Seeing your river cruiser at a distance, waiting for you, is always exciting. This time, after a flight from Yangon to Kalewa and a bus ride to the point of embarkation, the anticipation mounts as we go over psychedelic green fields, vibrant red earth and a series of WWII bridges built by the British.
At one point I recognise a stretch of road where a feral elephant (possibly abandoned by his master) used to come out at sunset to play with a discarded truck tyre. When approached by villagers, he would disappear swiftly into the jungle.
Irrawaddy River cruise
The RV Pandaw II is a vision of teak, polished brass and inviting verandas.
Taking possession of one’s cabin is always a delightful experience: this is going to be home for the next 21 days.
If this seems like a long time onboard a riverboat, let me tell you that there are many repeat customers onboard, including myself.
This is Pandaw’s signature cruise to the deep north, to the heart of Nagaland near the border with Bangladesh and India on the Chindwin River and also, on the second leg of the cruise, to the border with China on the Upper Irrawaddy River.
Heading for Homalin, capital of Nagaland, we glide on the milky tea waters and pull up at villages that are not only charming but also full of WWII history.
Locals go out of their way to welcome us and share with us preparations for upcoming festivals.
Early in the cruise we touch upon Sitthaung where the bucolic setting of rice fields ready for the picking glow in the slanted sun rays.
It is hard to imagine that here, dozens of the Irrawaddy Flotilla riverboats where sunk in 1942 to deprive the advancing Japanese troops of their use.
Every village we stop at has something worth seeing: from ancient Buddha statues to unusual temple pavilions covered in tiny mirrors reflecting their Indian origin.
At Homalin, the northernmost destination on the Chindwin, I take a prime seat for people watching at one of the best waterfront teashops there.
There is no luxury here but the strong tea and milk (you can specify how much milk and sugar –if any you want) is delicious and similar to the teh-tarik the national drink of Malaysia.
Teashops are an institution in Burma and it is said that nowadays it is easier to get a license to run a bar than a teashop as these charming, traditional meeting places, have been traditional breeding grounds for political dissent.
The caves at the Phowin Taung Hill are undoubtedly the highlight of the Chindwin.
A complex of niches and caves exquisitely painted inside with images from the Buddhist cosmology, stand on a hill populated by cheeky macaques.
The more ancient the cave, the finer the details. If this place were somewhere else, it would be over-run by tourists.
As it is, we encounter a handful of determined travellers who had made their way there.
Bagan beckons on our way back south before we head cruise northeast on the Irrawaddy.
This ancient capital in the central dry plains, was built by King Anawratha (1044 AD) who adopted Buddhism as his religion and built hundreds of temples and stupas.
We do not leave Bagan without acquiring tonnes of lacquer ware.
The most intriguing specialty of the area is the ‘horse-hair’ bowls, made from the hairs of a horse’s tail tightly wound up around a bamboo frame and then lacquered.
The results are stunning black bowls with gilded interiors and flexible to the touch.
The Yandabo village has been making pots for centuries and can only be accessed by the river.
A walk around the village provides us with an insight into the different steps of pottery making. It’s one of the many local experiences offered on this Irrawaddy River cruise.
Mandalay, the last Royal capital, founded in 1857, has the most magnificent samples of Burmese architecture.
At the U Bein Bridge we have a celebration and champagne corks pop at sunset from all the little row boats we are on.
Leaving Mandalay behind, the RV Pandaw heads northwest and goes through three defiles – or deep gorges – where in the past many boats were lost to raging whirlpools.
It has been recorded that in the 19th-century a boat caught in a whirlpool remained there for three days.
This time the currents are serene and the captain steers us with panache through the narrow passages.
Katha has to be the urban highlight of the Upper Irrawaddy River.
A British outpost and home for many years to Eric Blair, a British Empire Police Officer, it still has many colonial buildings and bungalows.
Eric Blair returned to England after his posting and penned Burmese Days under the name of George Orwell based on his experiences in Katha. Read this book onboard and all will fall into place.
Katha has an enormous variety of people, a legacy of the British Empire who brought workers from all corners of the Empire.
There are Indian merchants and also Afghans and Chinese.
Thousands of British civil servants –and troops- were transported to Upper Burma by boat.
River travel was the monopoly of a powerful clout of Scots -builders and operators of the Irrawaddy Flotilla-, which at its zenith had some 660 shallow drafted boats in operation on the Irrawaddy transporting goods (teak and crude oil included), administrative personnel and troops.
From the 1870s to 1943, the Glasgow built boats were a staple sight on the river. Civil servants and their wives were delivered to their different outpost of the Empire in comfort.
They travelled in these handsome three decked paddle steamers with teak-lined decks and cabins, lots of brass, wicker chairs and aspidistras for a nostalgic touch.
With first class food on board, an extensive wine list and an all-inclusive bar this is an unforgettable and unique experience in one of the remotest areas in Burma.
Pandaw operates in Burma (Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers), Vietnam (Mekong), Cambodia (Mekong) and India (Brahmaputra)
For more information see Pandaw River Expeditions.
Maria Visconti travelled as a guest of Pandaw.