The in-suite butler service has been put on hold, the on-board therapists furloughed, and crews grounded. Pandaw’s Myanmar’s cruises have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
But that hasn’t stopped the luxury cruise line from operating in India, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Covid permitting. And it won’t stop the charity work for the people of Myanmar. Nearly $20,000 has already been raised. Mostly by former passengers and satisfied customers.
“The situation in Myanmar has now broken down and shootings and other acts of violence by the military proliferate on the streets, not just of big cities, but every town and village in the country,”
“The Pandaw Clinics medical teams are actively providing medical aid to injured people in the Middle Burma towns and villages in which we operate. Our doctors are out with the demonstrators and ready to assist and have attended victims of gunshot wounds, many being teenagers.
“Our team attended in the rural village of Myaing near Pakokku where ten youngsters were shot dead by army snipers and a further eighty injured. We are financially assisting the families of the fallen. We have opened our seven clinics to offer medical assistance to all striking government workers at a time when government medical facilities have closed. We believe we are well placed with a long established non-governmental healthcare network to assist at this time. We need all the help we can get to buy urgently needed medical supplies. By doing this you can show your support for the Myanmar people’s struggle to regain freedom and democracy.”
The funds have enabled Pandaw to expands its clinics with free medications to a larger geographical area and into rural Burma. One food parcel costs $8. Adds Strachan: “We are also using the money to support Medical Action Myanmar. Under a Dutch doctor, it offers food relief in the killing fields of the suburbs of old Rangoon, the capital Yangon.
“I wish we could be doing more and in the face of such barbarity we feel very impotent. But I really believe our donations are helping and not just materially but in terms of morale as it is important that ordinary Burmese people do not feel forsaken by the world as they go through this.”
The Pandaw Clinics were set up in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the seven clinics treat 5,000 patients a month providing medication without charge. Since inception over 500,000 free treatments have been given. All funded by the generosity of Pandaw passengers.
Pandaw was the idea of Scotsman Strachan.
“In the old days when Scots captained Burma’s famous stern-wheeler paddleboat fleet, one telegraph was sent back to the UK every week from Rangoon. One line. The takings!”
Historian and philanthropist, Strachan almost single-handedly pioneered tourism in Myanmar (Burma) by reviving the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, fifty years after its 650-strong fleet was scuttled shortly after the Japanese invasion.
The IFC was Scottish-owned, by teak merchants TD Findlay & Sons, and managed by Paddy Henderson from Glasgow. Peter Denny of Dumbarton built the shallow draught ships. Sandbanks along 1350-mile river still bear names like “Macfarlane’s Folly”.
“The greatest river fleet on earth” operated from 1865 until the late 1940s. At its peak in the late 1920s, it carried 9 million passengers and 1¼ million tons of cargo a year. Including elephants. And royalty. In 1910, future King George V and Queen Mary did the cruise. The steamers were licensed to carry 4000 passengers. Twice as many as the Titanic.
Although registered in Glasgow, the operational headquarters were Rangoon (now Yangon) with a shipyard across the river at Dalla. The boats were vital to the oil fields upriver at Chauk and Yenangyaung.
The steamers were built in Scotland before being dismantled and transported to Burma for reassembly. Strachan found a rotten hull in the famous river bisecting Myanmar and discovered “Pandaw” boat was made on the Clyde by Yarrows of Glasgow.
Panda Expeditions and cruises was born and now operates a fleet of seventeen two to three tier boutique luxury ships – made in Vietnam – offering cruises there, as well as to Laos, Cambodioa and Myanmar, aimed at “intrepid travellers, willing to forgo connectivity for adventures, happy to be entertained by their surroundings and assured of a luxurious, congenial, unforgettable experience”. No two voyages being the same, repeat custom makes up fifty percent of bookings and passengers from all round the world contributes to healthcare and educations around Myanmar and elsewhere.
“Thomas Cook first offered holidays to Burma in 1910. You had Orwell and Maugham’s PR. Street hawkers still sell copies of “Burmese Days.” Burma was the place to visit. We were the first since the Second World War to offer cruises on the Irawaddy River (from Hindu for elephant river), reaching Bhamo, one thousand miles from the sea, and went on to be the first on the Chindwin River. In 2009 we cruised the Ranang in Borneo. And in 2015 Vietnam’s Red River.”
The Scots are inextricably linked with the Ganges of Burma, the spiritual and material heart of the country, bisecting the country north to south. There used to be football teams called Pakkuko Thistle and Bhamo Rangers!
The historian, now based in Perth, spent a year in Burma while an apprentice at John Brown Engineering, building a turbine. After reading history at Bristol and furthering his Burmese language studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he returned to live in a monastery in Mandalay, writing his first book: Pagan: Art and Architecture.
During the military junta which ruled the country with ruthless repression, Burma was first closed off to the rest of the world and vital tourism revenue dried up. Strachan found himself was on a visa blacklist.
The cruise idea was reignited an invitation to join a celebratory sailing in 1995 on the Irrawaddy Princess, intended to reintroduce cruises on the river to the foreign tourists. Strachan offered to market the cruises. He and his Catalan wife Roser, an artist, produced a leaflet. The thirty cabins quickly sold out, for the next and two subsequent cruises that year, and three the next.
“Then came the realisation that neither of us had ever been on a cruise and knew nothing of ship, hotel or tour management. We promptly took a Nile cruise and returned with a list of ‘do-nots’ that we’ve stuck to ever since.”
Not only was the Irrawaddy uncharted, the ship was ill-designed, its crew inexperienced and there was corruption, black market trading, monsoons, mistakes and misjudgements, mosquitoes and major technical and administrative teething problems to contend with. The galley fell off the back of one ship, disappearing downriver. Strachan adopted a Burmese orphan, Antoni. Charity remains at the heart of Pandaw. It is an unpaid debt that can never be repaid.
“Burma has given me so much I want to give something back. We have just opened a clinic in Pagan in 2014. A Buddhist monk loaned the land. We now have X-Ray facilities, a diagnostic lab and ultrasound room. We have twelve schools in remote villages and riverine islands. We now have seven clinics already up and running. This year saw us hit our 300,00th patient treatment since inception in 2010. Despite all the dramas and problems, the country has faced and still faces we are still alive and kicking.”
All medications are provided free.
“Our Balin Clinic receives several hundred patients a day. They queue to get in. All our initiatives need money to keep going. And it’s mostly paid for by our passengers who know they are not just paying for the luxury, the air conditioning, the WCs, the L’Occinane toiletries and high quality three meals a day cuisine. We recruit our crews from local communities.”
In May 2008 Cyclone Nargis left 150,000 killed and 2.5 million homeless in Myanmar. There was no Western Aid agency in the former pariah state. Woring with a British medical charity, Strachan converted his fleet into hospital ships, turning dining rooms into operating theatres. Thevida Buddhists monks were recruited and put on the pay roll to distribute rice.
Pandaw survival kits include plates, cooking utensils, instant noodles, rice, mosquito nets, matches and longhys. Strachan bought low price pharmaceuticals from China and India. The high capacity water treatment plants in his boats provided fresh water. Two American destroyers were refused entry to lend support.
Pandaw also supports two orphanages and a hospice in Mandalay inspired by the work of English pioneer Dame Cicely Saunders.
“We have always sought to benefit the countries and communities we are privileged to sail through. Our passengers know that they are contributing directly and in directly to good causes in a beautiful, benighted country and grassroots social support across remote and rural south Asia. The bulk of our charitable work is in up country Myanmar, but we will continue to be involved with socially beneficial projects in other countries and needy ports of call.
“Our schools on Thiri island, south of Pagan, offers complete education to local children. We employ doctors, paramedics, radiographers and pharmacists. We have not looked back since we opened our first free clinic in Gantghar Village.
“On the day we opened the Taungyi clinic on Thiri, a young girl was bitten by a snake in a nearby field. If we hadn’t been there, she would have died. The impacts of these rural clinics are huge. We are proud to facilitate such charitable work. As a UK registered charity with zero admin expenses all donations go back into the field.
“We have also helped people who lost livelihoods and livestock in floods. One of our boats sailed a 127 mile stretch of the river between Shwe Sar Yae and Kalewa dispersing $10k’s worth of medical treatments. Thousands received aid.
“We have found that the generosity of past passengers has helped meet such emergencies and hopefully will continue to meet future ones. We never knew that aid would be needed so quickly and desperately. Again.”
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine. His humour, travel, food and drink work appears worldwide and he has been published in over 800 titles.
Photographs courtesy of Pandaw Cruises