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QC Articles About Pandaw Cruises

Masks worn by passengers in the Small-Ship Sector
Small-Ship Sector Still Active By Anne Kalosh. While most travel remains on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, dynamism in the ...
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Pandaw River Cruises Restarts
Pandaw River Cruises Restarts By Heidi Sarna. Note: This article was updated Oct 16, 2020, with new 2021 restart dates ...
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Hebridean Princess is on the dream travel list
Places to Travel Next. By the QuirkyCruise crew. Many of us miss the ability to travel right now; to plan, ...
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Pandaw Cruises
QC Articles About Pandaw Cruises Reader Reviews of Pandaw Cruises Submit Your Own Review Visit Our Reader Review Form QuirkyCruise ...
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Vietnam Red River Cruise
Vietnam 🇻🇳 Red River Cruise with Pandaw By Heidi Sarna. I recently returned from a wonderfully quirky 10-night Vietnam Red ...
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Reader Reviews of Pandaw Cruises

Reader Review Angkor Pandaw
Vietnam's Red River (Pandaw) by Rachael REVIEWER Rachael from the US. CRUISE LINE Pandaw. SHIP Angkor Pandaw. DESTINATION Halong Bay ...
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QuirkyCruise reader review
Angkor Pandaw in Vietnam REVIEWER Glenice & Ian Warner from Australia. CRUISE LINE Pandaw. SHIP Angkor Pandaw. DESTINATION Red River, ...
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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER Derek Rham from the UK. CRUISE LINE Pandaw. SHIP Angkor Pandaw. DESTINATION Vietnam Red River Delta. # OF NIGHTS ...
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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER Judi Cohen from Canada. CRUISE LINE Pandaw Expeditions. SHIP Kalaw Pandaw. DESTINATION Irrawaddy River, Myanmar. # OF NIGHTS 7 ...
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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER Avril Collins from the UK. CRUISE LINE Pandaw. SHIP Angkor Pandaw. DESTINATION Vietnam Red River Cruise. # OF NIGHTS ...
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QuirkyCruise ReviewQuirkyCruise Review of Pandaw River Cruises

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 25 years. The growing fleet comprises similar-looking colonial-style teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire.

Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough.

In every way, the Pandaw River Cruises experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway.

The company was founded in 1995 by Scotsman and Burma historian Paul Strachan with the re-building of an original Clyde-built steamer called PANDAW 1947, one of the last boats built for the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company founded by Scots merchants in 1865. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was once the finest river fleet in the world with some 500 vessels that carried passengers and cargo, from bags of rice to blocks of jade, silk, tobacco and whisky, on Burma’s Irrawaddy and other rivers from the 1860s until the Japanese invasion in WWII when the British scuttled virtually the entire fleet to keep it out of enemy hands.

Family-run Pandaw was the first company to offer expeditions on both the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers and continues to stay true to its mission of building smaller ships, even as other companies build bigger ones, to offer river adventures in remote areas, especially in Myanmar and more recently in Laos. In 2015, Strachan published a book called The Pandaw Story about his adventures, Pandaw, and the history and culture of Myanmar. He’s also written guides to Bagan’s art and architecture.

Pandaw River Cruises on the Orient Pandaw

The embarkation adventure is half the fun! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ship, Year Delivered & Passenger Count

Divided into two classes, the river boats number 16:

The smaller two-deck “K” class river boats — ANGKOR PANDAW (built 2012, 32 passengers), KALAW PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), KALAY PANDAW (b. 2013, 10 p), KATHA PANDAW (b. 2011, 28 p), KHA BYOO PANDAW (b. 2014, 20 p), KINDAT PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), ZAWGYI (b. 2014, 20 p), LAOS PANDAW (b. 2015, 20 p), CHAMPA PANDAW (b. 2016, 28 p) and SABAIDEE PANDAW (b. 2018, 24 p). On November 7, 2019, the KANEE PANDAW (28 passengers) takes delivery of the latest “K” vessels for Irrawaddy cruises between Prome north of Rangoon and Mandalay and the Great Irrawaddy Delta.

The larger three-deck “P” class river boats — BASSAC PANDAW (b. 2012, 60 p), INDOCHINA PANDAW (b. 2009, 60 p), MEKONG PANDAW (b. 2003 & totally refitted in 2013, 48 p), ORIENT PANDAW (b. 2008, 60 p), PANDAW II (b. 2002, 48 p), and TONLE PANDAW (b. 2002 & totally refitted in 2013, 56 p).

In addition, Pandaw introduced the coastal cruiser ANDAMAN EXPLORER built for the Norwegian coast guard in 1963 and subsequently converted to a luxury yacht before passing to Pandaw. She carries 20 passengers in ten suites, nine of which have double beds and one twins).

Passenger Profile

Mostly couples, with some singles, in their 50s on up from the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe mostly. Not recommended for children under age 12 or for anyone with trouble walking, as getting on and off the ships usually involves walking across narrow gangways and up and down muddy embankments.

Pandaw River Cruises aboard the Orient Pandaw

Watching the world go by from the bow of the Orient Pandaw. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Decks

2 or 3; no elevators

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

All excursions led by a local tour guide who travels with the boat, bottled water and tips, though many passengers do leave something extra in the communal tip box at the end of the cruise.

Reasonably priced drinks package are offer for house wines, free-flow drinks (minus wine), and free-flow drinks including house wines.

Itineraries

The majority of Pandaw’s river expeditions are on three of South-East Asia’s great rivers: the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar, and the Mekong River that flows from China through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. From time to time the line experiments with new itineraries, for instance in Borneo, offering Pandaw fans great reasons to keep coming back.

A few itineraries venture into northern Vietnam, to Halong Bay and on the Red River that flows past Hanoi into the Gulf of Tonkin. River itineraries in India now number three with three different riverboats. A brand new 10-night itinerary aboard 20-passenger Andaman Explorer sails from the mainland to India’s Andaman Islands, an archipelago rich in its ethnographic mix, biodiversity and marine life. Fly both ways to/from the Andaman’s for a 7-night cruise. Below is an outline of the additional itineraries offered along the coast and to the islands.

  • A wide variety of 1- to 20-night itineraries along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers includes the popular week-long Bagan to Mandalay runs nearly year-round, with the highlight being Bagan’s stunning profusion of Buddhist pagodas. Shallow draft riverboats allow navigation to Katha, 1000 miles above Rangoon (Yangon) well above Mandalay and past the third and second defiles. Note: These cruises are subject to sufficient depth of water, and the shallow draft of the riverboats deployed on this route is 32 inches or 80 cm.
  • The most popular of the 3- to 14-night Mekong River cruises are the classic week-long journeys between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, for visits to both rural villages and cities. Most people spend a few days before or after the cruise ogling the stunning monuments of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take in Vietnam. Other itineraries traverse the more remote Mekong in China and Laos. The boats here have very shallow drafts and powerful engines 3 times the horsepower of the main fleet to “climb” the Laotian Mekong into China.
  • Every year in mid April, May and June, the fleet is taken out of service for maintenance coinciding with the extreme hot weather and very low water levels.
  • The upper Ganges itinerary operates from Kolkata well inland to Varanasi, the lower Ganges, not as far, to Farakka, and a third on the Brahmaputra.
  • The coastal ship ANDAMAN EXPLORER undertakes 7- to 18-day voyages in the Irrawaddy Delta, the length of Myanmar’s coast, amongst the Mergui Archipelago and to India’s Andaman Islands.
  • Note: For Indochina land travelers, Pandaw now offers short, three-day river cruises between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, passing through the Mekong River Delta with stops at villages and a bird sanctuary. Includes hotel stays at both ends.
Mekong River Cruising

The gorgeous U Min Thone Se Pagoda outside of Mandalay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Why Go?

To see remote parts of Asia with expert guides on charming period-vessels.

When to Go?

Pandaw cruises July through early April, with water levels the highest and landscape the lushest between about October and February. Even in dry season (March and April), though, the boats with their shallow drafts can navigate the rivers even when waters levels are getting low.

Cabins

Well laid-out with colonial decor, the wood-paneled cabins are roomy with comfy twin captain’s beds with ample storage beneath. There’s a closet, two bedside tables and a small desk. Large glass doors open onto the side promenade decks. Wood paneled bathrooms have very large showers, and shampoo and soap are provided; a few of the older boats, including ORIENT PANDAW, TONLE PANDAW and MEKONG PANDAW have recently refurbished bathrooms with natural stone-clad showers.

Other extras across the fleet include cotton robes, slippers, personal safe, individually controlled AC, and hair dryer. To avoid engine noise, choose a cabin as far forward as possible. There are no TVs and few PA announcements, assuring a peaceful journey.

These ships are not recommended for passengers using wheelchairs, as there are no elevators, only stairs between decks.

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Public Rooms

Each has one restaurant, a combination bar and lounge, and lots of covered outdoor space on the uppermost deck for hanging out and scenery viewing. The open design allows air to flow through the vessels providing not only a welcome breeze, but also a stabilizing affect for the boats.

The larger “P” class boats have a third deck and amenities including a massage room, small boutique and art gallery, and a lecture and meeting room with a large flatscreen TV, projector and sound system to show movies about the region after dinner (like Indochine or The Quiet American). One of them, MEKONG PANDAW, has a small gym with cardio machines and weights.

Dining

On the larger ships the restaurant is inside, and depending on the temperature, with large French doors open to the river or closed with air-conditioning; on the smaller ships, they’re open-air on the covered top deck. Meals are served in one open seating at tables for four, six or eight, though different configurations can be made on request if there is space. Breakfast and lunch are semi-buffet and dinners are served.

Cuisine incorporates fruits and vegetables from the region into dishes such as chicken breast stuffed with tea leaves, roast pumpkin, prawn curry, fried rice, and various delicious Asian soups made to order with the ingredients laid out for diners to pick and choose from.

There are also western staples, from scrambled eggs to salads, fish and chips, and pasta. All meals are prepared onboard and nearly 100% of supplies are sourced from local producers in keeping with Pandaw’s commitment to support the local economies.

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Activities & Entertainment

The boats make at least one stop a day, sometimes two or three. When sailing, most people are content to relax on a padded wooden deck chair or chaise lounge to watch the river traffic and scenery float by.

An expert tour guide from the country visited sails along for the duration of the cruise, leads shore excursions and gives talks on board about various aspects of the destination and local culture, such as demonstrations about how to tie a sarong or make the tree-bark thanaka face paint popular in Myanmar. (On weeklong Mekong itineraries through Cambodia and Vietnam, there is a guide from each country for that half of the journey.)

Generally once or twice per cruise a local dance or singing group, or maybe a troupe of puppeteers, are brought on board to entertain guests after dinner. Otherwise, it’s drinks and chatting about the day’s adventures with new friends before heading off to sleep to rest up before another eventful day begins.

Along the Same Lines

In Myanmar, Paukan and Belmond offer the closest equivalent to Pandaw, and on the Mekong River, Heritage Line does.

Contact

Pandaw Cruises, www.pandaw.com; information@pandaw.com.

HMS

 

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Reader Review Angkor Pandaw

Vietnam’s Red River (Pandaw) by Rachael

REVIEWER

Rachael from the US.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Halong Bay and Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

REVIEW

I truly enjoyed all aspects of this cruise.  The first few days centered on the picturesque Halong Bay, weaving through the massive limestone rock formations. Sunrise was a particularly beautiful and calming time of day. From there, the trip was more about the day excursions than the river sites. We had the opportunity to see villages and interact with people locally. We could learn about the different customs, village life, and more intimate gatherings in these areas. I loved that this trip was not about shopping at all.

My only frustration is that we were often being shuffled back onto the boat when I wanted to stay in the town. I didn’t really understand the rush when the travel distance on the river was never extensive.

The food on the ship was delicious, it was a good mix of authentic Vietnamese food and more western options too. And the chef graciously provided me all the recipes of dishes that I particularly loved.

Overall a wonderful trip that I would highly recommend.

Reader Review bird

 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review

Angkor Pandaw in Vietnam

REVIEWER

Glenice & Ian Warner from Australia.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

REVIEW

We were greeted on board by a fellow passenger with, ’Oh, you’re the virgin Australian Pandaw couple. You’re in for a treat!’  We sniggered at the first part of the introduction, but were very soon to find out that the latter part was absolutely true.

Care of the passengers was paramount on this gorgeous teak and brass ship. It began each day with coffee and tea for the early risers (but I’ll have to take their word for that!) and continued throughout the day with the immaculate care of our cabins, to ‘welcome home’ drinks after each excursion and even, the crooning of local love songs if there was a gap between the end of evening briefings and the start of dinner!  (To the less forgiving amongst us, this was the only time when the quality of service could dip below superb!)

Vietnamese cuisine is delicious at any time but was especially so on our cruise — the quality, the variety, the freshness and the presentation. But, there was plenty of choice, too, for those who preferred more Western-style fare. We never ceased to be amazed at the storm the chefs could whip up on board…and the weather whipped up a few of those too but always at night, so we didn’t miss one excursion and it cleared the air. The weather was unseasonably, ‘hot, damned hot,’ but air-conditioning on board and Dang’s fantastic evening cocktails, dulled the sting of it!

We thoroughly enjoyed the company of the passengers on board (mainly from the UK and Australia with two lovely, younger girls from the US) and interacting with the locals, off board.  This was the jewel in the crown for us. We would never have been able to visit so many, varied villages and iconic sites had we not taken the river cruise — 653 kilometers along nine different rivers! Perhaps it was because these were excursions to places that are off the beaten tourist track, that we were made so welcome by the locals, but I suspect it is also because the Vietnamese are one of the friendliest people on earth!  They often asked us to have a photograph with them.
We visited an amazing variety of villages, specialising in an eclectic range of arts and crafts — from bonsai tree growing to green bean cake making; traditional knife-smithing  to wooden furniture carving;  hand-painted ceramics to conical hat-making and the utterly unique, water puppetry.  We even visited a family whose house has been home to seventeen generations of their clan!  All of this was made all the more enjoyable by the exceptional quality of our guides, Duoc and Vu.  They not only educated us on the history and geography of Vietnam and the areas we visited but entertained us with many an amusing tale of growing-up, Vietnamese.  The three most important things a young man must do are: buy a buffalo; build a house; find a wife and in that order!

The river-cruising itself was both enjoyable and revealing. Passing through the variety of areas from the industrial to the agricultural, you gain a great overview of life and work in Vietnam and its impetus towards a developing country. Then there’s the incredible array of river traffic — from the tiny, indigenous basket boats, propelled by foot, to the myriad sand-movers that chug along just centimeters above the water line — all so ready to share a wave and a huge smile as they go by. Halong Bay is singularly spectacular, but on our cruise, made even more memorable by the visit to a floating house and fish farm, and a sunset swim and cocktails at Three Peach Island. (There seemed to be no end to the talents of our crew. While we swam they set up a barbecue and karaoke and Poly, our most thorough and personable Purser, became the ‘wedding singer’ extraordinaire!)

Our fellow passenger’s initial greeting was right; we were in for a treat. This was the most amazing immersion in Vietnamese history, culture, cuisine and lifestyle. So many of the passengers had completed, not one but four and even more, Pandaw Cruises; this will definitely not be our last!

➢➢For more on this cruise, read QC’s 12 Reasons to Take a Red River Cruise in Vietnam with Pandaw.

 

Quirky Cruise Reader ReviewsContribute to our pool of honest reviews by real passengers. QuirkyCruise wants to hear about your latest small ship cruise for our Reader Reviews, a growing reservoir of opinions by small ship cruise lovers around the world. We don’t edit or sugarcoat, we just present QuirkyCruise reader reviews straight from travelers to you.

Click here to fill out a QuirkyCruise Reader Review FORM.

And here’s an INDEX of ALL our Reader Reviews. Have a look at what fellow travelers have to say and see what floats your boat.

 

 

 

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Vietnam Red River Cruise

Vietnam 🇻🇳 Red River Cruise with Pandaw

By Heidi Sarna.

I recently returned from a wonderfully quirky 10-night Vietnam Red River cruise aboard Pandaw Cruises‘ 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, sailing some 650 kilometers from Halong Bay westerly towards Hanoi and beyond. My bestie Rachael and I sailed along the Red River (or Song Hong) and its various tributaries, including the Black River (Song Da) and the Clear River (Song Lo).

The offbeat adventure was appealing and memorable in so many ways, including these 12 reasons.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Heidi & Rachael’s Vietnam adventure!

1.  Two Days in Halong Bay. The highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam is cruising around Halong Bay’s sea of limestone karsts that pop out of the bay like mushrooms. The ancient forest of crumbling mountain peaks feels otherworldly and prehistoric, especially when you kayak through the grottos and passages. Pandaw knows where to go to avoid the mobs of other tourists that flock to Halong Bay. Sailing there at sunset is especially magical.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Scenic Halong Bay is breathtaking. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

2.  The Local Food. Angkor Pandaw’s Vietnamese chef and his staff prepared delicious fresh meals with lots of local ingredients, from banana leaf, pomelo (like grapefruit), lotus and cashew nuts to glass noodles and heaps of basil, mint and other greens. We were treated to the nation’s famous pho noodle soup and Vietnamese-style spring and summer rolls (there were western options too), and refreshing glasses of local Bia Hanoi and 333 beer whenever the mood struck.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

A delicious bowl of Vietnam’s popular pho noodle soup. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

3.  Glimpse into Village Life. Our 10-night cruise comprised two days moving around Halong Bay and a day in frenetic Hanoi; the rest of the trip focused on visits to villages within walking distance or a short bus ride of where we were docked. These small towns would otherwise be hard to reach or unknown to most visitors. With our guides we walked around neighborhoods specializing in trades still pursued the traditional way, from pottery to carved wooden furniture, noodles, baskets, knives and rice wine. Half the fun was interacting with locals along the way.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Noodles drying in the sun like laundry. * Photo: Rachael Nicoll

4.  Our Vietnamese Guides. Duok, or Duke as he called himself for the benefit of the tourists, and Vu were a pair of 30-something Vietnamese guides with college degrees in tourism. They shared not only their deep knowledge of Vietnam’s history and culture, but also fascinating personal anecdotes that shed light on the country’s customs, from marriage to education and religion.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Douk, one of our two local guides who sailed with us for the week. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

5.  The Vietnamese People. Maybe because tourism still isn’t widespread outside of the major cities, the Vietnamese are warm and friendly to outsiders. In the villages, the locals smiled and waved to our group of 25, making us feel welcome. There was a mutually benign curiosity between us and them, which made it fun to take photos and selfies, with our guides often helping us to ask questions and communicate.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

This sweet old woman charmed us all. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

6.  A Rustic Boat in a Rustic Place. It’s nice to travel to a place in a vessel that looks like it belongs there. The 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw, like the rest of the fleet, is made of teak wood, brass, and steel, and designed to recall an earlier era of Scottish-built steamers for Burma’s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that in mid-1920s operated upwards of 600 boats. They’re not white or shiny or covered in strings of lights, they’re comfortable, unassuming, utilitarian, atmospheric and solidly made.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Boarding the 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw in Ha Long Bay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

7.  The Other Passengers. Pandaw attracts an international lot from all over the world, especially the UK, Australia and North America. They’re an adventurous, well-traveled group of free thinkers who seek out the off-beat. Many Pandaw passengers could afford a more luxurious and mainstream experience, but they choose Pandaw’s quirky river cruises precisely because they are not predictable or cookie-cutter. Many return to Pandaw again and again.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Passengers on a walk through the rice fields of Cat Ba island in Ha Long Bay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

8.  The Slow Pace of River Travel. Seeing the landscape gradually unfold from the decks of a river boat, especially at sunrise and sunset, is a special way to travel. The true nature of a country reveals itself in the life along the riverbanks. In northern Vietnam, it’s largely a story of agriculture and industry — green fields of rice, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and corn, are dotted with red brick kilns with tall chimneys. Ship builders along the river banks are ubiquitous and so are their rusty red cargo barges that motor up and down the rivers carrying sand, stones, coal and fuel, often passing within a few feet of the Angkor Pandaw.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

A typical barge on the Red River system being steered with the captain’s feet. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

9.  The Convenience. The appeal of cruises big and small is the inherent convenience of unpacking once while you travel to many different places. On small ships like Pandaw, the ease is multiplied. You’ll appreciate never having to queue for anything. Getting on and off the boat takes just a few moments and the vessels are able to tie up to a tree or anchor just about anywhere. Further, just about everything is included in the fares — the cozy cabin, excursions, spirits, beer and transfers.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

The standard Pandaw cabin, a cozy wood paneled abode with lots of storage and a big bathroom. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

10.  The Calm & Quiet. By design, there is no loud music, no TVs in the cabins, and few announcements. Each day takes on a relaxing rhythm, punctuated by causal open-seating mealtime, one or two half-day excursions, and time for lounging on a deck chair chatting with new friends or soaking up the scenery and taking photos. Movies with a connection to the itinerary are frequently shown after dinner, but otherwise it’s a night cap or two before heading off to sleep.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Photo taking as the main past time on a cruise like this. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

11.  Not Commercial. It was so nice that this trip was not about shopping and buying stuff, whether on board or in the stops. There were a few places to browse and buy (Hanoi and the pottery village), but otherwise, the off-beat places we visited don’t see many tourists and so souvenir shops and touts are pretty non-existent.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

We visited quiet villages and rarely encountered other tourists. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

12.  The Quirkiness. Pandaw is different — the look of the boats, the historical backstory, the itineraries and the travelers it attracts. This is a line that marches to the beat of its own drummer, and I love their tune.

Vietnam Red River Cruise

Rachael is jumping for joy on a ferry that transported us to shore. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

THE CAVEATS:  The Heat: Cruising in late April or May in northern Vietnam means it will be very hot in the afternoons — I’m talking up to 100 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). The Barges & Factories: Vietnam is a country bustling and brimming with industry and it’s obvious with the many barges motoring up and down the rivers, and the factories and shipyards that line the riverbanks in some areas.

QuirkyCruise Review

 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Derek Rham from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Vietnam Red River Delta.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 3

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 3 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

This was our 3rd Pandaw expedition and other than the revised low water itinerary, didn’t disappoint. The ship, crew and food were all excellent, there were a few minor early irritations with the cabin that were sorted by the efficient purser. The low water revision to the itinerary meant that some of the locations weren’t what we were expecting but the two on-board guides did a great job with what they were left with.

The highlight was the 3 days meandering around Ha Long bay with the opportunity to cycle, swim and kayak amongst the stunning scenery.

 

 

🐧 QuirkyCruise.com’s Pandaw Review

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 20 years. The growing fleet comprises 16 nearly identical-looking teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar and Vietnam in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire. Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough. In every way, the Pandaw experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway. Read more. 

 

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quirky-cruise-pandaw-family-cruise-deals-in-asia-family-sitting-on-boat

By Ted Scull.

If you have one or two kids who you feel are ready for an eye-opening cruise travel experience but are hesitant because of the high cost of four fares, have a gander at this deal.

Pandaw, the pioneer in Asian river travel, is offering two-for-one-cabin deals on select 2018 and 2019 one-week adventures along the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Irrawaddy and Chindwin in Myanmar (Burma), and India’s Ganges River.

Parents pay full fare for their cabin, and one or two children between the ages of 5 and 18 travel in a second cabin for free. If you do not have two children within the age parameters, maybe your daughter or son has a friend to bring along.

Fares include daily excursions; onboard guide; local beer, spirits and soft drinks; cultural performances; and bikes to explore the countryside, nearby temples and villages.

Family cruising is a great way to introduce children to Asia. * Photo: Pandaw

Asian travel brings to life the importance of understanding what makes very different cultures tick, with some people struggling to make a better life and others already there. You as parents will be able to determine if this type of exposure is something you think your offspring, with a positive and understanding outlook, could handle and benefit from.

They may see children their age being highly creative with a musical instrument or in dance, or when you visit a village, seeing kids their age living in a house much smaller than their home or laboring at tasks that adults normally perform where you come from.

To prepare children for an Asia cruise, you might look for some videos online that would expose your kids to what they are apt to see and experience in Asia. Encourage them to understand that people can seem both different and the same, throughout the world.

Fares include daily excursions; onboard guide; local beer, spirits and soft drinks; cultural performances; and bikes to explore the countryside, nearby temples and villages.

Western and local Asian choices at meal time. * Photo: Pandaw Cruises

While the cruises will offer western as well as local foods, it’s a great opportunity to expose children to the ingredients and flavors of Asia.

In port, excursions involve rides in small skiffs, walks through villages and cities, bicycling in some ports, and maybe a pick-up game of soccer or volleyball in some ports.

Fares include daily excursions; onboard guide; local beer, spirits and soft drinks; cultural performances; and bikes to explore the countryside, nearby temples and villages.

Getting to and from shore is part of the adventure. * Photo: Pandaw Cruises

Most of the free-second-cabin offers conveniently take place during the summer holidays in July and August.

Per person minimum fares for the grownups start at from $1,611 USD to $1,840 USD for the Myanmar* and Cambodia/Vietnam cruises. Fares include daily excursions; onboard guide; local beer, spirits and soft drinks; cultural performances; and bikes to explore the countryside, nearby temples and villages.

*Note that Myanmar’s Chindwin river cruise begins much higher at $3,307 USD.

 

The Classic Mekong River Between Cambodia & Vietnam

 

Pandaw Family Cruise Deals in Asia

 

 

The Mandalay Pagan Packet on the Irrawaddy River

 

Pandaw Family Cruise Deals in Asia

 

 

The Chindwin River in Burma

Pandaw Family Cruise Deals in Asia

 

The Lower Ganges in India

 

Pandaw Family Cruise Deals in Asia

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Elaine Andrews from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Halong Bay and Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 5 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

I really enjoyed this cruise. We started with 2 days sailing around the stunning Halong bay, then proceeded up the Red River. The river by contrast, is not at all scenic, in fact it is very industrial in places, but is interesting in its own way.

There are plenty of places to visit en route, such as a bonsai village, factories making bamboo products and ceramic items, and temples. There is a visit to the busy city of Hanoi. On days when there are no stops, entertainment is provided on the Pandaw.

The service was excellent as always, with a staff ratio of almost one to one. They bend over backwards to help passengers, especially those who may struggle to get on and off the ship. A real bonus with Pandaw is that everything is included, guides, excursions, food, drink (including local beers, cocktails and spirits). The atmosphere is very informal and relaxed, and the ships are small enough to get to know your fellow passengers.

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Judi Cohen from Canada.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw Expeditions.

SHIP

Kalaw Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Irrawaddy River, Myanmar.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

December 2017, from Mandalay, Myanmar.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 7 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

This was my third Pandaw Expeditions cruise and I am planning another to India later this year! Needless to say, I am a fan of the authentic, unassuming experience aboard their ships. The food is largely local (aka very fresh and tasty), the menus are varied and provided an excellent sampling of Burmese cooking, and the staff and service could not have been better or more accommodating.

I loved this ship and itinerary so much that I did the same Irrawaddy cruise twice in three years! Having all of the excursions included with knowledgeable guides allowed me to relax fully and not think about any logistics or bookings. Each stop provided a unique exposure to Burmese life. Being taken to schools, clinics, orphanages and other local institutions provided an opportunity to see how Pandaw “gives back” within the local villages.

While it typically does not rain in Burma in December, we had a few days of rain, but that did not interfere with our daily activities. Every day was an amazing and memorable adventure!

Being on the Kalaw over New Years Eve was a definite highlight. The crew, staff and all of the guests (18 guests total) ate, drank, sang, danced and partied together till the wee hours of the morning. It was magical!

Our group of six made wonderful memories aboard Pandaw, and we are looking forward to sailing over Christmas/New Years again along the lower Ganges River in India

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Avril Collins from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Vietnam Red River Cruise.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

4 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 2 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

The ship was great — very comfortable and a fantastic crew who were attentive, professional and friendly.  The scenery was more industrial than I had expected, apart from Ha Long Bay which is mind-blowingly beautiful!  I might have chosen to travel a bit earlier as I found the heat (between 32-39 Celsius with serious humidity) a bit too much.

 

🐧 QuirkyCruise.com’s Pandaw Review

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 20 years. The growing fleet comprises 16 nearly identical-looking teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar and Vietnam in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire. Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough. In every way, the Pandaw experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway. Read more. 

 

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QuirkyCruise reader review
REVIEWER

Donald Robertson from the UK.

CRUISE LINE

Pandaw.

SHIP

Angkor Pandaw.

DESTINATION

Halong Bay & Red River, Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

May 2018, from Halong Bay, Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

4 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 4

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 4

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 10 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

Trip was up to the normal high standard of Pandaw.  Being small ships the service is personal. There is also close contact with other passengers. Rivers were varied with a mix of scenery from industrial to agricultural, also of course the unique limestone islands of Halong Bay.

One depressing point is the amount of garbage dumped on the river banks in some areas.

The onboard guides worked very hard indeed to impart as much information as possible on Vietnam, its history, culture, and social and religious conventions.

 

 

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by Heidi Sarna.

I finally managed my first visit to Myanmar and its Irrawaddy River last spring, after inexplicably being rejected for a visa to go in early 2011, to see some of the country’s tens of thousands of Buddhist monasteries, shrines, temples and stupas. I wasn’t disappointed.

Irrawaddy River

The gilded stupas and temples of Myanmar are jaw dropping. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

My friend Sheila and I booked a 7-night river cruise in April between Bagan and Mandalay aboard Pandaw River Cruises’ new 40-passenger Kalaw Pandaw, one of 13 nearly identical Pandaw boats built in Myanmar and Vietnam to cruise in Southeast Asia. The sturdy 10- to 60- passenger teakwood boats with brass fittings are replicas of 19th-century Scotland-built Irrawaddy River paddle steamers with ultra-shallow drafts, two or three decks, and flat tops that allow them to slip under bridges and easily traverse remote rivers, even in dry season.

The trip to the ship. The Kalaw Pandaw tied up along the Irrawaddy. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The trip to the ship. The Kalaw Pandaw tied up along the Irrawaddy. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

We flew into Mandalay and it was a four-hour drive to Bagan, where we walked down the dry banks of the Irrawaddy River, past a gauntlet of children selling bracelets and necklaces, to board the boat. A crewmember at the gangway took our shoes and cleaned them, while another handed us a cold drink and a refreshing face towel to wipe our sweaty brows.

With the boat tied up to tree trunks or stakes banged into the earth, daily life on the riverbanks was never more than a few feet away. The scent of wood-smoke hung in the air as women washed clothes along the river’s edge slapping them onto stones and oblivious to litter strewn about. Children splashed, dogs frolicked, and adults bathed in their sarongs, deftly slipping the wet ones off for clean dry ones. The all-day soundtrack was a medley of roosters crowing, monks chanting into microphones and skiffs rattling past with shrieking outboard motors. From time to time, loud music blared from giant-sized speakers rented for celebrations and parties. Welcome to the real Myanmar circa 2015, a country in transition, albeit at the very beginning.

The beauty of a river cruise like what Pandaw offers is that you see the real deal and aren’t sequestered away in a luxury hotel, shuttled from elegant lobby to motor coach and back again. Seeing a country from the vantage point of one of its major rivers is to see a country as its authentic, organic self.

Eager souvenir sellers wait at the gangway. * Photo: Sheila Healey

Eager souvenir sellers wait at the gangway. * Photo: Sheila Healey

Our Bagan-Mandalay Packet itinerary included two days on board at both ends and three days sailing the 110 miles of river in between, with nights moored along the banks. When tied up in Bagan and Mandalay, the captain would cruise up and down the Irrawaddy River at breakfast and dinner time to generate a welcome breeze for those outside on deck and offer more time to gaze at the pagoda-dotted landscape.

A local tour guide sails on board every Pandaw cruise and ours was San, a former teacher and a walking encyclopedia of Myanmar history and culture. He was thorough and conscientious, and during one Q&A session fielded questions about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, corruption, human rights, and other taboo topics rarely broached in a country still cowed by the military. San answered the political questions honestly, but briefly. “We are moving forward, but the speed is very slow,” he told us.

Our excellent guide San led all excursions. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Our excellent guide San led all excursions. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A Sea of Pagodas, Days 1 & 2

Bagan’s 2,000+ pagodas were just a 10-minute bus ride from our mooring, and it was like driving through a safari park, only the animals were ancient red brick monuments. They date back to Bagan’s Golden Age in the 11th to 13th centuries, when they were originally covered in stucco and gold leaf. Some looked similar to Egyptian pyramids, like the Dhammayangyi temple, while others such as the Mahabodhi temple looked more Indian, and the Thatbyinnyu and Shwegugyi temples conjured up Europe’s Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals.

From the tiers of one temple, we watched the glowing sun descend through the hazy twilight before disappearing over the horizon. It was supremely peaceful except for the insistent “you buy from me lady” and “remember me” chants of souvenir sellers trailing us with their armfuls of shawls, t-shirts, lacquer bracelets and pirated books. For $7 USD (I bargained down from $12!), I bought a copy of Amitav Ghosh‘s excellent novel Glass Palace, an epic set in Myanmar in the 19th and 20th centuries and my constant companion for the week.

Fresh squeezed sugar cane juice in Bagan. * Photo: Sheila Healey

Fresh squeezed sugar cane juice in Bagan. * Photo: Sheila Healey

Villages Along the Way, Day 3

After two days in Bagan, we cruised upstream to Pakokku. On route to the town’s local markets, where we saw women stirring up batches of thanakha, the traditional Myanmar face paint made from tree bark, we gained a keen understanding of the meaning of Thingyan, the annual Buddhist New Year Water Festival. As we traveled in a convoy of open-air tuk-tuks to the town, we were enthusiastically doused with hoses and buckets of water from smiling locals. Some of us purchased squirt guns to join in the fun and the water fights in the ensuing days turned out to be a great way to interact with the locals. Though our visit to Pakokku was relaxed and low-key, in 2007 the town was the scene of the “Saffron Revolution,” when monks from the local monastery protested rising fuel prices and were brutally suppressed (some killed) by the military. It is considered the catalyst that started, albeit slowly, the reform process in Myanmar.

Local woman applying the traditional thanaka face paint still worn by many in Myanmar. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Local woman applying the traditional thanaka face paint still worn by many in Myanmar. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Rural Homesteads on Day 4

On the fourth day, we sailed along the Irrawaddy River to Yandabo to visit a rural homestead where terracotta pottery is made. San took us into one home where the family shared tea and corn on the cob, making us feel like friends, not tourists. The village was where the Treaty of Yandabo was signed to end the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826, concluding a long and expensive conflict with thousands of casualties.

A procession of monks in the village of Yandabo. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A procession of monks in the village of Yandabo. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Colonial Corners on Day 5

The next day, it was a two-hour bus ride up to a quaint and noticeably cooler British Colonial hill station called Pyin Oo Lwin, or Maymyo. We passed mango orchards, rice fields, banana plantations and large humped white cows pulling ancient farm equipment through the earth. Though we did see young people in Mandalay clutching cell phones and clad in skinny jeans, for the most part Myanmar is still steeped in the past; large swathes of the country don’t have electricity and most men and women still wear traditional sarongs and paint their faces with thanakha.

We lunched in classic colonial bungalow housing a restaurant, drove past the old British Club and spent an hour walking around the town’s Botanical Gardens, dodging the occasional bucket of water hurled in our direction. San told us many things on the bus ride, including the fact that Ruyard Kipling, author of the well-known poem Mandalay, had never actually been to Mandalay, or Bagan or Yangoon for that matter. He only briefly visited Moulmein along the southeast coast, but yet for much of the world Kipling put Myanmar on the map.

British colonial architecture. * Photo: Sheila Healey

British colonial architecture. * Photo: Sheila Healey

Buddhist Treasures Near Mandalay, Days 6 & 7

The sixth day was spent exploring Sagaing, a hill on the outskirts of Mandalay covered in Buddhist monasteries, shrines and sanctuaries, and other nearby sites, from the rustic teak wood Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung monastery to the gleaming Mahamuni Pagoda covered in millions of squares of gold leaf (that only men are allowed to apply), and the massive ruins of the Mingun pagoda (some calling it the biggest pile of bricks in the world). Then, by horse-drawn carriages, it was more of the same in the ancient capitals of Ava and Amarapura. My favorite place of them all was the hilltop U Min Thone Se Pagoda, also known as the Temple of 45 Buddhas, with its arc of white stone Buddhas in golden robes set beautifully in a hall of green tiles.

The stunning Temple of 45 Buddhas outside of Mandalay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The stunning Temple of 45 Buddhas outside of Mandalay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When we weren’t on shore, Sheila and I favored the deck chairs at the bow with a glass of refreshing Myanmar beer in hand as we gazed at the gold and white peaks of stupas carpeting the landscape. Later, a group of us would meet at the bar at happy hour to sample the daily cocktail specials, moving to our tables only when summoned by the dinner gong. Meals incorporated local ingredients and we especially enjoyed the chicken breast stuffed with tealeaves, acacia tree tempura, prawn curry, and Asian soups. One evening after dinner there was a traditional puppet show and on another a dance performance, but otherwise it was a nightcap on deck or retiring early to our cozy air-conditioned cabin to rest up for the next day’s adventures. There were, thankfully, no TVs to distract us. Pandaw founder Scotsman Paul Strachan has always kept the focus on the destination.

A comfortable Kalaw cabin, wood panelled and roomy. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A comfortable Kalaw cabin, wood panelled and roomy. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

My Myanmar cruise was my third Pandaw river journey — the first was on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the second on Borneo’s Rejang River — and I’m already looking forward to the fourth, probably in the cooler, lusher months of October or November. I’m thinking Laos or maybe India, on the Brahmaputra. Let’s see.

Quiet moments at the bow watching life on the river banks. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Quiet moments at the bow watching life on the river banks. * Photo: Heidi Sarna


Tips

Fares include meals, excursions, bottled water, and local soft drinks, beer and spirits. For more info click here for QuirkyCruise’s Pandaw line review or go to www.pandaw.com.

If you need to stay connected with the world, definitely buy a local SIM card for your phone as Internet connections in Myanmar are super weak (and often non-existent) on board and off.

Bring plenty of US dollars, ATMs often don’t work; Visa and Mastercard are accepted in big hotels and shops, but American Express is not. At local markets, Burmese Kyat is necessary, though souvenir hawkers at the major tourist sites happily take US dollars if they are crisp (faded, torn or written-on currency will not be accepted).


A Pedal in the Countryside near Mandalay

Before the cruise, we stayed two nights in Mandalay at the Hotel by the Red Canal, a cozy new hotel with traditional architecture, friendly service and perks like free happy hour drinks by the pool. As we’d be exploring the sites around Mandalay later once we boarded the Kalaw Pandaw, I signed us up for a 6-hour guided bicycle excursion with Grasshopper Adventures (Grasshopperadventures.com), an outfit I had cycled with before in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and in Thailand.

A guided bike ride on the outskirts of Mandalay with Grasshopper Adventures. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

A guided bike ride on the outskirts of Mandalay with Grasshopper Adventures. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Though boiling hot, it was an excellent way to see the countryside around Mandalay. We were driven to the edge of the city, then peddled for about 20 kilometers mostly along dirt roads through farmland and past old Buddhist monasteries including the teakwood the 1834-built Bagaya Monastery in the ancient capital of Ava and an early 19th-century British-built watch tower poking up from a field nearby. Along the way we stopped to sample vegetable tempura being fried up at a roadside stall, and peeked in on small businesses making cheroot cigarettes and metal begging bowls for monks. For me, an avid cyclist, the excursion was one of the trip highlights.

PollyPink5 copy

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Mekong River Cruising

Pandaw River Boat

By Heidi Sarna.

When an old high school friend decided to visit me in Singapore to catch up and travel together somewhere in the region, I put on my thinking cap to come up with something really special and interesting.  I surfed around and came up with Pandaw Cruises, a company I am now very familiar with, but at the time had never heard of before. The company operates a fleet of 10-to 66-passenger boats all built since 2002 as replicas of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers that plied Burma’s Irrawaddy River a century ago.

Mekong River Cruising

Watching the world go by from the bow of the Orient Pandaw. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

After just a few minutes on the Pandaw website, I knew I hit the jackpot. I signed us up for a 7-night cruise down the Mekong River and its tributaries through Cambodia and Vietnam, with an extra hotel night on either end in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. We stayed at the beautifully rustic Angkor Village Hotel in Siem Reap and spent a day and a half exploring the amazing Hindu and Buddhist temples built during Angkor’s golden era from the 9th to 13th centuries.

Our guide, Mao So Kheim (with www.indochinapartnertravel.com), was excellent and we trekked with him over the gnarled roots of ancient banyan trees and up super steep stone steps to get close-up views of giant temples carved with Hindu deities, scenes from the Ramayana, and the 216 giant and serene faces of the god-king Jayavarman VII. With so much to see, we barely noticed it was 90 degrees in the shade.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

All Aboard a Pandaw River Boat

The next day we were to embark the 60-passenger Orient Pandaw. Because we were traveling in March, during the relatively dry, low-water season (seasonal fluctuations in the water level of the Mekong river system vary between 6 and 10 meters), we couldn’t board the ship in Siem Reap. The four-hour bus ride south to a village along the southern edge of Tonle Sap lake, where we boarded the boat, was a great opportunity to see the countryside and small towns of Cambodia.

The guide, who would be sailing with us for the Cambodia half of the cruise (another excellent guide joined us for the Vietnam portion), narrated. Highlights included a bathroom break at a roadside restaurant where our group was met by a bevy of local women selling snacks. They tempted us with heaping trays of fried tarantulas, crickets and frogs. In a country as poor as Cambodia, practically everything is considered food, poisonous spiders not withstanding.

When we reached the port, we walked to the riverbank and peered down at the Orient Pandaw, its stubby bow nudged up against the muddy banks of the Mekong River. A smile spread across my face at the thought of our impending adventure on this Pandaw river boat. The gangway was a wooden plank connecting the boat to the bank, where it was moored not to a concrete pylon or pier, but to the sturdy trunk of a tree. Our home for the next week resembled an old-time steamboat, minus the paddle wheel, with three main open-sided decks and an air of utility.

Pandaw Mek Crew putting out gangway copy

Quirky & Comfortable

While the year-old Orient Pandaw has a retro look, teak wood and brass fittings, the beauty of a replica is the marriage of old and new. Modern creature comforts include roomy air-conditioned cabins that open directly to the outside promenade deck. Cabins have plenty of storage space and attractive bathrooms with large showers.

The windowed open-seating restaurant is configured with tables for eight and serves a combination of buffet-style and ala carte meals, from delicious nasi goring to Khmer fish curry, glass noodles with pork and spicy beef salad, as well salads, pastas, cold cuts, cheese, fresh bread and other continental staples for the mostly European and North American guests. Considering the mix of passengers, the food wasn’t heavily spiced (not enough for my palate at least), but nothing some chili sauce or a dash of pepper couldn’t remedy.

 

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When we weren’t eating or sleeping, the place to be was a padded teak chaise lounge on the open-air observation deck to watch the landscape float by. While sailing we were close enough to shore to wave to children, admire sampans piled high with coconuts, and watch a solitary figure in a conical hat paddling a skiff along the ubiquitous groves of water hyacinths. The guides mingled and answered our questions, guests enjoyed cold beers and drinks from the bar, and a dedicated few watched the scenery unfold from the seat of the stationery bike, the ship’s lone piece of exercise equipment.

Massages were offered on deck, and also below decks in a dedicated massage room (some Pandaw boats have a masseuse and some don’t), as well as port lectures and occasional activities such as a spring roll-making demo. Evenings, local folk dancers and singers performed for us or better yet, we enjoyed several culturally-relevant movies in an indoor lounge. Watching The Killing Fields, The Quiet American and Indochine in the places in which they were set made them all the more poignant.

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Exploring Ashore

Each day we made one or two excursions from the ship, often via local sampans that pulled up alongside our anchored boat. On the Cambodian side of the river in Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham, we traveled by sampan past floating wet markets and walked through rural villages to see the 12th century Angkorian temple of Wat Nokor as well as ancient Cham shrines (the Cham are one of the region’s ethnic minorities).

We visited an orphanage supported by Pandaw and distributed paper, pencils and candy to the children. It was both a sad place — dusty and forlorn with a pair of net-less metal soccer goal frames in a field surrounded by drab concrete — and a hopeful one too, with smiling children greeting us as we stepped off the bus. I felt both joy and sadness. Who knows the horrors the children have endured in a country of extreme poverty, and where healthcare is poor and widespread corruption by the political elites is commonplace.

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

A Day in Phnom Penh

On our third day we docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, where structures like the grand Buddhist Silver Pagoda temple (one of the few places Khmer artifacts weren’t destroyed by the Khmer Rouge) and charming French colonial architecture co-exist with grim reminders of the dreaded Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. We visited the notorious Killing Fields on the edge of the city where thousands of innocent people were murdered and buried as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a prison known as the S21 Detention Centre, where more than 10,000 Cambodians of all ages were interrogated, processed and killed by the evil Khmer Rouge regime. In preparing for my trip I read a chilling but page-turning memoir of the horrible Pol Pot years by Loung Ung called First They Killed My Father. Her parents and two of her siblings didn’t survive the regime’s brutality.

The boat stayed in Phnom Penh late and that evening we traveled by bicycle rickshaw to a local spa for a great $9USD massage at the Amret Spa (#3, Street 57), followed by dinner at an atmospheric little restaurant nearby before heading back to the boat.

Crossing Into Vietnam

The next day we sailed across the border into Vietnam and noticed an immediate shift. Cambodia’s primitive wet markets and thatched huts were supplanted by the vigorous commerce of the Vietnam side. Sand barges carried their cargo to Saigon for export to Singapore and emerald green irrigated fields of rice carpeted the river banks.

From Chau Doc and Cai Be, we traveled again by sampan through the canals and backwaters of the main Mekong channel, wandering through local markets, checking out the action at a floating fish farm, snapping photos of a French Gothic cathedral in Cai Be and stopping for tea at the former Imperial residence, the An Kiet House. The group enjoyed visits to two factories, one that produced rice paper and coconut candy, and another, tiles and pottery.

Hello Ho Chi Minh City

Our weeklong river adventure ended in My Tho, near bustling Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed a night in Vietnam’s largest city at Le Duy, a non-descript but centrally located hotel on Nguyen Thi Nghia Street, visiting the War Museum, with its graphic photo collection, Chinatown, Reunification Palace (the site of the official fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the war) and the sprawling Ben Thanh market.

We also toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels an hour outside of the city, an impressive underground complex built by the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. We spent our last evening of the trip at the open-air Rooftop Garden bar of the Rex Hotel, where journalists hung out during the Vietnam War. Though the singer crooning Italian ballads seemed out of place, all that mattered were the magical views of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the perfect place to reflect upon our Pandaw adventure.

Note: Sometimes other boats in the fleet, like the 48-passenger Mekong Pandaw, do the 7-night route described in this feature, and they all offer a very similar experience to the Orient Pandaw.

Fares include all shore excursions, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, and entrance fees to museums and other sites.

For booking info, go to the Pandaw site.

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

 

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