Myanmar is still a mysterious and relatively undiscovered country, but one with a fascinating history and the most wonderful culture. Following her recent educational trip, our very own Helen explores why you should visit Myanmar, and why a river cruise is the perfect way to do it!

Over to Helen…

Newells Travel Myanmar
The Temples of Bagan at sunrise, Mandalay, Myanmar

The Chindwin River Cruise Itinerary

Pre-Cruise Day 1 – Following a couple of days in Bangkok, we arrived in Mandalay and were met by a very nice guide who took us out to our driver. We were the only 2 people on the tour, so we had our own private tour for 2/3 days! We were driven from the airport to our hotel, the Mandalay Hill Resort, but on the way, we stopped at the hilltop Kuthodaw Pagoda which offered us an amazing sunset view across the city of Mandalay and our hotel. It was a long and at times steep climb. You can do this yourself, but I would always recommend that you pre-book via your tour operator (especially checking the vehicle type used to get you up there).

The Mandalay Hill Resort is an arc shaped building with all its amenities behind it, so away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It has a lovey pool area, with a swim up bar. The hotel has a buffet restaurant, a Chinese restaurant and an outside (huge) BBQ every night. There was also a bar that had live music every night until 11pm, happy hour 2for1 drinks between 6-8pm and a tapas menu. The tapas was great and not too badly priced. In fact, we loved the informality of the bar and ate tapas here both nights.

Newells Travel Myanmar Pagodas
A Myint ruins city Monywa Myanmar

Pre-Cruise Day 2 – After a lovely breakfast, we left the hotel at 08:30 to make the 1½ – 2 hour journey to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) a scenic hill town outside Mandalay. This is a cooler area due to its height, so a lot of the more affluent city dwellers have their ‘summer homes’ here. We visited Dat Taw Gyaint waterfall and the Kandawgyi National Park and Botanical Gardens. They have the best (and I mean the best) Orchid collections and Butterfly Museum I have ever seen. You could easily spend half a day if not all day here. However, if you haven’t got that much time, take a golf buggy ride for 10,000MMK (£5.60) per 30 minutes. If you finish one side of the huge lake, you can walk across the bridge to the side of the exit (a golf buggy can’t do this bit) and there are so many fish in the lake plus both white and black swans. There are also monkeys, Takin and deer to name a few.

The roads still leave a lot to be desired, so even though the distances are not lengthy, owing to the road conditions the time taken is much longer than there. You certainly see what life is like in a very fast developing country.

We only had 2 nights/3 days in Mandalay and I would recommend that you definitely need one or two more days, as there was still quite a bit we didn’t see, U Bein Bridge and the Jade Pagoda, to name a couple.

Cruise Day 1 – 09:00am start today! We picked up the other 8 guests joining the Pandaw River Cruise on the Chindwin River at Monywa. It was nearly a 3¾ hour (93 mile) journey in a not so comfortable and not so air-conditioned mini coach (the best in the area though) to meet our home for the next week, the RV Kha Byoo – 10 cabins/up to 20 guests. What a home it was and our hosts couldn’t have done more for us!

Cruise Days 2-6 – On each of these days, we visited one of the villages along the banks of the Chindwin River on foot. On every occasion, we could not have been made to feel more welcome. The Burmese people are the most humble and caring people that I have ever had the privilege of encountering on my 35 years of travelling. Most had wooden houses built on stilts with up to 4 generations of one family all living in one house/small holding. Usually the oxen, pigs and hens lived underneath the dwelling. The families all looked healthy, well fed and clean. We were also lucky enough to be invited into the local schools on several occasions, to watch or join in with their lessons. ABC, 123 and never have I joined in ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ so many times! Being a mainly Buddhist country, learning English is now their priority, so that they can pass on the teachings to the rest of the world.

We were, without exception, always invited to come into one of their homes for a cup of tea and a snack. Out the window went my obsession of not wanting to risk getting ‘Delhi Belly’ as refusing such an offering/gift is a huge insult to their culture. Having made the mistake once of refusing a banana, the pure look of shock and hurt on their face was too much to take again. They don’t have a lot, but they are far from starving and seem a very happy and contented people. I am certain that at least one of the villages we visited had never seen ‘westerners’ before.

Newells Travel Chindwin River
Chindwin river, Monywa, Myanmar

I don’t know about the Irrawaddy, but all moorings and tie-ups along the Chindwin were not at concrete jetties or piers or across another vessel. They were all alongside the muddy banks of the river with a metal gangway, extra planks of wood and some robust rope tying. Sometimes the crew of the boat had to jump into the river or the muddy banks to secure our safe disembarkation point. We were welcomed back on board with a cold flannel, freshly made cold fruit cocktail drink and had our shoes removed, cleaned and returned to our cabin, ready for the next adventure.

We also visited a temple, shrine, monastery or pagoda every day, and also had a tuk tuk ride to an elephant rescue centre.

On one of the evenings, we moored up alongside a sand bank and the staff treated us to a beach party with music and dancing (they liked ABBA a lot!) huge campfire and cocktail bar. Candles and lanterns and our chairs from on board were all arranged to make for a comfortable, fun evening. The Head Purser was DJ and the crew helped fill the dance floor. Last of all, we lit and released lanterns into the night sky. The boat was also decorated with an abundance of fairy lights.

Every village we visited was different in size and in industry – sometimes gold, sometimes cotton and sometimes rice.

The food on board the boat was amazing. I don’t think you could get better in a 4/5* hotel. Fresh bread, fruit, eggs (whatever way you wanted them) at breakfast. Lunch and dinner consisted of 3 choices to be made the meal before.

Full bar facilities were available on board with soft drinks and local beer and spirits, teas and coffees were all complimentary from 06:00 to whenever you went to bed.

Once on board, you did not have to spend another penny if you didn’t want to. All excursions were included as well as Wi-Fi. The only things you could possibly pay for were laundry, wine and international spirits.

Each evening, at 18:30 before dinner, we were served ‘The Cocktail of the Day’ and had a 10 minute ‘briefing’ with our guide and the Head Purser about what we would be doing and experiencing the next day.

Cruise Day 7 – Disembarkation day today. It was so very sad to say goodbye to the wonderful crew who had looked after us.

We then had an hour and a half journey by coach back to the airport for our flight to Yangon.

We were once again met upon arrival by our Pandaw representative and taken by private car to the Shangri La Sule hotel where we had a one night stay before our flight to Thandwe the next morning. It’s a very large hotel with several restaurants and bars, a spa and outdoor swimming pool. We stayed in a Club room which gave you full breakfast in the Club Lounge and access to free soft drinks and teas and coffees all day plus free bar and canapes (so much choice of hot and cold food) wines and spirits between 17:30-19:30. The increase in cost of the room was worth it as this did us for our evening meal that night, which was so much nicer than in the buffet restaurant in Café Sule.

Newells Travel Myanmar Beach
Ngapali Beach

Post-Cruise Days 1-5 – Our guide collected us from our hotel at 09:30 for our tour of the Shwedagon Pagoda (minimum 2 hours) on our way to the airport for our flight to take us to our beach stay at the Sandoway Resort in Ngapali. This temple is the second largest/tallest in Myanmar (I think). If you only do one Pagoda visit, this is the one you do.

After our 50 minute flight, we had a 20 minute transfer to the hotel.

I am a great lover of the Indian Ocean beaches, and I thought it would be impossible to improve upon Mauritius. But this does, and that is mainly because there is nobody there yet. Hardly any tourists, no major motorised sports either. The hotel was full one night, and we didn’t see anybody all the time they were there other than at breakfast time, as they were on a touring package, they were out all day long on excursions.

The beachfront restaurants are better reached by a 5 minute taxi ride (as the roads are not lit) which costs about £3.50 return. We did a 4-5 hour boat trip around the nearby islands, to visit a fishing port, snorkel and have a drink at a lovely little beach bar which only cost USD$50 between us. The food was great!

We visited the spa on 2 different occasions and had a body massage and a facial. Both were 1 hour long at a cost of $55, and it was one of the best facials I have ever had, and definitely the cheapest.

Post-Cruise Day 6 – Today it was back to Yangon and the Shangri La Sule ready for our flight back to the UK via Bangkok the next day.

What an amazing country with the most amazing people. It is possibly the best trip I have ever had the privilege of going on, and I urge you to go now before Myanmar’s charm is diluted by western influences.

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