Burma River Cruise

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None more so than Paul Strachan, who went there as a student in Scotland back in the eighties, and went on to be a publisher of academic and art books on Burma. But there were few tourists about, so he chartered a boat on the Irrawaddy River and used his mailing list to get the word out.

One old colonial told Strachan he was mad, others were politely incredulous. There were veterans of the 14th Army, people born in Burma but forced to flee by the Japanese, and others kicked out by Ne Win in the sixties. But the phone never stopped ringing. One 10-day charter was not enough and six departures ran that first season. Before he knew it, Strachan was running a business, naming it after a fine old Scots firm, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.

Two years later, Strachan found the wreck of the Pandaw at Mandalay, recognisable by its black and red funnel, one of the original riverboats built on the River Clyde for the IFC. Its condition was terrible, but as Strachan said, “it was love at first sight.” Pandaw was restored, and since then a fleet of replica vessels has been built to make Strachan’s company the major force in river cruising in Burma, and with another flotilla on the Mekong, in southeast Asia.

They range from five to 34 cabins, shallow draft, with open decks, teak and shiny brass, just like the Old Flotilla as immortalised by Kipling. “Downriver – Great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of jade, lacquerware from Pagan, silk, tamarind, elephants sometimes…oilcake, tobacco, timber. Upbound – motor cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches… sewing machines, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky.” (Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. handbook, 1936)

The Old Flotilla was a naval task force of four paddle steamers and three flats (barges) sent from India to carry British and Indian troops up the Irrawaddy in the second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852. A treaty (probably of the version “sign here or be shot”) resulted and the new British governor privatised the flotilla, selling it to Todd, Findlay and Co. of Glasgow.

As it turned out, the vessels were poorly built, so the merchants teamed up with Paddy Henderson (Glasgow shippers already established in Rangoon, a port of call on its run to New Zealand), and Denny’s of Dumbarton, which designed new steamers shipped out in pieces and reconstructed in Rangoon. Deck crews and engineers were Scots, hired at the St Vincent Street head office, and the sailors from Bengal…

Words David Wishart – Photography Genevieve Balthazard and Shutterstock
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