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May 30, 2010

CRUISING’S BOYS’ OWN, HUCK FINN AND FAWLTY TOWERS

Part one of one of the world's most amazing cruise odysseys; part two next week.

david ellis

HAVING Paul Strachan tell you how he started a company called Pandaw River Cruises – and actually kept it running to go on to own a half dozen river boats in five Asian countries – is almost like something out of Boys' Own Annual, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… and Fawlty Towers.

Scottish-born Paul had a long fascination with Burma, and when visiting in 1994 was invited to the launch of a river cruise-boat to be called Irrawaddy Princess.

It changed his life. While the colourful launch ceremony was wonderfully Burmese-theatrical, the owners had overlooked that they had to market their new ship to foreign tourists, and on launch day they had no bookings. "They just thought that because Burma was opening its doors to foreigners, tourists would flock to them."

So with no cruise-boat experience, Paul took a punt and said he would charter Irrawaddy Princess himself, spending all of $100 on an advertising flyer that he sent to 500 mainly-Brits on his little publishing company's mailing lists.

His phone went into almost melt-down. Most callers said he was mad: the way Burma in 1962 had killed-off democracy would ensure no-one would ever want to return.

But others were more enthusiastic, and what was to be a single 10-day charter ended up as six, each filled with aficionados interested in Burma's history, culture, botany and ornithology.

But it was anything than plain-sailing: the ship was invaded by rats and cockroaches, generators stopped generating, toilets went into reverse flush, and at one stage the entire galley – weirdly hung precariously off the ship's stern – broke off and disappeared into the river below (fortunately without loss of life.)

That, and the ship nearly sinking when the passenger deck flooded so that guests had to camp in the lounge-bar, aged the Irrawaddy Princess six years in just six months, and she was done for.

But now well and truly bitten by the Burma (now Myanmar) Bug, Paul and his Spanish wife Roser looked around for another ship, settling on the Chinese-built Myat Thanda that had "chandeliers in every room except the loos."

To make the Myat Thanda more in line with their vision of the historic passenger/cargo ships of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once had 600 vessels carrying 9-million passengers a year in South East Asia, the Strachans scoured markets for genuine antiques, or had local artisans create replica.

They also became astute industrial advocates: when finally taking delivery of the Myat Thanda in Rangoon, the company they chartered it from suddenly noted that with twenty guests in ten staterooms would require First, Second and Third Officers on the bridge, and the same ranks in the engine room – making forty crew for just twenty guests.

Plus each officer, because of their rank, would be entitled to one of the ship's guest cabins – leaving just four for guests.

After that problem was resolved with diplomacy and a cheque book, the Myat Thanda finally sailed on her first Irrawaddy cruise in 1996. But to Paul and Roser's amazement the sprightly mid-60 year old captain revealed there could be delays because in three ports of call he had a "wife and family he needed to spend time with" – a marital problem he further compounded for himself by proposing along the way to a buxom German spinster on board.

As well, local 'tour guides' knew little about their areas, so Paul researched these and escorted guests himself on shore tours by day, and gave destination lectures in the bar at night.

And a 'hotel manager' they employed turned out to be simply an ex-merchant navy cook who sported a uniform with more braid than the captain –  and proudly paraded himself in public, snappily returning salutes from police officers, military and anyone else in uniform.

But the Strachans sacked him before sailing when half of his Burmese hotel staff walked off after he yelled at them on their first day of training.

And when a cook also walked off on the eve of sailing, Rosa went to their favourite Rangoon Chinese restaurant and hired one their cooks, who was just 16.

Today he's Pandaw River Cruises' Head Chef – part of the Strachan's determination that their venture would be the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.


Continued next week.

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[] The ill-fated Myat Thanda: aged six years in six months on the Irrawaddy

[] Scenes like this that lured Paul and Roser Strachan to Burma (Myanmar)

[] Old advertising brochure for Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once had 600 river-boats in South East Asia carrying 9-million passengers a year 


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