Embarking Viking Mandalay
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
ooday is an exciting day. For the first time since our Myanmar Explorer river cruise tour with Viking River Cruises began in Bangkok, Thailand almost one week ago, we’re embarking our river cruise ship. In fact, we’ll join Viking Mandalay in its namesake port of Mandalay, Myanmar.
But first, we have to get there.
The one thing I’ve realized after spending nearly a week in Myanmar is that traffic here works on its own set of rules. I’m sure they have traffic laws, but enforcement must be sparse at best. Cars and trucks drive remarkably slowly due to the uneven pavement and the proliferation of cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians that clog major thoroughfares. This means that getting from Point A to Point Be can be a time-consuming activity.
Such was the case today. We checked out of the Areum Inle Lake Resort and boarded our coach at 9:45 a.m. in order to be back at Heho Airport for our flight to Mandalay at 12:55 p.m. Impressively, we’d need every bit of that time in order to make our flight.
The drive back to Heho took about two hours, with a 15 minute stop to collect our boxed lunches that we’d enjoy at the airport. At 30 minutes in duration, our flight isn’t long enough to have meal service, and there’s no time to stop along the way.
Heho Airport is a real experience. I wouldn’t call the airport filthy, but I wouldn’t call it clean, either. The toilet facilities are pretty grim by Western standards, and men can expect “the hole in the ground,” while women are treated to proper toilets.
Once again, we boarded an ATR-72 600 operated by Mann Yadanarpon Airlines. This time, seating wasn’t assigned, so you just took an empty seat as you boarded. Fortunately, this isn’t North America, so it’s not the free-for-all you might expect. Instead, boarding – which took place from the tarmac – was an orderly experience.
If Rudyard Kipling romanticised Mandalay with his famous poem, the reality today is somewhat different. In fact, Mandalay is not at all what I expected; I expected a Yangon-style metropolis. My Rough Guide to Myanmar states that Mandalay is “a faceless grid of congested streets,” and I’d say that’s accurate. It’s a city, to be sure, but a city that’s not quite ancient and not quite modern. Most buildings are a single story tall, or perhaps two, and have a ramshackle quality to them.
Still, the appeal of Mandalay can be found in the numerous historic sites that are interspersed within the city. There are dozens of Pagodas and ceremonial stupas, plenty of Buddhist temples, and other relevant historic sites.
On our drive out to Amarapura, near where Viking Mandalay is berthed, we stopped at the fascinating Mahamuni Paya.
As if to illustrate how many pagodas and places of worship there are in Myanmar, Mahamuni doesn’t even appear in my guidebook. According to local legend, only five likenesses of Buddha were ever made during his lifetime. Two were in India, two were in “paradise,” and the fifth and final image is in Mahamuni here in Mandalay.
The entire complex was built in 1785, but a fire in 1884 nearly destroyed the entire complex, save for the image of Buddha. In 1996, the military government of Myanmar undertook extensive repairs and renovations to the complex, and today it is a major site of worship for locals and a source of curiosity for tourists.
Once again, it’s shoes-off-socks-off for our visit. I’m surprised at how much I am railing against this. I hate having dirty feet, and a few minutes of walking around barefoot here in Myanmar is enough to turn the soles of your feet jet black. We’re given moistened towelettes to clean our feet, but I suppose it’s something that, as a Westerner, I’m just not used to. I think some people embrace it, but I haven’t enjoyed it yet. Still – it is important to respect the local customs, and I always walk barefoot through the temple complexes, even if I despise it.
What’s also interesting is the segregation between men and women. Men are allowed to go right up to Buddha to pay respects, but women must sit outside the room Buddha is contained within and pray there. They can watch the men via closed-circuit televisions that are placed above their heads, but cannot directly see Buddha.
There’s also a bizarrely tacky quality to some of this, as bright LED lights and coloured Christmas lights adorn aspects of the temples. I saw this in Indonesia as well, and it baffles me – the fascination with blinking red, blue and green lights that strobe madly, as if to proclaim Buddha as the God of Shabby Lighting.
Of course, part of this is due to the upcoming Full Moon Festival tomorrow. Tazaungdaing is held on the Full Moon in November to celebrate the end of the rainy season, and offerings are made to Buddha in many forms. At this pagoda, women are working furiously to weave silk robes for Buddha; these must be finished by sunrise this morning, and the women will work through the night to ensure it gets done.
By the sides of the road to Amarapura, women and children gather in long lines, waiting to stop vehicles to extract payment from drivers as offerings to Buddha. Drivers stop and hand over money. Incredibly, this money will actually make it to the Paya complex!. In Burma, great emphasis is placed on doing good deeds in this life, and offerings to Buddha are pretty high up there. In our “me-me-me” societies in the West, I think we could learn from that.
Tonight, we arrived at the beautiful Viking Mandalay just before sunset. It’s a gorgeous ship, fashioned after the classic steamers that used to ply the Irrawaddy River at the turn of the last century.
Unlike its European-based Viking Longships, Viking does not own Viking Mandalay. In fact, it’s real name isn’t Viking Mandalay at all; it’s Indochina Pandaw, a vessel built in 2009 in Vietnam and owned and operated by Pandaw River Explorations, a longtime player in the Southeast Asian river cruise market.
Legally, Viking can’t own and operate a vessel here without establishing a permanent presence in Myanmar – something that is complicated, if not impossible, under the current government regime. So like every other river cruise operator, Viking relies on long-term lease agreements from established river cruise lines to offer river journeys in Myanmar.
So if you’re expecting the Viking Longships here, don’t – you won’t see a single Longship. What you will get, however, is the same wonderful Viking standard of service you’ve come to expect, along with all the normal Viking amenities.
Viking Mandalay – or Indochina Pandaw – is 170 feet long, with a beam (width) of 33 feet across the deck. The draft – the amount of the hull underneath the waterline – is just three feet; something that is needed to clear the often shallow sand banks that shift and change along the Irrawaddy.
She has a total of 38 staterooms, all of which are the same basic size and shape – with a few notable exceptions. 10 staterooms are located all the way forward on Main Deck, while 18 staterooms run from bow to stern on Upper Deck.
My stateroom – 307 – is a cozy affair on the forward, port-side portion of Upper Deck. Done completely in wood (real wood, no less!), it measures approximately 168 square feet. But don’t let its compact size distract you from how inviting it is. The entire ship oozes Gemütlichkeit – my favorite German word for which there is no direct English translation other than to say, “a feeling of coziness.”
Beds are typically positioned in the twin configuration, with one on either side of the room. These can be pushed together to make a queen-sized bed, though you will lose a little room space in the process. Travelling solo, I don’t feel any compulsion to push them together; in fact, I rather like the old berth-style aspect of the stateroom; a classic throwback to travel on the Irrawaddy in the days of Kipling and George Orwell.
Inside the stateroom, more wonderful surprises: two North American-style electrical outlets positioned near the beds, and one multi-voltage electrical outlet positioned above the desk that can accept North American, European and UK-type connections without the need for an adapter (though you’ll need a converter if you don’t have one on your device). This outlet has a switch that can be turned on or off.
There are three sets of lighting in each stateroom, all of which can be turned on with a series of brass, toggle-style switches that make a pleasant thunk!-sound when clicked into position. These lights turn on brass, nautical-style lamps mounted on the ceiling and wall, while brighter halogen-style lamps are situated over each bed. Two brass reading lights are also mounted on the bulkhead walls of the room, and are perfect for reading in bed.
The bathroom is compact but functional. An exhaust fan is available in the bathroom, but keep it turned off: It’s so powerful that it will suck the cold air out of your bedroom that is produced by the air conditioning unit.
Tap water in the bathroom isn’t potable, so Viking has provided bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. Should you run out, there’s an entire cabinet full of replacement bottled water under your sink.
The toilet is an older-style flush toilet and not a modern, shipboard vacu-flow toilet you might be used to. It works, and it is functional.
The shower is a floodlit-affair that has clearly been refitted to Viking specifications, as the gleaming white tilework and American Standard showerhead look brand-new. But the colour temperature of the lights above the shower is significantly different from the off-orange lighting in the rest of the bathroom, which gives the shower an oddly illuminated look.
Still, you’ll be pleased to find the same French-milled L’Occitane toiletries that are found on the Viking Longships, along with the same stationery and pen, the same design and paper stock for the Viking Daily program, and the same thoughtful Viking touches throughout. Have a paperback with you? Leave it on the desk and a Viking River Cruises bookmark will magically appear inside.
Also, as a point of reference, the air conditioning unit is more than powerful enough to keep your stateroom at a soothing temperature, even during the heat of the day. This wasn’t the case for me when I sailed the Mekong on a competitor of Viking’s a few years ago; I continually found that room to be far hotter and more humid than I had wanted.
Of course, we’ll write more about the ship in the coming days. After all – we’ve got a week onboard to continue to enjoy everything that Viking and Myanmar have to offer!
Viking Mandalay - Myanmar Explorer
|Yangon, Myanmar and Shwedagon Pagoda
|Inle Lake, Myanmar
|Inle Lake, Myanmar
|Mandalay, Myanmar; Embark Viking Mandalay
|Mandalay, Myanmar & the U Bein Bridge
|Ohn Ne Choung, Myanmar
|Myint Mu, Myanmar
Our Live Voyage Report from Viking River Cruises’ Myanmar Explorer continues tomorrow as we travel to Mandalay, Myanmar to board the Viking Mandalay! Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.