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Princess Panhwar on the ‘Road to Mandalay’.

မင်္ဂလာပါ  –  pronounced  Mingelaba and is the traditional Burmese  greeting and welcome.

My wife and I have recently returned from a 14 night river cruise along Myanmar’s (Burma’s) Irrawaddy River between Mandalay and Yangon (formerly Rangoon) …

Called “the Road to Mandalay” by British Colonialists, the Irrawaddy crosses Myanmar (formerly Burma) from north to south before emptying into the Andaman Sea through the Delta, where it splits into nine major tributaries. The distance along the river from Mandalay to Yangon is 597 miles.

For this river cruise we chose to sail with APT’s Travelmarvel division on their river cruise ship, Princess Panhwar

The Princess Panhwar is a brand new boutique style river cruise ship custom built for sailing the Irrawaddy. She was launched on 9 January 2016 and ours was the fourth transit in what is her maiden season.

Princess Panhwar has 36 cabins on two decks, each featuring a French or Outside Balcony…

There were 68 passengers onboard, the majority being British and the remainder Australian (14). The smaller passenger number ratio to cabins was due to a number of solo travellers occupying double cabins. Crew numbers were 41: again giving an impressive ratio.

For this cruise we had booked a Princess Suite, 202...

*****

The suite benefitted from a forward facing balcony…

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Tea and coffee making facilities were available in the suite…

…as were the individual personal ‘quiet’ audio boxes so important for excursions…

Toiletries were by L’Occitane…

Public areas included the air-conditioned Kipling Lounge

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…and the Sun Deck

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…with its own bar and complimentary tea, coffee and snack making facilities…

There is just the one restaurant on Princess Panhwar, the Mandalay

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…where breakfast, lunch and dinner were served.

Breakfast was a full buffet service with the exception of tea and coffee which were served at the tables.

Lunch was a semi-buffet service. Cold options were available by self service and a number of main courses could be ordered from the daily changing menu…

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A sample lunch and dinner menu

At the restaurant entrance for lunch and dinner a display of the day’s menu offerings was available…

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Also available at lunch times was a facility called ‘Chef’s Action Station’ where a freshly prepared dish of the day was available…

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Dinner was a full service 4 course affair. Complimentary wines, beers and non alcoholic drinks were served with both lunch and dinner…

There was a small fitness room on board plus a Spa Massage facility…

At the centre of the ship is a small reception desk…

(More about the wicker baskets in the pigeon holes later)

Entertainment

Evening entertainment on board is not a major priority and with the high level of daily activity that is probably understandable.

Of the 14 nights on the cruise live entertainment happened on just three evenings:  two of which involved local performers: a cultural music and dance show…

…and a very clever puppet show…

The other ‘live’ entertainment was a very popular ‘crew’ show…

On a number of other evenings a movie was shown in the Kipling Lounge.

During daytime transits between river stops a number of lectures and demonstrations were given. These included a cookery demonstration and an instructional lecture on how to tie and wear the traditional Burmese Longyi (pronounced long-gee)…

It proved popular as one evening prior to dinner there was a Longyi Party on the sun deck. Of the 68 passengers on board only four ‘damp squids’ declined to join in the fun…

Another river day demo 0f particular interest was the Burmese traditional ‘Thanaka‘ cosmetic (Natural Beauty Wood) application…

The basic yellowish-white cosmetic paste is made from the ground bark of the Thanaka tree and is seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls…

The on board demonstration commenced with the methodology of making the paste on a  stone wheel…

…through to its application on a willing volunteer…

 *****

There were also a series of lectures given by the knowledgeable onboard guides which covered the culture, religion, history and politics of the Myanmar people. These were of great interest considering the adversity that the people had had to suffer over recent years.

Life on the Irrawaddy

Before starting our trip it  is  probably worth mentioning the routine for our journey down the Irrawaddy. With one exception (Yangon) all stops were achieved by berthing on or alongside the river bank where no permanent berthing facilities existed.

With such a distance to cover it also became necessary to have long leisurely ‘river day’ transits onboard which made this cruise even more enjoyable.

Due to the ever changing conditions on the Irrawaddy it was also necessary to change ‘pilots’ roughly every 50 miles. These were interesting exercises as there were no ‘pilot boats’ that we often see on ocean cruises, Princess Panhwar simply manoeuvred into some remote river bank spot and a intricate exchange of pilots took place across a suspended ladder…

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…and another one on somewhat different terrain…

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Most stops entailed berthing alongside natural river bank. What was, however, impressive was the way the crew turned out prior to each excursion to both bid farewell to passengers and assist the less able to negotiate the often uneven surfaces of the river banks…

As if by magic the crew were back in timely position for the returning excursions.

 

Itinerary

We joined the Princess Panhwar having flown to Mandalay via Bangkok with Thai Airways. The meet and greet service at Mandalay Airport and subsequent coach transfer to the ship was well organised.

With 14 nights onboard, 597 miles of river to cover and 16 stops, all with either an excursion or walking tour, I’m not going to cover the itinerary in full. Needless to say I will hopefully give an illustration of what I did consider the outstanding highlights followed by a brief series of photographs under the heading ‘Images of Burma‘ which will hopefully serve up a flavour of this amazing journey.

Day 2 – Sagaing

The first excursion of this journey was to Sagaing, a former capital of a 12th century kingdom  which lies on the banks of the Irrawaddy some 12 miles to the south-west of Mandalay on the opposite bank of the river. With its  numerous Buddhist monasteries it remains  an important religious and monastic centre with  pagodas and monasteries crowding the numerous hills along the ridge running parallel to the river…

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Our excursion visited the  central pagoda, Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda

We next headed across the river by coach and boat to  Inwa. An ancient imperial capital of Burmese kingdoms from the 14th to 19th centuries, Inwa was  rebuilt several times throughout history and the city was finally abandoned as a capital after it was all but destroyed by earthquakes in 1839. We were to  tour the area by horse drawn cart…

…to visit firstly the 14th century teak-wood  Bagaya Monastery

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…and the ‘Leaning Tower of  Inwa‘…

Officially the Nanmyint Watch Tower it is one of a few monuments left from King Bagyidaw’s Inwa palace before it has moved to Amarapura in 1839. The watch tower has a height of 90 feet and following an earthquake in 1838 it has  leaned to one side.

 

Day 3 – Mandalay

Our first visit on this full day’s excursion was to Kuthodaw Pagoda to view the World’s biggest book…

The grounds of the pagoda contain 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves, each containing a marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Tripitaka, the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language…

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The gilded central stupa, modelled on the famous Shwezigon Pagoda at Bagan, stands above the terraces of  kyauksa gu,  at  a height of 188 feet…

 

During the day in Mandalay we made a number of stops at various local silk and gold leaf workshops in addition to visiting another teak monastery, the Shwenandaw Monastery. The monastery is known for its awesome teak  carvings of Buddhist myths, which adorn its walls and roofs…

 

We were given an excellent lunch at the Mandalay Sedona Hotel and a few hours free time. The hotel was ideally positioned adjacent the moat of the Mandalay Palace with great views of Mandalay Hill…

No visit to Mandalay would be complete without one more temple and that should really be the Mahamuni Buddha Temple. The Mahamuni Buddha image (literal meaning: The Great Sage) is deified in this temple: it is a major pilgrimage site and highly venerated in Burma and central to many people’s lives as it is seen as an expression of representing the Buddha’s life.

Ancient tradition refers to only five likenesses of the Buddha, made during his lifetime; two were in Indian, two in paradise, and the fifth is the Mahamuni Buddha image in Myanmar

Only men are allowed to climb the stairs to the Buddha image and it was an amazing experience to witness those males who were there adding ‘gold leaf’ to the already glistening image.

Late afternoon we drove from Mandalay to Amarapura and the U Bein teak bridge which spans three quarters of a mile across Lake Taungthaman…

Here APT Travelmarvel had arranged for us to board gondolas…

…in order to best witness the very popular sunset…

 

 

Day 5 – Bagan

Bagan is without doubt the major draw of Myanmar’s fledgling  tourist industry. From the 9th to 13th centuries the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.

The Bagan Plain is seen by many as equal in attraction to Angkor Wat and our visit easily confirmed that.

Bagan was the first and only location we visited that APT Travelmarvel offered an alternative excursion – a sunrise Balloon flight over the plain…

Up, up and away…

Shwesandaw Pagoda is popular with sunrise worshippers on the ground…

Above the Gawdawpalin Temple...

Our shadow as we descended onto an Irrawaddy sand bank…

…and a champagne flight celebration…

The Oriental Balloon Company who operated the flight were great. Easy to say after a safe landing and for those who wished they even emailed a Google Earth flight path…

Following a quick breakfast on board we were once again off on the first of two excursions in and around Bagan.

First up was a visit to the Anada Temple, the best preserved of all the temples known as the “Westminster Abbey of Burma”…

Considered the masterpiece of Bagan’s surviving Mon architecture Ananda Temple  consists of four large vestibules , each opening out symmetrically into entrance halls surrounding the central structure on each side of which four huge buddhas stand in recessed niches…

 

During the course of the day, and either side of lunch onboard, we visited numerous sites including one of Myanmar’s most significant religious sites, the Shwezigon Pagoda…

…a lacquer ware workshop for which the area if famous…

…and the  Gubyaukgyi Temple, a 13th-century ‘cave temple’ with an Indian-style spire…

The Gubyaukgyi is a cave temple; the first syllable of the temple’s name (“gu”) translates to “cave”. The interior walls and ceilings are decorated with fragments of ancient mural paintings that depict scenes from the Jataka tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha.

Unlike those of most temples and pagodas in Bagan its design is not bell shaped or cylindrical; its four sides are straight and diminishing in size towards the top.

The temple’s interior is lit by daylight that comes in through large perforated stone windows. The walls and the ceiling  contain well preserved murals with Buddhist depictions. Unfortunately photography inside was prohibited.

Dhammayangyi Temple…

 

…is the largest of all the temples in Bagan and was built during the reign of King Narathu (1167-1170) who came to the throne by assassinating his father and his elder brother: presumably built to this specification to atone for his sins.

Our final visit in Bagan was to Myauk Guni temple to witness sunset…

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Bagan is brimming with historic and cultural wealth. With over two thousand Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas and monuments compacted into one area, it is home to the highest density of Buddhist architecture anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately Myanmar’s tragic political history has seen rejection by UNESCO for World Heritage Site status mainly in the belief that Myanmar  does not deserve to be linked to UNESCO due to the detrimental impact it would have on the organization’s respectability.

That, however, does not detract from the beauty and uniqueness of the area and it is clear to see that the current tourism state of infancy is about to explode.

Day 14 –  Yangon

Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is no longer the capital of Myanmar though it remains the commercial hub of the country and also its most populated city.
A relic of Britain’s colonial past, Yangon became the capital of Burma following the British capture of Upper Burma in  1885.  Colonial Yangon, with its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional architecture had, by the early 20th century public,  services and infrastructure on par with those in London. Indeed, to this day it has the largest number of colonial buildings to be seen in Asia: though not all, I would add, are in a good state of repair as these examples show. Firstly the old Rowe & Co Department Store, founded in the mid 1860s and known as the ‘Harrods of the East‘, on the corner of Maha Bandoola Gardens…
…and secondly the ‘Accountant General’s Office on Strand Road…
Our arrival in Yangonwas the first occasion we disembarked the ship on a ‘constructed’ jetty. So it’s about time I mentioned the wicker baskets at reception. I think it has gone without saying that the river banks have been pretty dirty. So the ship operated a routine that when returning onboard passengers removed their inevitable dirty footwear and placed them in one of the baskets that had a corresponding number to their accommodation and the crew would clean the footwear ready for the next excursion/walking tour.
We had almost two full days in Yangon. On our first morning excursion with APT Travelmarvel we visited The Shwedagon Pagoda…
…which dominates Yangon both physically and religiously. Indeed, few religious monuments in the world cast such a powerful spell over a country as does Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
The holiest of holies for Burmese Buddhists it also remains a potent symbol of national identity.
The northern covered stairway has 128 steps…
…and is one of four entrances leading to the Terrace on which the 325 ft gold-covered Stupa sits…
…surrounded by a a multitude of shrines and pagodas jumbled without design or symmetry but each glistening with gold.
 At each corner of the octagonal pagoda is a shrine, or planetary post, with a Buddha image (one for each day of the week, Wednesday is split into two). Every shrine has a planet and an animal sign associated with it in accordance with Eastern astrology. Burmese people pray to the shrine belonging to their day of birth burning candles, offering flowers and pouring water over the image.
Wednesday Corner
Friday Corner...
One of the many shrines where the constant swirl of pilgrims make their circumambulation, pausing to pray and perform rituals that invariably include making offerings…
We never did get the full significance of it but our guide was most keen for us to have a photograph taken that included the main Stupa and a lonely palm tree…
Two further morning stops in Yangon, prior to our return onboard for lunch,  included a visit to the world’s largest, at 230 feet long,  Reclining Buddha at The Kyauk That Gyi Pagoda
…and Kandawgyi Lake to see the ornate Karaweik  Palace Restaurant
The afternoon was free time for passengers. My wife and I, both having military backgrounds, opted to visit the Taukkyan British war cemetery which was 21 miles and an hours’ taxi ride north of Yangon…
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The cemetery contains 6,374 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 867 of them unidentified.
Taukkyan is the largest of the three war cemeteries in Burma (now Myanmar). It was begun in 1951 for the reception of graves from four battlefield cemeteries at Akyab, Mandalay, Meiktila and Sahmaw which were difficult to access and could not be maintained. The last was an original ‘Chindit’ cemetery containing many of those who died in the battle for Myitkyina. The graves have been grouped together at Taukkyan to preserve the individuality of these battlefield cemeteries
As always it was a very touching experience and we were very impressed with the way the cemetery was being maintained.
Day 15 – Yangon

It’s about time I mentioned the wicker baskets at reception. I think it has gone without saying that the river banks have been pretty dirty. So the ship operated a routine that when returning onboard passengers removed their inevitable dirty footwear and placed them in one of the baskets that had a corresponding number to their accommodation and the crew would clean the footwear ready for the next excursion/walking tour.

Today we disembarked the Princess Panhwar. APT Travelmarvel had arranged a communal day room at a Yangon hotel for those passengers with late flights out of Myanmar. Transfer to the Park Royal hotel was scheduled for 9.00 am so following an early breakfast I decided to head off for a bit of solo exploration.

I took the Strand Road tram as far as the Botataung Pagoda

The main stupa is the most unique feature of the Botataung Pagoda. While almost all stupas are solid and closed to the public, this stupa is hollow and people can walk through it. Following a walkway with glass mosaic walls the visitors will see several chambers housing glass showcases containing ancient artifacts including some very old Buddha images that were discovered in the stupa after it was destroyed in 1943.

Despite the early hour of my visit pilgrims were already queuing and the Pagoda was a hive of activity. At the side of the pagoda, there is Nat (spirit) pavilion…

 

These pavilions are busy with worshippers every day, making many different offerings. One which caught my eye inside the pavilion was an electrically driven rotating carousel…

There is also a bridge over a pond with fish and turtles to which  offerings are also made…

I chose to walk back along Strand Road in order to capture some more of the prominent colonial architecture found there and including, from right to left, the General Post Office, The British Embassy, the Strand Hotel and, at the end with the tower, the Port Authority Building…

In more detail, the Strand Hotel

…and the Port Authority Building...

On our arrival at the Park Royal Hotel we took the decision to book our own full day room for the freedom and flexibility it would then afford us. It was conveniently situated near the centre of where we wanted to be and by mid morning we were once again sightseeing.

Among the many sites we took in was the Independence Monument with the Sule Pagoda and City Hall in the background…

The Old High Court

…and The Secretariat…

This Victorian building, which housed the parliament from 1948-1962, was the place where Aung San, father of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.

Religious wise we also discovered the Immanuel Baptist Church...

…the Sri Devi Hindu Temple

…and, yards from the Sule Pagoda, the Bengali Sunni Jamae Mosque

One final tip on Yangon. We took a late lunch at the Sky Bistro at the top of the Sakura Tower…

The views are spectacular and well worth the price of a meal…

Shame about the crane impeding the view of the Sule Pagoda…

Yangon deserves more than two days but I guess the reader has certainly got a flavour for this amazing city anyway.

 

And the promised Images of Burma…

Buddhist nuns with their offering bowls

A senior Buddhist monk’s ceremonial funeral that we witnessed

Sunset over the Irrawaddy...

A Kayan Lahwi woman

Lacquer work inscribers…

…and finally, impromptu transport…

Well, a beer had to feature didn’t it…

 

Summary:

By any standards this was an amazing journey. Cruising through a breathtaking land, filled with age-old golden temples, stupas and monasteries – a land  left almost untouched by visitors for generations  – is an experience difficult to match.  APT Travelmarvel may be the budget branch of APT but they certainly gave us an insight  into the culture and life of this amazing country.

And amazing it is. The people are both friendly and polite. One never felt under any threat either in the countryside or in the cities. Generosity abounds even when they have so little and, despite the obvious poverty we witnessed one certainly felt that here hunger wasn’t an agenda item. Food was aplenty everywhere and it was noticeable that little went to waste…

With just one exception the staff on board Princess Panhwar were Burmese by nationality.

Every member of the crew of Princess Panhwar was amazing – always smiling and friendly, using our names, and anticipating our every need.  However it was  their versatility and willingness that were truly inspiring.  A waiter would serve us at breakfast, reappear minutes later in a line to help us negotiate the river bank when we left the ship, then act as  wing man to our excursion guide to ensure that no member of the group went astray!  They would take photos for us and pose for pictures with us if asked.  After each pagoda visit (and there were many!) they would provide us with a wet wipe to clean our feet.

Returning to the ship  the entire crew would form a line to help us back down the bank, each greeting us with a hearty MINGELABA – WELCOME BACK.   There followed a hand sanitiser monitor, cold towel, cold drink, then someone to help us remove our dirty shoes – these were then cleaned ready for our next outing!   The same waiter would then serve lunch and in the evening might demonstrate how to prepare and apply thanaka (a cosmetic/sunscreen made from bark), how to wear a longyi (a sarong like garment worn by men and women), or join a group to sing us a song.

Others would pole vault ashore on arrival at the next stop to tie up the ship, keep the whole ship clean and tidy, serve drinks at cocktail hour.

Although gratuities were included on this trip, all the grateful passengers were very keen to  offer more to thank these happy, wonderful, charming people who could not have done more to make us feel special.

Many thanks to the outstanding Cruise Director Tom

Tour Guide ‘Little’ Zaw

…and multi tasking Waiter and ‘excursion back marker’, Big Zaw

This cruise was booked through The Cruise Line  (www.cruiseline.co.uk )

PS. Well worth a mention. I often used to head off the ship  for a solo exploration before the official excursion times. On one of these early morning walks in the village of  Myanaung I came across a friendly group  of dedicated men who referred to themselves as the ‘writers Association’. They voluntarily ran the small village library…

Despite the language barrier I got to know UHtay Aung, a retired teacher…

We are now friends on Facebook. Lovely to meet you UHtay Aung.

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