The Pandaw cruises down the Irrawaddy. It was part of hundreds of vessels built in Scotland that were sent to colonial Burma, then sunk when Japanese forces arrived during the war. Photo: Julian Ryall
The Pandaw cruises down the Irrawaddy. It was part of hundreds of vessels built in Scotland that were sent to colonial Burma, then sunk when Japanese forces arrived during the war. Photo: Julian Ryall

The first time that Paul Strachan stepped aboard the RV Pandaw, it was close to being a write-off. Moored along a muddy stretch of the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar, it was essentially a derelict hulk that served as home to countless families and a number of seemingly content pigs.

The vessel was in such bad condition – the woodwork was in many places shattered, the brass fittings had been pilfered and the once proud livery had long since faded and peeled – that Strachan did not even grasp what he had stumbled across.

Introduced to the head of the clan aboard the vessel, Strachan was informed that the ship had been built in Scotland and, in a flash, he realized that he was aboard one of the startlingly few survivors of what was once the largest fleet of river boats in the world, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.

“It was just a feeling of total euphoria,” he told the Asia Times. “Here was a relic of the past that could be made to sail once again.”

Strachan also had an extremely close personal connection to the ship and the company that it had once represented.

“I am the fifth generation of a family of shipbuilders from Glasgow and I first came to Burma in 1981, in the footsteps of my great-grandfather, to take an internship at a power station,” he said.

Paul Strachan, the founder of Pandaw Expeditions. Photo: Julian Ryall

Fleet of over 600 vessels

Returning a few years later to write a book about the stunning monuments of Bagan, which has since been put forward for UNESCO World Heritage list, Strachan says he found the history, culture and art of the country fascinating.

His research also divulged the history of the Irrawaddy Flotilla, which was Scottish-owned, employed his great-grandfather and operated between 1865 until the 1940s. At its peak, the fleet had more than 600 vessels that carried as many as nine million passengers and 1.25 million tons of cargo every year along a waterway that served – and still serves – as Burma’s most important thoroughfare.

The majority of the company’s ships were paddle steamers that were built on the Clyde before being dismantled and shipped to the former capital of Rangoon (now Yangon). Reassembled, they moved British troops around the colonial possession, transported the mail, passengers to the highlands in the sticky summer months and heavy equipment to the oil fields far upriver.

Boats sunk after Japanese forces arrived

The outbreak of war in the Asia-Pacific in 1941 threatened more than 75 years of operations, although there was hope initially that the invading Japanese could be fended off. By the spring of 1942, however, it was clear that the Japanese forces could not be held and the decision was taken to scuttle the fleet so they could not be used by the enemy. Over a couple of days, the company history records how fleet manager John Morton and a number of colleagues shot through the hulls of more than 500 ships as they lay at anchor, sinking them to the muddy bottom of the river.

After the conflict was over, the newly independent Burma became inward looking and the fleet was never restored to its former glory – at least until Strachan got the urge to follow his great-grandfather.

He launched his first-locally built cruise ship in 1995 and, over the following two years managed to break even as a pioneer in the nation’s fledgling tourism industry. The discovery and purchase of the MV Pandaw three years later injected renewed enthusiasm into his project.

Today, Pandaw Cruises operates eight classically appointed ships in Myanmar, as well as a range of other cruises on rivers in Thailand, China and Laos.

“Most of our passengers are professionals aged 55 and up, but we do get quite a few younger people and families,” he said. “These trips are great for kids as they are educational and experiential.

“They are also an active lot and like to trek into the jungle or head off on the mountain bikes on every ship.”

Film directors Sydney Pollack and Katherine Bigelow have traveled with Pandaw in the past, as has the Duke of Sutherland, while Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, took a Pandaw cruise in 2016.

“But most of our passengers are highly educated, cultured and really good company,” said Strachan.

Myanmar has been in the world’s headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent months and Strachan fears that the media coverage will have an inevitable impact on bookings next year, although the unrest has been localized in the country’s west and north, a long way from where Pandaw operates.

That is a pity, he says, because Myanmar has the perfect combination of culture and history, serenity and activity, tradition and modernity for any visitor.

“Visiting Burma is really like stepping back in time,” he said. “We set out to recapture the golden age of personalized travel along the rivers of this country as a unique way of exploring unique riverside communities, their history and temples.”

Many of them, he adds, have changed little since the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company vessels passed this way.

Also read: Journey on an old Burma riverboat, the Pandaw