Sailing to Mandalay

Of the countless Buddhist monasteries, shrines, temples and stupas I saw on a trip to Myanmar in April, I was drawn to one more than all the others - the U Min Thone Se Pagoda on the outskirts of Mandalay.

I was awed by the arc of 45 polished white stone Buddhas in golden robes seated inside a hall of green tiles. The faces were serene, knowing and kind. My travelling companion Sheila admired a massive standing golden Buddha with big eyes and hands facing outward.

There is so much to take in - there are innumerable Buddhist sites in Myanmar - it can become a bit of a blur after a while. It is a good idea to focus on a few areas and not try and see everything.

Sheila and I signed up for a one-week cruise on the Irrawaddy River that started in Bagan and ended 177km upstream in Mandalay.

We shared a roomy wood-panelled cabin with twin captains beds, en suite bathroom and no TV (which was fine by us) aboard the 40-passenger Kalaw Pandaw, one of 13 nearly identical teakwood riverboats operated by Pandaw River Cruises and built to look like the 19th-century paddle steamers that plied the Irrawaddy at the height of the British Empire.

Because of the low water levels in April, we had to scuttle down the Irrawaddy's dry banks to board, past a gauntlet of children selling bracelets and necklaces. A crew member at the gangway took our shoes and cleaned them, while another handed us a cold drink and a chilled face towel.

With the boat tied to a tree trunk or a stake banged into the earth, daily life on the riverbanks was never more than a few feet away from our favourite perch on deck.

The scent of wood-smoke hung in the air as women slapped laundry against stones at the water's edge and families bathed in the river, deftly changing yesterday's sarong for a fresh one. Monks chanting into microphones, crowing roosters and the shriek of outboard motors were our ambient music for the week.

Our seven-night itinerary included two days on board in both Bagan and Mandalay, and three days sailing on the river in between. A local guide, San, sailed with us and led shore excursions each day, the first to Bagan, just a 10-minute bus ride from our mooring.

The ancient city is carpeted with more than 2,000 red brick pagodas, most built during Bagan's Golden Age in the 11th to 13th centuries and originally covered in stucco and gold leaf.

It was fascinating that some temples resembled Europe's Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals (Thatbyinnyu and Shwegugyi) and others looked similar to Egyptian pyramids (Dhammayangyi) or Indian temples (Mahabodhi).

San explained how Myanmar's neighbours, especially India, influenced the architecture. Between San's talks and reading The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh's excellent historical novel about Myanmar, I came back home a lot smarter than when I left.

After two days in Bagan, we cruised upstream to Pakokku and roamed around the local markets, including one where women were making thanakha, the traditional Myanmar face paint made from tree bark.

On day four we cruised to the village of Yandabo to visit a rural homestead where terracotta pottery is made and have tea and corn on the cob in a local home. The next day, we took a two-hour bus ride up to a quaint British Colonial hill station called Pyin Oo Lwin, or Maymyo, passing mango orchards, rice fields, and large humped white cows pulling ancient farm equipment through the earth.

We were tied up on the outskirts of Mandalay for the last two days, with intermittent short cruises in the morning and dinnertime to kick up a breeze and treat us to more river views.

In between, we went ashore to Sagaing, a hill blanketed in Buddhist sanctuaries, and also followed San to the Mahamuni Pagoda covered in millions of squares of gold leaf. We had a look at the massive ruins of the Mingun pagoda, and then by horse-drawn carriages, saw more pagodas in the ancient capitals of Ava and Amarapura.

When we weren't on shore, Sheila and I favoured deck chairs at the bow, sipping a cold Myanmar beer and soaking up the sea of gold and white stupas dotting the landscape around us as we waited for the dinner gong.

Meals were served on the open decks at tables for four mostly and we especially enjoyed the acacia tree leaf tempura, fish cakes and tealeaf salad. Two evenings after dinner there was a traditional puppet show and dance performance.

Otherwise, it was a nightcap on deck and then early to bed to rest up for next day's adventures.


- We flew on SilkAir from Singapore to Mandalay; and then it was a four hour taxi ride from Mandalay to the boat in Bagan.

- Bring plenty of US dollars because few ATMs work; Visa and MasterCard are accepted in big hotels and shops, but American Express is not.

- At local markets, Burmese Kyat is necessary, though souvenir hawkers at the major tourist sites happily take crisp US dollars (faded, torn or written-on currency will not be accepted).

- If staying in Mandalay before or after the cruise, a guided bicycle tour of the countryside with Grasshopper Adventures ( is great fun.

- Pandaw's river cruises in Myanmar operate between July and April, with October through February the most pleasant months to cruise. Fares start at US$1,550 (S$2,218) per person (double occupancy), and include meals, excursions, bottled water, and local soft drinks, beer and spirits.

- Go to for more information

- Check out, a digital guide to small-ship cruises around the world with under 300 passengers.

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