North of Mandalay the Irrawaddy River spreads out wide and shallow, skirting huge sandbanks. I was travelling up it on Pandaw 2, a river cruise boat based on the old style boats that plied the river a century ago (having been sent out flat packed from Glasgow) with teak verandahs lined with rattan chairs reminiscent of an Agatha Christie Nile adventure. One soft, silky evening Pandaw 2 fetched up mid-river alongside a swathe of grey sand. The sun disappeared behind a gilded pagoda silhouette on the far shore while the crew carried the rattan chairs and tables on to the virgin sand. A fire pit was scooped out, chairs circled it, a bar appeared, dozens of lanterns were lit, lining a path from gangplank to fire, and music pealed out into the dark, warm air.
Finally, we passengers were led ashore along the lantern-lit path and settled in the chairs. Drinks and canapés were brought. I chose a chilled white Aythaya wine; a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc made at a Myanmar winery in the south of the Shan state. The white was throat-enlivening citrus with tones of grapefruit and gooseberry and went extremely well with the local curries served on Pandaw. The Aythaya white and its sister red had proved happy travelling companions as we travelled up the Irrawaddy. Tonight it was extra special, sipped by the firelight while gossiping about the day’s temple and market visits as one of the world’s great rivers slurped its way south all around us.
By the flickering firelight, we recalled highlights of our cruise: the hundreds of temples spearing up through the jungle at Bagan; the amusing riverside souvenir sellers from whom we bought our floaty trousers, tops and longhi, the ubiquitous Burmese wrap-round skirt; the visit to a century-old golf club by pony trap; rickshaw rides through a market town; watching the amazing contortions of villagers working an elephant costume to make the great beast dance – a serious inter-village competition activity; visiting gold workers, marble carvers and weavers in Mandalay, and watching classical dancing on the sun deck after dinner, again with a glass of Aythaya in hand.
One experience we all recalled as very special was a late afternoon trip to the iconic U Bein Bridge. This teak bridge, the longest of its kind in the world, was built in 1849 and strides, somewhat fragilely, across a lake. People come to walk across the narrow bridge and watch the sunset. We clambered into small kayak-like boats and the boatmen paddled us expertly through clumps of lotus and water hyacinth angling to get the best sunset view. The sinking sun silhouetted those on the bridge into anonymous black matchstick people. As we waited for the critical moment to get the best sunset shot, a boat carrying Pandaw crew members paddled among us handing out glasses of champagne to toast the dying day’s drama. It completed a perfect and memorable experience.
Back on the Irrawaddy sandbank, a gong announcing dinner cut through our conversation and we wandered back down the lantern lane to dinner on Pandaw. The crew doused the fire, scooped up chairs and tables and in minutes there was nothing left to show we had ever been there.