From the end of the third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 until independence in 1948, Burma was a British colony. That legacy is still apparent even though Burma (now Myanmar) has clocked more years since independent than it did as a colony. The fairly common use of the English language, numerous examples of colonial architecture, hill stations where colonial administrators once escaped lowland summer heat, and the decrepit, but still functional railway system, are all part of this legacy.
Our Riverboat, RV Kindat Pandaw and river traffic on the Irrawaddy/Ayeyarwady River
Then, there’s the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a Scottish-owned fleet of more than 600 river vessels that plied the Irrawaddy River system during the colonial period. Many of these vessels were scuttled in the river during WWII to prevent their falling into the hands of Japanese invaders. Following independence, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) became the Inland Water Transport (IWT) when the company was nationalized. Some of those scuttled vessels were replaced mid-century, others were raised and repaired, converted from steam to diesel and still operate, though on rather irregular schedules.
Our seven-day river journey from Bagan to Mandalay was aboard Kindat Pandaw, a thankfully, modern and comfortable descendant of the “old Flotilla.” Air conditioning, delicious meals mostly of local dishes with local ingredients, a crew that efficiently and charmingly looked after our comfort and safety, a cozy ensuite cabin, all contributed to an ideal platform for an up-close look at this distant, delightful country. The fact that our vessel’s name and design reflected an IFC lineage gave a nod to the colonial legacy.
We boarded Kindat Pandaw in Bagan after our one-hour flight from Yangon and a tour of the large, vibrant local market in Nyangu, the commercial center of the Bagan Archaeological Region and site of the airport. Pandaw River Adventures, operators of our 36-passenger vessel, is a British company that started on the Irrawaddy River 20 years ago, making Pandaw the most experienced river cruise operator in Myanmar. Not only did we quickly become acquainted with our commodious little vessel, but with our 15 fellow passengers–nine British, four American and two Australian, who proved an adventurous and companionable group.
One of seemingly many former capitals, Bagan is much more than that. Over 2,000 stupas, pagodas and temples remain from a once large and vibrant capital city; so many it’s hard to imagine where the non-religious buildings may have been. Bagan’s “Golden Age” is reckoned to have lasted 250 years from mid-11th to late 13th century when Mongols invaded Burma in 1287. Several pagodas and temples are active places of worship today, many more have been rebuilt from ruins so that the overall effect is of a forest of spires. It’s an unforgettable sight, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Hot hot air balloons at dawn and temples at sunset.
A day and a half exploring the archaeology of Bagan was punctuated by a tour of a lacquer ware workshop where we observed the crafting and decorating various pieces, and a visit to a busy rural clinic established and sponsored by Pandaw Charities, affiliated with our cruise operator. We cast-off next day just before sunrise to begin our up-river journey, perfectly timed to allow us a view of hot-air balloons rising above Bagan’s shadowed spires.