Small-Ship Expedition Cruising on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar

An Outstanding Adventure Without the “Bells And Whistles”

The Pandaw Kalaw riverboat (home for a week)
glistening in the sunshine

One of our most memorable family expedition cruises was in Myanmar (formerly Burma) with Pandaw Cruises along the Irrawaddy River. Planning to cruise with a 24 and 26 year old, my husband and I had some apprehension initially about whether they would find it boring, with no gala shows, limited internet, and no TV’s or pools as you would find on the bigger cruise lines. Our concerns dissipated as soon as we were welcomed across the makeshift gangplank aboard the 20 passenger Pandaw Kalaw, a teakwood replica of a 19th century British K-class river boat.

Immersing in the Culture of Magical Myanmar

As we cruised upstream from Mandalay, the crew used bamboo measuring poles to test the water level and ropes were thrown ashore when we arrived at each village or to overnight. All around the boat we could see children playing, women washing laundry on the jagged river rocks, villagers bathing and washing their hair, and a cacophony of animals like cows, dogs, goats and pigs ambling along the shore. With the river being the main transportation artery of the country, there were numerous fishing operations using large nets, the loading and unloading of bamboo and assorted building materials
on barges and the movement of fresh fruit and vegetables from diverse boats to wagons, carts and trucks waiting on the shore. As we travelled down the Irrawaddy on this small boat, we truly felt like we were immersed in traditional life.

Climbing to the top of a view of a pagoda provides a views of the Bagan steppe covered plain.

Magnificent sunset at the Shweddagon in Yangon.

Children gather to receive stickers in every village along the river.

Along the river we were also able to visit many landmarks of past Burmese dynasties and Buddhist sanctuaries including those in Bagan (our last stop) with over 3,000 stupas and pagodas dating back to AD 1086. Climbing to the top of the Shwe San Daw stupa, one of the few monuments travellers are still allowed to ascend, we had a 360-degree view of the “other-worldly” pagoda-studded terrain. Transported by tuk-tuk, ox cart, horse carriage and small buses we visited small towns and villages, each with its own unique character. In Pakokku we saw markets where tobacco, cotton, peanuts, textiles and thanatkha (traditional make-up and suntan lotion) are made and traded. In Yandabo, a village well-known for its terracotta pottery production, we tried our hand
at making a pot with the village elders cajoling us on. We also had an opportunity to visit a medical clinic and primary schools that are supported by Pandaw Cruises.

As far as I’m concerned nothing provides a better learning experience than an expedition cruise in remote Myanmar. Interesting daily lectures coupled with traditional puppet shows and musical performances, and the high level of interaction with the crew and other well-travelled guests without the distraction of TVs and the internet 24/7, offers a wonderful opportunity to immerse in the culture, history, and wildlife of magical Myanmar.

If You Go:

  • Take crisp new, unmarked, US bills in small denominations to buy local products in markets and on the streets, or convert some money to local currency upon arrival. In order to exchange for local currency, it’s important that the bills be crisp.
  • If time permits, plan to spend a couple of nights in Yangon (previously Rangoon) and in the Inle Lake area as pre and post cruise additions.
  • Pack sturdy waterproof walking shoes.
  • Pack sandals or flip flops that can easily be removed when visiting temples. Nearly all temples require you to remove your shoes and socks to enter.
  • Disposable wipes to clean your bare feet before putting your shoes or sandals back on are extremely handy.
  • A visa is required to enter Myanmar. You should get an e-visa online well before your trip starts.
  • Shoulders and knees must be covered when entering temple properties, so pack accordingly or buy what you need locally.
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