with DAVID BRAY
Up the Irrawaddy, from Rangoon to Mandalay. Itís those names. Kipling started it for me a long lifetime ago, and the fascination is still there.
This piece was supposed to be about cruising down another river altogether, in other countries, but the Mekong will have to wait until next time.
Same shipping people though. Savour the title: The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Hereís the story, and Lord Mountbatten reckoned it was "the greatest untold epic in British maritime history".
Founded by Scots merchants in Rangoon after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1865, the IFC, Glasgow-based and run by one Paddy Henderson, began services on Burmaís Irrawaddy River with four steamers and three attached barges.
The fleet was built in Clyde, dismantled, then shipped to Mandalay and reconstructed in Rangoon. The IFC grew to become the greatest river fleet the world has ever seen, with almost 700 vessels.
Its flagships were magnificent Siam class paddle steamers, 100 metres long and capable of carrying 4200 passengers while pulling 2000 tons of cargo upriver against tides. British trade and prestige in Burma depended upon the success of the IFC, the fleet that Kipling celebrated in Mandalay.
In its greatest days, just before World War II, the IFC carried eight million passengers and 1.25 million tons of freight a year. With its large contingent of Scottish captains and engineers, it was effectively a floating Caledonian colony until the Japanese invasion in 1942.
Company history records that in May of that year the senior captains and company managers anchored their vessels 10 abreast at Katha and Mandalay, and scuttled them, shooting holes in the thin hulls to deny the Japanese the use of both the river and their craft. Then they set off with their families on an epic march across jungle-clad mountain ranges to Imphal in India, which they reached almost unscathed just ahead of the invaders.
Burma regained its independence on January 4, 1948, and became the first former British colony to cut ties with the Commonwealth. As it closed itself off from the world, the extraordinary story of the IFC was submerged like the ships.
Now another name joins the story: Scotsman Paul Strachan decided that the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company would sail again. He had learnt its history from his father and other family members who had worked on the Clyde.
Strachan chartered vessels from the IFC's successor, the Irrawaddy Water Transport Board, to cruise the river. He had originally hoped to raise and sail one or more of the original pre-war craft but the figures didnít work out. It looked as though he would have to settle for resurrecting the company's name until he discovered the Pandaw, built in 1948 in Glasgow as one of eight ships designed to help the Burmese get post-war transport moving again on the Irrawaddy.
Strachan found her in 1989, arranged a lease and restoration and so created a unique concept and style of river cruising.
The Pandaw people took their concept to the Mekong river in Indochina and as of a few weeks ago now have five Pandaws plying between Saigon in Vietnam and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (Well, there are some kilometres of bus trips at either end, but the tour is city to city.)
Their story again: "Here, the Pandaws broke the seemingly impenetrable river border between two very different countries. In high water our vessels accomplished the first cross navigation of the Tonle Sap, an inland sea previously unnavigated by anything other than local speed boats.
"In 2009 we inaugurated new cruises on the Rajang in Borneo and Ganges in India. Another two magnificent Asian rivers, rich in things to do and see, with varied topography of great beauty. We pulled out of India as a result of operational and safety issues."
All the current Pandaws have been built within the past 10 years in Rangoon and Saigon.
Your reporter made the Mekong trip last month. Report next up, but if you are considering the Burmese cruise, it might perhaps be an idea to go soon. China is talking dams.
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandala