Monday, 14 November 2011

Pandaw Flotilla cruise Burma before the uprising

Burma - Pandaw Flotilla River Cruise

Burma is a country not on the minds of the average traveller. A country which at first glance might seem distant and secretive - lost in the telling whispers and media spin of an unjust government and joyless society. Indeed Burma has had its fair share of problems but its relative isolation has helped retain much of the tradition and character of a colonial Asia lost in its neighbouring countries. With thousands of beautiful pagodas that cover the country with shimmering golden bells and an age-old innocence in its people. Burma is effectively a looking glass into the past, where western fashions and pop culture haven’t diluted the culture and apart from the occasional Man United t-shirt there will be very little here that reminds you of home.

Our itinerary stretched from Rangoon the former capital in the south, to Mandalay in the north. We were travelling aboard the Pandaw riverboat cruise on the mighty Irrawaddy River which bisects the country. It was an enriching and relaxing experience. Not only was our vessel charming and luxurious but I only had to unpack once and from then onwards just lounged on the deck watching the landscape roll by sipping a brandy and ginger ale and waiting for the next port of call to arrive.

The Pandaw Flotilla itself is a great boat and would have looked more at home on the Mississippi with Mark Twain at the helm. The design is taken from the Quarter Wheeler steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, built in 1947 at the famous Yarrow & Co. shipyard on the river Clyde of Glasgow. The boat’s cabins are excellent and enormously comfortable with rooms that have superb air-conditioning and hot & cold power showers. The food was exotic and eclectic with sweetly tasting red bananas on the menu and enough variety to satisfy even the fussiest of eaters. The boat has three decks; two which house the cabins and a dining hall as well as the top deck, which was used as a lounging area and for entertainment purposes in the evening.

The itinerary for the Pandaw cruise is comprehensive to say the least with off shore excursions to old monasteries and temples, lacquerware factories, potteries and off the beaten track riverside villages; where locals greeted us with traditional Burmese marionettes or classical dancing.

It was in these villages that I experienced something very special and reassuring. It seemed to be something inherent in the characters of the Burmese people we met in these remote places; a virtue which you don’t often see in people and was surprising to find here. Especially in people who obviously were living a hard life, had next to nothing and very limited options for the future. Initially I thought maybe they’d resent us for our riches and rotund appearance, as we blinded them with our intrusive cameras. When in fact they were the opposite. I have never been smiled at so often and felt as welcomed as I did there. It was strange in contrast because places that I have visited in the world that are wealthier and had taken advantage of tourism/capitalism/consumerism were a totally different experience. In some places you felt like a 20 pound note floating in the breeze. It started to make me wonder whether the transition that these communities would inevitably take, so called progress would improve their lives or pollute the inherent virtue and happiness that
these people seem to effortlessly radiate. Will the shift in what these people think they want change their outlook? Do the modern luxuries and obsessions that we deem necessary for our happiness actually make us any happier? I don’t really know and couldn’t suggest an answer for what system of society could deliver happiness to all. But what I will say is that the people we met in those villages are the last in a fading world of innocence being sucked into the black hole of globalisation. And despite the regime of Burma’s antediluvian government there is something precious about Burma in its people and their overwhelming regard to their faith which shouldn’t be overlooked.

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