August 2017 Cruise on Hm Explorer on the Chindwin River in Myanmar


When I learnt in 2013 that the China Exploration and Research Society had built a boat in Myanmar in order to explore the huge rivers there, I immediately felt I must find an opportunity to embark on HM Explorer to discover the parts of the country that the boat makes possible to access.
We had some familiarity with Myanmar. My wife Anthea had been invited in 1979 to join a group of five other women to visit what was then known as Burma. The tour was organised by Caroline Courthauld, wife of senior Jardines executive Willian Courthauld. Caroline is a writer, photographer, documentary film producer and researcher. She is a former chairman of the Keswick Foundation.
The group flew to Rangoon (now Yangon) via Bangkok and stayed at the historic Strand Hotel. Visits to the famed Shwedagon Pagoda were made both at dusk and the following morning. They then flew to Mandalay on a Fokker Friendship turboprop plane and stayed at the Mandalay Hotel
The next day they visited wood carving, cheroot, alabaster carving, antique bronze and begging bowl factories by boat and pony trap via Ava, Sagaing and Amarapoura.
A visit to Maymo, the British Hill Resort 67km north east towards the border with Yunnan in China, followed. This included the Botanic Gardens, the Old Town, the win, teakwood logging, Schwenandaw Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda and the embalmed body of the monk Zawtika.


At 5.00am the next day they boarded the Ayeyarwady ferry and went downstream as far as the water level permitted. For the last one and a half hours to Bagan they transferred to a rather uncomfortable longboat with an outboard motor. From the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify what is now modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed on the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2,200 temples, pagodas and stupas still survive
December 2003 was our 40th wedding anniversary and we decided we should go to the home of rubies, Mogok to buy an appropriate memento for the occasion. Old friend Serge Pun, born in Burma and by then having returned to living there, kindly offered to arrange the visit. Serge had left Burma aged 12 with his family. Living in Beijing he was caught up in the Cultural Revolution and sent with Red Guards close to the Burmese border in Yunnan to build dams. He only returned to Myanmar in 1991 after a spell in Hong Kong.
En route to Mogok from Mandalay we hired a small boat to cross the Ayeyarwady river to Pahtodawgyi, an incomplete but monumental stupa in Mingun. The ruins are a huge brick base with vast earthquake fractures, the remains of a massive construction project begun by King Bodawpaya in 1790 that was intentionally left unfinished.



The 200km drive north to Mogok with Serge and Rosa Pun was over awful roads and took six and a half hours. We now learnt that much of Myanmar was not under the control of the national government. Whilst the centre and the south of the country are ethnically Burmese, the more northern states, particularly Kachin, Chin, Shan and Rakhine are ethnically distinct and are governed with a measure of independence. Central government writ can only be enforced by the military. Ethnicity aside, the states have a strong vested interest in their independence; their economies rely heavily on illegal logging of tropical hardwoods, illegal mining and illegal cultivation of opium in the golden triangle. This situation became evident when we collected a police escort for the latter part of the drive to Mogok. None the less we managed to acquire a modest ruby at the minehead and Anthea had it made up into a ring by Rosa’s jeweller in Shamshuipo.
In 2004 Serge Pun invited me to join the Board of Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd for its listing on the Singapore Stock Exchange. YSHL, together with Serge Pun and Associates, First Myanmar Investment and Yoma Bank were the major Group entities controlled by Serge and they conducted most of their business in Myanmar. Following this appointment I visited Myanmar regularly. In addition to Board meetings in Yangon we visited a 100,000 acre plantation 250km and five and a half hours west of Yangon where the Group was planning to grow Jatropha curcas, a crop used as a source of biodiesel. When there, we spent nights in a village on the plantation and at the nearby Ngwe Saung Beach Resort on the Bay of Bengal.
By 2017 CERS had substantially switched its focus of attention from greater Tibet to Myanmar and Palawan in the Philippines. Many of the opportunities for exploration in Myanmar on HM Explorer had been taken and Wong How Man invited my wife and me (now aged 77) to join a 10 day cruise up the Chindwin River, a major tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, joining it below Mandalay. To maximise our time on the river, the boat had been moved upstream to Monywa and we drove there across country.


We had not really known what to expect, and the boat was a pleasant surprise. At 106 feet long, it contained 7 double cabins with either bunks or double beds; six below deck and one on the upper deck. All were air- conditioned, which was most welcome in a humid mid August. Two toilets and two showers with hot water were installed. There were only eight in our party so there was plentiful space, albeit the 9 crew members were rather more cramped. Dining areas for breakfast and lunch were on the open upper deck. Dinner was taken in a spacious cabin on the lower deck.
The boat had a shallow 3 ft. draft steel hull typical of Chindwin River boats, but the superstructure was something quite different. The carpenter employed to construct it had done a superb job using local tropical hardwoods. Forget about metal bolts, locks and door handles. All are beautifully crafted wooden fittings. Improvements had been made after delivery to correct defects that emerged, perhaps not surprising given that it is unlikely that a boat of this size and standard of fit-out had ever been built in Myanmar before.
The engine was a refurbished Japanese truck engine, the generator second hand. Happily, with no backup, the boat engine worked smoothly. Recovering from a failed engine on the fast flowing river full of sandbanks would have been quite some challenge.


The chefs, the waiters and the housekeeping staff had all been trained and supplied by the Inle Princess Resort on Inle Lake, and they provided food and beverages to 5 star standards.
At the end of the trip we visited the boatyard where HM Explorer had been built. It was just a muddy river bank, with no slipways, winches or cranes. It is truly remarkable that such a high quality product could have been constructed under such primitive conditions. We do hope that the donor of the funding, William Fung Kwok Lun, will join the boat for a cruise before too long!
The water on the Chindwin was exceptionally high and the authorities were going to disallow traffic up river the morning after we arrived at Monywa. We therefore had to sail immediately on arrival, mooring a little way up river for the night. One cannot take a boat on the Chindwin in the dark since the pilot needs to be able to see the flow of the river and hence the location of sandbanks to avoid. Whilst this was less of a problem than it might have been in the dry season, the ever changing route of the main current means it is always a hazard. HM Discovery’s captain has years of experience navigating the river.
En route up and down the river we stopped periodically at villages and towns for various reasons. Periodic stops were necessary to refuel. The boat’s fuel tanks had limited capacity and much of the fuel was carried in 44 gallon oil drums. Our two biologists aboard, Bill Bleisch and Su Hlaing Myint liked to stop at markets to inspect the river fish on sale, a rather easier way to collect specimens than trying to catch them. One village we stopped at had an impressive religious complex of monasteries, Buddhist figures and stupas, albeit with little activity. How Man had stopped there before on an earlier expedition to get a haircut and to buy two cats to deter rats on the boat. At another village we inquired about renting motorcycles on the return journey to take us to a National Forest Reserve in the mountains to the west. Unfortunately it turned out to be too far, so we inspected the village school and enjoyed a beer in a local shop house, on stilts, like all the other houses in the village, so as to be above the flooding that invariably occurs in the rainy season. None of the villages had concrete paths, running water or drains, but all seemed to have solar panels, mobile phone and data services. A curious set of priorities for a country aspiring to become developed.
I had wisely brought a pair of binoculars. The river was so wide one could not see much of what was on the river or on the banks with the naked eye. The binoculars made a huge difference to my appreciation of what we were passing. There was not a lot of traffic on the river but we regularly passed large cargo barges and occasional passenger ferries. There were however a large number of idle barges and tugs moored below a coal mine up in the hills. We could only assume that the mining had been suspended on account of the declining world demand for and price of coal. We only saw one passenger cruise boat and it appeared to be idle.


A conspicuous feature of the voyage was the golden stupas on the river banks. Although there was much jungle between villages and rarely a riverbank road between them, every village had at least one stupa, most had several. In a number of places great strings of stupas ran up alongside paths to hilltops. The pervasiveness of the Buddhist faith was very apparent. This no doubt contributes to the strife between the Burmese and the muslims in Rakhine State adjoining Bangladesh.
One stop was on the Tropic of Cancer where CERS had commissioned a white stupa to mark the location. Our visit provided the opportunity to commission a second one across the river alongside a monastery there.
We stopped two nights at Kalewa at the junction with the Myittha River where there is a bridge across the one kilometre wide Chindwin River leading to the road to the border with India. This gave us the opportunity to hire a van to take us the 150km, four-hour drive to Tamu on the border. Although it was in no way densely populated, there were a surprising number of Christian churches along the route. The valley we drove up must have attracted many missionaries in colonial times. There was little traffic on this two lane road in spite of it being the only main road between Myanmar (population 55 m) and India (population 1.2bn), the so-called India-Myanmar Friendship Road, which was mainly built by the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organization. Its surface was rather better than the Mandalay to Monywa road .
In Tamu we visited a bustling market located between Myanmar Customs and Immigration and Indian Customs and Immigration. It appeared that locals were free to enter the market from both countries but our group comprising foreigners were not permitted to enter India. The Indian side of the market appeared to be primarily manufactured items while the Myanmar side was mostly agricultural products.
On our return journey we stopped where the road ran very close to the Indian border. We took a footpath going west. After perhaps one km, still with no signs of a border, we arrived at a conspicuously Christian village that announced on several notice boards that it was in Manipur State in India. So much for border controls! CERS agreed to provide funding to renovate the village church, which was in a dilapidated state.
After returning to Kalewa, we motored on further up the Chindwin River until we reached Yuwa at the junction with the Yu River. Although a self evidently large river in its own right, it was not deep enough to take HM Explorer, so we rented three small longboats with “long-stalk” outboard motors to take us perhaps 25km upstream. This river runs east to west through a range of hills, then north passing by Tamu. The boats had little freeboard but we borrowed life jackets from HM Discovery as a safety measure. We were required to take a steep and muddy path around some rapids on the way up but, happily, we were able to run them on the way back down.


There were no villages on the river but there were periodic settlements with a house having sufficient surrounding pasture for water buffalo to graze. All seemed to have longboats with outboard motors parked by the bank but it was not clear their sources of income. Maybe it was logging. In August teak trees are in blossom and there were many conspicuously present in the forests we could see from the river. Although there is reputedly excessive logging of tropical hardwoods in the country, there was no evidence of it on the route we took.
That night, as for most nights, we moored on the bank of the river at a location where the pilot judged we would not run aground.
Mooring ropes were tied to nearby trees or to stakes driven into the ground. A long but narrow gangplank was carried on the boat. In deference to the deteriorating balance of the golden oldies, the crew held both ends of a long pole to act as a handrail. At a couple of locations this allowed us to go for a walk to get some exercise before dinner. HM Explorer is well equipped with audio visual equipment and most evenings after dinner we watched several of the documentaries produced by CERS in the past that we had not seen before.
The level of the water was clearly rising during our time on the river. There must have been much rain further upstream, although most of the time we ourselves enjoyed fine and sunny weather. When it did rain we often had spectacular rainbows.
On the way upstream the pilot steered in the slower water near the banks. On the way down he steered in the fast water in mid- stream. As a consequence we were very fast going back down, taking two days to cover what had taken us six days on the way up. Finding a safe route to avoid running aground always required skill. In places the flooding made the river two or more kilometres wide. Most villages we passed were under water, clearly demonstrating the need for houses to be on stilts with a longboat readily available.
At Monywa the boat builder recommended that we visit a monastery downstream. On arrival it became apparent that the monastery was dilapidated and had only two monks left. Their rather optimistic hope was clearly that CERS would fund renovations.
We returned to Mandalay a day early allowing our group to dine in the city together with our son, daughter in law and two grandsons who by happy chance were holidaying there from the UK. The next day we visited the street where marble workers carve and polish Buddha figures and statues. Then to the hugely crowded jade market. We walked up Mandalay Hill to the temple on the top and down again. Then along the one kilometre U Bein teak footbridge across Taungthaman Lake and back again. We lunched outdoors at a delightful restaurant in sunshine on a lawn surrounded by palm trees alongside Lake Haw Min Ga Lar Par.
Altogether a most rewarding introduction to HM Explorer and an update on what is going on in Myanmar.