces of statues are left for the ‘masters’ to complete each piece. The Gold Leaf Hammering workshop was fascinating but sad to see how hard these fit young men work pounding the gold with hammers for more than five hours to result in the finest gauge possible; the noise was deafening. We visited the first of many pagodas, the Mahamuni Pagoda, the most revered in Myanmar. The highlight was the world’s longest teak bridge, the 1.2 long teak ‘U Bein’ footbridge build in 1849. We watched the sunset over the bridge from small boats while sipping ‘sunset’ cocktails – amazing.
The famous Irrawaddy river gives Myanmar its lifeblood, irrigating the plains and providing fish, grain, teak , oil and cotton.
The whole country is Pagoda, Stupa, Temple and Buddha heaven with more than 2,000 pagodas in Mandalay and environs and literally millions and millions of Buddha’s of all shapes and sizes revered by the locals as their primary religious representative.
The Colonial history behind Mandalay and Yangon (Rangoon) is fading but the earlier constructions undertaken in the late 19th century are still magnetic highlights of a nation with a strong religious and moral fibre.
Yangon is a bustling metropolis with daily traffic jams, thousands of taxi’s, cyclos, busses with no windows and conductors touting at each stop for passengers, trucks filled with itinerant workers and tourist coaches. Ensure your taxi driver knows your destination otherwise you can expect a long trip as the communication in most cases can become very frustrating.
The Colonials changed the capital from Mandalay in the north to Rangoon and more recently on the advice of a Clairvoyant, to Naypyidaw. Not sure if it was the same Clairvoyant who also suggested some years back cars should be driven on the right side of the road and not the left; this suggestion was also adhered to.
The majority of the British exited after Burma was granted its independence in 1948. They will be remembered for classic hotels like the Strand built in 1901 and still popular with ex pats and tourists for the very English afternoon style high teas of cucumber sandwiches and fine Indian tea. Expensive but well worth a visit.
The massive Shewdagon Pagoda welcomes billions of worshippers and tourists each year and is certainly a spectacular landmark. Gold and silver stalls are in abundance at Scotts Markets which is around the corner from the Yangon Central Hospital which is another fine architectural example from the colonial era.
Our final night on the Pandaw was a mixture of happy and sad, songs were sung, declarations of life-long friendships were made helped along by the free flowing G and T’s. Nigel Planer, Neil from the well-known British spoof the Young Ones joined us on the cruise and regaled us with song and poems during the trip.
Pandaw pioneered river expeditions on the Irrawaddy over 21 years ago and today offers the widest choice of river and coastal cruises in Burma. The stunning colonial-style ships, all-inclusive prices, authentic shore excursions, attentive service and wonderful convivial atmosphere on-board.
The verdict: Great crew, fabulous trip with a lot of eclectic people.
Written by John Savage