Abandoning ship on the first night in Burma

18th July 2014
Not even being forced to temporarily abandon ship the first night of a cruise up Burma’s normally placid Irrawaddy River was sufficient to thwart photo-journalist John Mitchell’s vacation. Here he tells the story of how the Pandaw IV’s courageous crew overcame a freak occurrence when 150kph wind hit the vessel – the first time it had happened in the company’s 15-year history of cruising in Burma:

As the Pandaw IV was hit by a powerful wind of up to 150 kph the vessel suddenly heeled at an angle of 35 to 40 degrees. It wasn’t a good sign, especially as the ship is a shallowed drafted river cruiser and rather like an iceberg in reverse – 7/8 above the surface and only 1/8 below the waterline.

Dozens of bottles of expensive spirits and liqueurs, together with glasses, had crashed to the floor. The rattan furniture including armchairs and coffee tables inlaid with marble had slid crazily across the floor. My wife, Julie, was gripping the bar, and I had slid on my bottom back and forth across the floor twice.

We had joined the Pandaw IV that morning after a flight from Rangoon to Bagan, where we met another 24 passengers – mainly Australian – who had completed a 10-night cruise down the Chindwin River and were starting stage 2 of their voyage, a 10-night cruise along the Upper Irrawaddy River.

The 28 passengers had gathered in the forward saloon at about 7 pm for a briefing about the following day’s cruise and on-shore excursions. We were chatting and drinking as some of us stood at the bar and others sat around the saloon, waiting for the briefing to begin.

At about 7.10 pm the hurricane hit, and deafening torrential rain bucketed down on the ship. Initially we thought it was exciting. But the excitement soon evaporated as the bottles and glassware crashed to the floor.

Then the ship began to ship list and all the passengers seated on the starboard side, plus their rattan chairs and coffee tables, slid to the port side. The half a dozen or so passengers standing at the semi circular bar – apart from Julie and I – also tumbled to port.

At one stage I fell to the floor, and slid to port before just as quickly sliding back to starboard. I remember thinking “This is nuts. It’s better to take my chances standing and gripping the bar” – so I dragged myself upwards to again join Julie. As her fingers gripped the underside of the bar she reminded me of my stars, which she had read earlier that day while on the flight to Bagan: “Your lifestyle begins to improve but be careful of travelling by boat”.

The Pandaw IV continued listing as the powerful wind blew it against a small mud island, and the lights went out - before coming back on several minutes later.

Win, the Pandaw IV’s genial purser, bellowed against the still almost deafening rain and wind that we had to temporarily abandon ship. Everyone held hands, and we left the chaos of the saloon and struggled along the outdoor companionway through the pouring rain some 10 metres to stairs down to the main deck where the crew assisted us onto a small low lying and muddy island.

We moved well clear of the vessel, and stood in a huddle trying to keep warm as the driving rain beat down. I was cursing myself for leaving my camera in the cabin and hadn’t been able to capture anything of the drama.

The crew valiantly dragged rattan chairs ashore as well as sheets of plastic, which we held over our heads to escape the rain. They also handed out bottles of whisky, brandy and wine that we drank from the bottles.

But, within an hour, and as the lightning and storm abated, the mood turned from one of drama to that of almost a party as we swigged from the bottles, talked excitedly of our narrow escape, and to a person praised the professionalism of the crew, who had clearly put our safety well before that of their own. They were amazing, and at no stage did we truly feel threatened.

As we gazed upwards at the ship we saw that the massive sun deck tarpaulin was missing and that the multiple sliding dining room doors had been opened to decrease wind pressure on the vessel. Curtains still danced crazily as the wind whistled through the doorways from the starboard side to the port side. Two crewmen had taken the small boat tied to the port side of the Pandaw IV and where searching the inky waters for salvageable rattan furniture that had blown from the upper decks.

Powerful searchlights had been turned on so that we had light, and an announcement was made that we could return to the vessel in about 30 minutes – after the crew had sorted out some semblance of order in the dining room.

By now we were checking everyone for injuries, aided by passenger Dr. Mike Loxton, an ex Royal Australian Navy medico. Luckily, apart from some bruising, cuts and abrasions, the passengers had escaped any serious injuries.

Several of the courageous crew were less fortunate, and although there were no life threatening injuries, Mike and his partner, Susan, tended to the sailors.

Meantime, I had scampered on board to my darkened cabin, found a torch that I had packed as an after thought, and located my camera. Returning to shore I managed to take some photographs before assisting with the clean-up.

By about 9 pm we were back on board seated at one long table, and eating biscuits, chocolate and whatever the crew had managed to find. They also broke out more spirits, wine and beer.

Come the next morning, we discovered the crew had worked tirelessly right through the night, and the galley had prepared hot breakfasts for everyone. During a briefing over coffee and tea, Win told us that we would be steaming non-stop to Mandalay for repairs before continuing our cruise – a decision that brought rousing cheers from the passengers.

I thought to myself: “God, these Pandaw addicts are tough bastards”. One retired Melbourne surgeon was on the wrong side of 85, while there were a number of others in their early 70’s.

By that night as we entered Mandalay Harbor at sunset – the view was memorable - people had all but forgotten what the crew had started referring to as the “unfortunate incident”. And the storm had actually resulted in a strong bond forming between all the passengers, as at the time it had been a harrowing experience.

During the afternoon of the next day in Mandalay we drove to U Bein, scene of a 1.2km teak footbridge – the world’s longest - and after walking to the halfway mark we moved to small rowboats and at sunset enjoyed cocktails on the water, served from an ice cooler that Win had loaded aboard his own vessel. It was pure luxury.

The following day, at the usual morning briefing, Win explained to us what had happened during the “unfortunate incident”. Using a white board and diagrams, together with a large model of the Pandaw IV, he talked about what had been a freak occurrence – the first time such an incident had happened in the 15 years the Pandaw has been operating. By that stage, his explanation was like water off a duck’s back as we had all become so engrossed in the beauty of the cruise.

At the conclusion, a Scottish passenger stepped forward, and on behalf of the passengers asked that the crew be congratulated and thanked them for their outstanding performance during the storm.

As one day melted into the next, we enjoyed on-shore excursions through ancient villages, visited stupas and monasteries and whiled away the hours enjoying views of the river from the massive sundeck – which since Mandalay was sporting a new tarpaulin to shade us from the heat of the sun.

At nights we were entertained by Burmese dancers and traditional puppet shows, attended films about the Pandaw’s vitally important role in Cyclone Nargis and the company’s Mekong cruises, or listened to lectures and watched slide shows by one of the passengers, an American geologist who has travelled through China and Mongolia.

A highlight was stopping at Katha, where we travelled around the streets by horse drawn carts, and saw the old home where George Orwell is supposed to have written his best selling novel “Burmese Days” while working as a police officer in the Upper Irrawaddy city.

Another was passing through the second and third Irrawaddy defile – where the river narrows and has cliffs and hills on either side. The second defile is especially stunning with towering gorges lined by forests of teak, dwarfing the Pandaw IV.

We also saw stone masons carving massive and intricate Bhuddas, marvelled at the way in which about 60 grams of gold can be beaten into more than 5,000 pieces of gold leaf, and visited silver work shops.

As we exited the second defile, the vessel swung through 180 degrees and began the return journey to Mandalay.

In Mingun we moored for the night and wandered through the massive ancient unfinished 50-metre high Pa Hto Daw Gyi Pagoda (it was meant to be 150 metres in height) and also saw the world’s biggest working bell.

At Sagaing, one of Burma’s major meditation centres, we visited one of more than 1,000 hermitages and sanctuaries where some 5,000 monks and nuns live. Burma has, in fact, more than half a million monks, while Mandalay alone has in excess of 5,000 temples and stupas.

On our final night – the 10th – there were farewell cocktails on the sundeck at dusk where we were introduced to each of the almost 30 crew members including the captain and first officer, bar tenders, chefs, housekeepers, stewards and laundry staff.

That the vast majority of the passengers were repeat clients – many had done two or more Pandaw cruises – is testimony not only to the quality of the cruises, but to the exceptional service, food and drink on board.

The 55 metre long vessel replicates the steamers that plied the Irrawaddy back in the days of Rudyard Kipling. The accommodation is romantic. Teak lined cabins feature brass trimmings, and each has its own ensuite bathroom and toilet. Two rattan chairs and a coffee table are directly outside on the companionway, overlooking the river.

The dining room is airy and spacious with massive glass sliding doors and panoramic windows, and the stunning 40-metre sundeck has a choice of shade or sun. And despite the memories, the saloon also has a marvellous “clubby” atmosphere. There’s even a lower deck lecture theatre with audio visual and sound equipment.

After each on-shore excursion, passengers remove their shoes for cleaning by the crew as they reboard the vessel.

The breakfasts are cooked buffets plus a spread of toasts, bread, fruit, juices and tea or coffee.

Lunches are substantial buffets, and vary from Burmese meals through to western-style food, always accompanied by a vast array of salads (water is no problem because all Pandaws have their own water purification systems).

And evening meals are served at the table, and range from grilled river prawns to pan fried seabass, stuff eggplant curry, roast pork with apple sauce, India-style vegetable curry, Hungarian-style pork goulash, chocolate mousse, apple strudel, and icecream.

All local soft drink, beer, wine and spirits are free throughout the cruise, as is tea, coffee and biscuits.

There is one English woman, a retired doctor in her mid nineties, who has done more than 30 Pandaw trips in Burma. I take my hat off to her. She clearly knows an outstanding value-for-money cruise when she sees one. For my part, I am looking forward to doing the Pandaw’s latest trip – up the Rajang River in Sarawak starting in July, 2009. Included prior to the voyage is a visit to the Semenggok Orang Utan Centre.

Abandoning ship on the first night of my cruise? It has only whetted my appetite further for yet another wonderful Pandaw experience! Having also done the 750km Pandaw cruise between Saigon, in Vietnam, and Siem Reap, in Cambodia, I’m now a confirmed Pandaw addict!

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