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May 30, 2010

FLOATING A DREAM BRINGS HISTORY ALIVE


David Ellis


LAST week we told how Scotsman, Paul Strachan created a mini replica-fleet of Burma's once mighty Irrawaddy Flotilla Company – overcoming onboard floodings, galleys toppling into rivers, crew walk-offs, and officers demanding six of his ten guest cabins.

THE original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was founded in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1865 by fellow-Scotsmen, and at its 1920s peak carried 9-million passengers a year on 640 riverboats. But it virtually died in 1942 when Japan invaded Burma: IFC unflinchingly ordered all 640 vessels scuttled so they could not be used to move Japanese troops and supplies.

Miraculously in the 1990s, Paul and his Spanish wife Roser found several surviving, but-decrepit IFC vessels, on a riverbank in Mandalay. One, the Pandaw was sufficiently intact to rebuild as the genesis of their cruise venture.

She'd been stripped of all brass fittings, and was occupied by pigs, chooks and dejected unpaid crew who'd simply stayed-put when the ship was abandoned.

But the Pandaw would be Paul and Roser's Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once carried 50- to over 4000-passengers on majestic paddle-wheelers and simpler propeller-drive craft… as Kipling wrote: "Where the old Flotilla lay - can't you 'ear them engines chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?"

Pandaw's owner was only too willing to sell his hulk to "the crazy foreigner." Using historic photographs and drawings, the Strachans spent a year overseeing her reconstruction, including air-conditioning and ensuites.

The Pandaw proved a mechanical nightmare, and to keep her going parts were "borrowed" from other abandoned vessels with similar equipment: at one stage five such ships had been virtually stripped to keep Pandaw going.

But certain that he was on the road to success, in 2000 Paul took the risky decision to build Pandaw II – the first passenger ship ever constructed in Burma.

He recalls today that despite the complex Buddhist launching rituals that would ensure her safety and good fortune, on day three of her maiden voyage  Pandaw II slammed hard aground onto an Irrawaddy River sandbank.

Stuck there for a week, the passengers revolted. But not because they were stranded, rather as Paul recalls: "Just the opposite. We kept offering to evacuate them, but each time they just dug their heels in deeper, and said they were having such a great jungle adventure they wanted to stay!"

Sand was slowly pumped out from under the ship and after 7-days she floated free.

With the business now attracting more and more adventurous holidaymakers to the Irrawaddy, Paul decided to expand further afield and in 2003 built another vessel to operate on the River Kwai in Thailand, then another for the Mekong between Vietnam and Cambodia, and still another for Malaysian Borneo.

But a foray onto the Ganges in India this year was "disastrous… frequent groundings damaged engines and propellers, and shore support  was seriously lacking."

He plans to reposition the Ganges ship on the highly-popular Mekong, where he's already got three vessels, and in 2011 will open new routes on the Upper Mekong in Laos, and in Kapuas in Indonesia.

It will give Pandaw River Cruises seven ships in six South-East Asian countries – a not inconsiderable effort from an investment of $100 to advertise the Strachan's first cruise on the Irrawaddy with a chartered boat in 1994. And all by cash-flow, with not a cent borrowed from the banks.

Guests will tell you that the joy of cruising aboard the Pandaw fleet is their small size – they carry between just 48 and 66 guests – and shallow drafts allow them to nudge up to river banks for guests to simply walk ashore for guided explorations of rarely-visited villages, remote temples, markets, schools, plantations and jungle-clad one-time colonial forts.

Even a village chief in Borneo with a "souvenir basket" of human skulls…

And while the exterior designs are yester-year, today's Pandaws offer luxury that Britain's 19th century Raj could only dream of.

Cabins have picture windows and open-out directly onto the deck, vast upper-  decks under shade covers sport colonial wicker furnishings amid myriad potted plants and palms for fantastic views… and a bar dispenses no-charge local beers, spirits and soft drinks.

Dining is Asian and Western, with fusion dishes of the two.

If you're intrigued see travel agents, email australia@pandaw.com or phone (02) 80805622.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] A 1920s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company sternwheeler

[] INDOCHINA Pandaw today, replica of originals but with all mod cons

[] FUTURE King George V and Queen Mary aboard IFC ship with Governor of Burma in 1906.

[] PART of original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is scuttled to prevent use by invading Japanese army.


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