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Pandaw and Orwell revive the Road to Mandalay
By Roderick Eime
10 October 2014

"On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!"
- Rudyard Kipling


While the great writer and poet may not have actually visited Mandalay, Kipling was certainly struck by the grandeur and palpable air of adventure of the great paddle steamers that set our regularly for the onetime capital from their base in Rangoon.

Today, it's still an intoxicating cocktail of equal parts nostalgia and pomposity sitting here on the expansive teak deck of the RV Katha Pandaw. It's taken me almost ten years of trying to get here to Burma and aboard one of the classic Pandaw vessels that revived a century-old tradition on the fabled Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River. And now I'm feeling every bit the privileged sahib, G&T at hand, watching the little stilt villages pass by as the locals toil in the fields or bathe in the murky waters.


Driven by a keen sense of history, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, upon which the modern Pandaw fleet is styled, has been reborn thanks to Scottish historian and entrepreneur, Paul Strachan. Now about to launch the new fleet's 13th vessel, Strachan struck upon the idea when he found one of the old fleet's hulls languishing on a riverbank. He restored the vessel, which became Pandaw 47, and began a revival that continues to this day. Even now we see many other salvaged, Clyde-built hulls in use by local operators performing their original tasks of hauling a mix of freight and passengers to the many ports dotted along the length of both the Irrawaddy (which runs down from China to the NE) and the Chindwin (whose headwaters originate to India to the NW).


My transport, the RV Katha Pandaw (above) is a spanking new replica of those utilitarian craft, lined with gleaming, highly varnished teak and embellished with polished brass fittings. Carrying just 32 passengers, we’re waited on by doting staff in crisp uniforms, delivering our tasty meals and cocktails in between. With just 16 twin cabins, this is truly a boutique travel experience. Pandaw’s typical vessels are larger, with up to 30 cabins, yet the dainty Katha deports herself with grace and beauty, cutting a gentle wake on the Irrawaddy’s perpetually murky waters as we chug imperiously past the gold domes of the many stupas dotting cliffs. Waving hands and cheery smiles implore us from within the precarious stilt villages as local folk pause from their toil to salute us. Like trumped up impostors from one of Kiplings tales, we return the greeting.


All along our journey from Mandalay to Katha and beyond, we reminisce of literary giants like George Orwell who wrote his début novel here, of military campaigns under the command of General Slim which slowly overcame the invading Japanese in WWII and of the grand ancient kings who once ruled this land and left a legacy of thousands upon thousands of gold-topped stupas everywhere one looks.

The isolated and remote river port of Katha, the namesake of this vessel, is a delightfully anachronistic location, still dripping in history and nostalgia. Its lifeline to the world remains the mighty Irrawaddy, its muddy banks still the mooring point for the motley vessels plying this ancient trade route. Many of these overburdened ramshackle boats, where also resurrected after that fateful day in 1942 when the entire fleet was scuttled in an ‘act of denial’ as the invading Japanese poured into the then British territory. Unfortunately much damage was done evicting the Japanese invaders in 1944, including the complete destruction of the mid-19th century wooden royal palace in Mandalay which finally fell on 20th March 1945. A modern reconstruction can be seen there today behind the massive ramparts.


Kyauktada, the outpost that was the setting of Orwell’s famous 1934 novel “Burmese Days’, is actually Katha. Because of Orwell’s scathing account of the rampant corruption and bigotry, Katha was disguised so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the colonial overlords. The tennis courts, the notorious British Club, town jail and police station are all mentioned and stand to this day. The British Club however, now serves a more sober purpose as a local municipal office.


Colourful riverside flower seller (Roderick Eime)


This particular itinerary is new to the Pandaw portfolio and explores north from the romantic hub of Mandalay, past the remote outpost of Katha where Orwell lambasted his peers, to the navigable extreme of Kyauk Pone near the town of Bhamo in Kachin state. Great jungle-clad cliffs reminiscent of the Yangtze Gorges tower above us, but instead of the Chinese concrete and steel, it's bamboo, teak, thatch and busy little canoes going about their daily routine.

But just as the Yangtze has been irretrievably transformed by massive dams and earthworks, so too are such terraforming projects threatening the upper Irrawaddy. While not yet set in stone, let us pray that these devastating constructions can be thwarted by the public pressure welling against them.

Like so many fragile locations in our increasingly globalised world, there is some urgency in seeing them before they are changed forever by the irresistible forces of progress.

"Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles clunking from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin'-fishes play,"

Travel Facts
Thai Airways flies daily from Bangkok (BKK) to Yangon (RGN) and Thai Smile flies daily to Mandalay (MDL) www.thaiairways.com

For guests arriving prior to boarding the cruise, Pandaw use the Chatrium Hotel Yangon [www.chatrium.com]. All other accommodation is aboard the vessel.

Pandaw Cruises operate 7, 14 and 20 night itineraries all along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers stopping at numerous ports including Kalemyo, Mandalay, Katha, Pagan, Kindat and Prome.

For bookings and information on all Pandaw [www.pandaw.com] cruises in Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, see www.activetravel.com.au

Roderick Eime specialises in small ship journeys in remote locations. Follow his blog: Expedition Cruising

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