Sunday, August 20, 2017

A river cruise adventure on the Chindwin

Running from northern Kachin State to the Ayeyarwady, the Chindwin River carves its way through picturesque mountains and mist-shrouded forests. A river cruise offers a close-up of village life on the water’s edge.

The Chindwin River meanders through beautiful landscapes. Photo: Supplied / Pandaw River ExpeditionsThe Chindwin River meanders through beautiful landscapes. Photo: Supplied / Pandaw River Expeditions

The majestic Chindwin River, fringed by misty forests and towering rocky crags, stretched before me. The blue sky of the afternoon gave way to fiery streaks of pink and violet as the sun bid its final adieu to the Sagaing mountains. I was on a sailing adventure, cruising from the heart of Nagaland to Monywa in a replica of a ship that first traversed Myanmar’s rivers almost 100 years ago.

My trip was an “off-the-beaten-track” Chindwin cruise with Pandaw River Expeditions, which offers voyages across Myanmar, Southeast Asia and further afield. In the past, the Chindwin cruise was only available during monsoon season when water levels were high, but thanks to its new ultra-low-draught ships, Pandaw is now the only company offering Chindwin tours from July until February. Taking in areas few tourists visit, it directs some of its profits into funding schools and clinics in areas it sails through.

The Phowin Taung caves near Monywa. Photos: Charlotte Rose / The Myanmar TimesThe Phowin Taung caves near Monywa. Photos: Charlotte Rose / The Myanmar Times

Our boat, christened Kalay, was a thing of splendour. With room for 10 guests and a crew of 16, the cosy teak cabins and breezy sun deck offer laid-back, old-world comfort, without any of the showy la-di-da of modern cruise ships. With the addition of a few mod-cons, Pandaw’s ships are reconstructions of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) vessels that operated in Burma during the 1920s, when the IFC was the largest privately owned fleet in the world. The fleet was destroyed in its entirety when the Japanese invaded Burma, but was revived under the Pandaw name in 1995 by Scottish historian Paul Strachan, whose father worked for the IFC.

We were to spend seven days on the river, setting off from Homalin near the Indian border in Sagaing Region and stopping at different towns and villages along the way. As well as tracing the fascinating history of the region, from the reign of Shan kings to its role in the Second World War, it was a chance to go off-grid and see Myanmar’s rural beauty, untouched by mass tourism.

Days rolled by at a leisurely pace. I sprawled on the deck, watching the river slip by beneath us and waving at the occasional passing fishermen. I marveled at the early-morning mist and the changing colours of the mountains as the sun crossed the sky. We sailed past lone farmers plowing their fields with oxen and glittering pagodas perched on top of mountains, the occasional tinkling of monastery music floating across the water.

Several times a day we’d stop to explore sleepy river-side villages, crowds of curious children trailing behind us like a scene from the pied piper. At every stop, friendly locals ran down to the river to watch our boat dock, inviting us into their homes for tea and handing us gifts of bananas and flowers. We explored glittering hilltop pagodas and bustling outdoor markets, where women in brightly painted conical hats sold steamed rice flour snacks and cones of fried crickets and snails. “Myi kyi ba, myi kyi ba,” they said with a smile – try some, try some.

Women at work in a cheroot factory.Women at work in a cheroot factory.

On the first day of our trip we visited Toungdoot, an ancient Shan enclave which under the British still had a ruling sawbwa complete with palace and court. The old teak palace remains, though time has not been kind to it and its intricately carved beams are now burrowed by termites – hollow, dusty reminders of how quickly the river’s fascinating history is fading. Elsewhere in the village, time appears to have been suspended completely: Shan children in school uniform chased each other under the shade of crumbling pagodas watched over by men drinking cups of steaming laphet yay. Nearby, girls hauled water from a public well, pigs and chickens skirting their feet.

Further down the river in Sitthaung, the final resting place of a number of IFC steamers scuppered by the British in 1942 in an “act of denial” from the advancing Japanese, we met U Thein Maung. It was from Sitthaung that the British survivors of the Japanese invasion retreated to Tamu on the Indian border, and U Thein Maung, who said he was about 12 years old at the time, still remembers them hauling money and valuables brought on ships from Yangon onto the ox-carts that carried them across the border. Sitting on the wooden floor of his home, he told us how he and his friends had collected up discarded coins and jewellery and sold them in nearby Pungbin.

The Japanese had a base on the other side of the river, and U Thein Maung remembers the sound of British planes overhead and, occasionally, of bombs being dropped near their village. Sometimes, he said, people they knew would disappear from their homes – taken by Japanese troops who suspected them of being spies for the British. When the British returned to Burma later, he said farmers went out to their fields one day to find the bodies of “thousands” of Japanese troops.

“You couldn’t even imagine how many bodies there were,” he said, adding that the villagers believed them to have been poisoned by the British. “We pulled out their gold teeth to sell, and used their arms to make a path along the river.”

A shocked silence fell across our group as we imagined villagers hacking off the arms of dead men.

“Guns. He means guns,” said Harry, our guide, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In the evenings we moored at small villages – some no more than a few stilted, wonky bamboo huts, some buzzing with life as villagers went about their evening business at the water’s edge. Some nights, I basked in the rawness of nature; on others I laughed and played with the children who sat on the river bank, watching our stationary boat for hours on end as if we were a giant, floating television.

On day five of our trip we visited Mawlaik, the administrative capital of Sagaing under the British. The ghosts of Empire remain today in Mawlaik’s crumbling colonial buildings and broad, shady promenades, lending the town a surreal, otherworldly quality. Splendid dak bungalows overlook a grassy golf course, built in 1937 and still in use today, and nearby we visited the Sagaing headquarters of the Bombay Burma Trading Company: a run-down, musty mansion that belies even the slightest hint of its historical importance.

The next day we hopped on mountain bikes to explore the rural village of Mingin. From the river, Mingin doesn’t look like much – just a few wobbly bamboo shacks. Beyond the riverbank, however, it’s a glorious, technicolour idyll and we cycled past glimmering paddy fields and golden pagodas, buffalo eyeing us suspiciously as we wobbled precariously down tiny lanes. Mingin’s many ageing pagodas and monasteries, such as the impressive Kyitaung monastery, with intricate gold-painted walls dating back to 1727, have earned it a reputation as the Luang Prabang of the Chindwin, and as we admired their carved beams and fading artwork, it was easy to see why.

At night, we discussed the adventures of the day over cocktail hour, with drinks shaken by our charming barman, Htoo. At 7:30pm the gong sounded signalling the arrival of dinner – a long, leisurely affair with glorious dishes prepared by the ship’s French-trained chefs. Throughout the week we sampled an ever-changing menu of traditional Myanmar dishes and international cuisines, not a day going by without someone pondering the logistics of preparing such impressive meals in the ship’s tiny kitchen.

Our trip ended in Monywa, capital of Sagaing and one of Myanmar’s most underrated tourist destinations. Here, we took a bus to the Phowin Taung caves – a fascinating complex of 13th- to 18th-century caves, many containing Buddha images and original painted ceilings.

On the other side of the river we craned our necks at the towering Laykyun Setkyar Buddha, which at 116 metres (380 feet) high is the second-tallest standing Buddha in the world. Surrounding it is the equally impressive 100m reclining Buddha and the Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung complex (roughly translating to “a thousand great bodhi trees”), where thousands of seated Buddha statues sit under the trees.

By the time we stopped at the brightly coloured Thanboddhay Pagoda I thought myself all pagoda’d out, but the surreal structure, with its row upon row of Buddha images, couldn’t fail to leave me gaping in awe once again. The sprawling 37-acre complex, built between 1939 and 1952, is the only pagoda with its unique shape in Myanmar, and its candy-shop colours and swirling towers lend it a magical, Disney-esque appearance.

There was a celebratory atmosphere on the boat on our final evening. We danced and laughed with the crew, who, after a week in such quarters had become almost like family. As I looked out at the silvery water of the Chindwin, I realised I had come to appreciate it in a way I could never have done on land. Exploring this far-off region by boat is really the only way to discover its rare beauty. And for the traveller who wants to go where few tourists have gone before, without fancy-schmancy opulence or tedious guided tours, the laid-back Chindwin adventure is a dream come true.

This trip was provided by Pandaw River Expeditions. A seven-day Chindwin River cruise (July to February) costs from US$2800 per person sharing a main deck cabin, including guides and all meals and local soft drinks, beer and spirits. Part of Pandaw’s profit goes to supporting education projects and clinics in Myanmar. To book or for detailed itineraries visit or email [email protected].