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Rollin’ on the River Chindwin

By John Borthwick

The Chindwin flows monsoon brown but its verdant shores are studded with the golden spindles and holy beehives of Buddhist stupas and pagodas. We’re on a two-week journey upriver to Myanmar’s remote northwest aboard RV Pandaw Katha, a pedigreed descendant of last century’s Irrawaddy steamers

“I think I’ll just sit up here and let the world come to me,” says the tall passenger, pulling up a pew among us on the riverboat’s open forward deck. An old Burma hand, his card reads, “Colonel, US Army, Retired”. He’s back, visiting Myanmar again after years on the ruling junta’s blacklist, because - I wonder - of something he did during his time as military attaché in Yangon? He settles in and the world of the Chindwin River indeed comes to us all.

Pirogues bob past, propelled by faded red sails cut from the old robes of monks. Raintree-shaded towns slip behind us in a jumble of rooftops, chai shops, bicycles and buffalo carts. The kids waving from the bank wear white thanaka face-paste and their grandmas crack betel-blood grins featuring stainless steel teeth and fat cheroots.

 Temples with solar panels

After boarding the steamer just north of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), we head up the Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) River to Bagan (formerly Pagan), beyond which the place-names are content to remain same-same. Bagan is Burma’s Vatican, Chartres and Benares rolled into one, with some 2,500 pagodas and monasteries scattered across its plain. I can see some 30 of them from where I’ve climbed, atop the giant Shwe Sandaw stupa. From then on we compress Royal Bagan’s glorious millennium of art and architecture, plus tales of the devout or demented kings who built it, into one fast-forward day.

“Are you stupa-fied yet?” quips our Burmese guide, Daniel, as we gather on the top deck for our evening briefing. We - 24 passengers in 16 cabins - are a mixture of British, Australian and others, including the retired colonel. The towns and villages that we visit thrive outside the imperatives of Twitter-time and selfie uploads yet they too are in change. Their broad river is now hurdled by giant, Chinese-built bridges that connect shores still quilted with paddies and studded with temples - but the temples today have solar panels and the farmers own their first-ever telephones, mobiles.

Burmese call it Buddhist Disneyland

We leave the Ayeyarwady to join the Chindwin River, to witness Burma time in rewind. Twice daily Daniel lands us ashore for well-guided rambles through towns where riverfront streets are still called The Strand and old colonial structures - warehouses, banks, even an 1887 golf course - mostly moulder, abandoned, but occasionally still function fully. We re-board the steamer to move ever north, seeing the jungle shores from the comfort of our teak and brass cabins, and the gin and tonic bubble of the observation deck.

The journey’s highlights are ... well, where to begin? The Thanbodi Temple at Monywa, where half a million Buddha statues, plus the country’s tallest Standing Buddha (125 metres) and longest Reclining Buddha (100 metres) are so excessive that even devout Burmese call it a Buddhist Disneyland. Wandering ashore in market towns or through forgotten temples dense with intricately carved art, bouncing around in a tuk-tuk with the colonel swapping tales with the surprised driver in fluent Burmese. Or sometimes, just lingering in a riverside chai shop. A 1920’s traveller here noted that in such places, “A kindly indolence lingers amid the fretful restlessness of our age.” This statement still holds true.

More jungle, teak rafts and pagodas. Villages of laundry slapstones, whetstones, parasols, monasteries, longyis, babies and furious heat. At Masein, 28 white stupas climb a ridge from the shoreline like geese ascending in flight. Meanwhile, the chefs keep us almost too well fed with delicious butterfish, pork, roasts, salads, soups and fruit. And one more banana spring roll, please.

Lush and air-conditioned steamer

We travel 1000 km upstream to reach Homalin, the Chindwin’s northernmost navigable point for crafts like ours. The Pandaw Katha is a lush, air-conditioned version of the classic steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that flourished until 1942 when the fleet was scuttled in advance of Japan’s invasion. We actually find the boiler of one on the bank at Sitthaung where it sank. In 1995 Scottish entrepreneur Paul Strachan raised and refurbished an original steamer, the RV Pandaw. Today his fleet of a dozen purpose-built Pandaws promises, among other pleasures, “No TVs in the staterooms ... no captain’s table or other such inanities.” My kind of vessels.

The river is almost infinite, an expedition is not. We turn back to disembark at Kalewa. The old colonel shares one more tale, about the time he held a party and tweaked the Rangoon junta’s nose with that most insidious Western plot, loud rock - played live, with diplomatic immunity.

Towns and villages thrive outside the imperatives of Twitter-time and selfie uploads

TRIP NOTES

Pandaw Chindwin trips begin in Yangon.

Bangkok Airways fly Bangkok-Yangon four times daily.

Www.bangkokair.com

Visa: Enquire early at: www.myanmar.visahq.com.au or www.myanmarvisa.com/bangkok.htm

River travel: A 14-day Pandaw Chindwin cruise costs $4,605 for a twin cabin. Transfers, tours, food and drinks are included. See more on: www.pandaw.com