Pandaw Expeditions’ ships feel like they’ve been plying the waterways of Indochina for centuries, and in a sense, they have been.
The fleet’s heritage runs right back to the legendary Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) that operated passenger and cargo ferry services on the great rivers of Burma, now Myanmar, from 1865 until 1942.
At its peak in the late 1920s the Scottish-owned IFC ran the largest fleet of river boats in the world, with 600-odd vessels of varying shapes and sizes carrying more than 8-million passengers, and a million tonnes of cargo a year. Mainly paddle steamers, the largest vessels were more than 100 metres long and carried up to 4,000 passengers.
The company’s demise came with Imperial Japan’s World War II invasion of Burma, where the ships were lashed together and sunk by explosives detonated in their hulls, to stop them falling into enemy hands.
For some 50 years, the fleet sat mostly forgotten beneath the waters of Myanmar’s great rivers until historian, Paul Strachan – a Scot, was compelled to revive it.
In 1998, Strachan discovered an original Clyde-built IFC steamer called the Pandaw, and arranged for its lease and restoration. Pandaw Expeditions was born and, with it, a unique style of river expedition was created: Explorations of remote and often hard-to-navigate rivers and coasts in specially-designed luxury small ships.
Today, save for modern flourishes like air-conditioning and occasional Wi-Fi, cruising with Pandaw looks and feels very much like it might have in the glory days.
Think ships based on original designs, hand-crafted in brass and teak, comfortable rattan furniture, promenade decks, saloon bars, starched crew uniforms, early morning teas and sunset G&Ts (all included in your tariff, by the way). It’s an utterly gorgeous experience and if you like travel with provenance, Pandaw has it in spades.
Our ship, RV Mekong Pandaw was built in Myanmar in 2003 and sailed to its new home on the Mekong River under its own steam. She was re-fitted in 2013 – a process that, interestingly, saw lower deck cabins removed and replaced with a day spa, gymnasium, library lounge and cinema room.
Uniquely, this vessel has an incredible 750 square-metre teak upper deck that runs its entire length and breadth, serving up views only slightly interrupted by the well-stocked bar at the stern. It’s a wonderful place to sit and watch life on the Mekong slide past.
Travelling between Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong might seem like a fairly simple affair. But it’s easy to forget that these countries were at war through the 70s, Vietnam invading its neighbour in 1979. Until Pandaw did it, no one had – at least since French colonial times – linked the two countries by ship.
These days aboard Mekong Pandaw, the border crossing is pretty painless, completed cleverly during a long, delicious lunch and hard-hat ship tour while our passports and papers zip back and forth between the ship and immigration offices a few hundred metres apart on shore.
Days aboard Mekong Pandaw are blissful and as active as you choose. Printed daily schedules detail timings for lunch, evening entertainments and shore excursions.
We find ourselves stepping directly ashore from the bow of the ship in tiny hamlets, meeting monks at hilltop monasteries, exploring fragrant produce markets and schools and workshops. We watch lolly-making demonstrations, and sample the sweet treats gleefully. We see rice-puffers, fish farmers and silversmiths. We even see a child bitten on the bum by her pet crab!
Wired for sound, we’re able to venture into villages relatively discreetly, hearing everything our local guide describes even as we’re distracted by the perfect Instagram moment elsewhere. There are no guide-with-flag-and-megaphone intrusions here.
On each return to Mekong Pandaw, we exchange our footwear for a something cool from the bar, our shoes swiftly cleaned like new and popped outside our cabins before they’re next required. Tales of favourite moments ashore are told, photos shared, and purchases compared.
It’s clear that, even though we’re travelling together, we’re all experiencing things rather intimately. We’re able to drift apart in tiny groups and explore on our own, all the while being subtly led by Pandaw’s expert guides – it’s effortless and unobtrusive.
A highlight for everyone is an afternoon spent in small wooden boats meandering through the Mekong’s dolphin grounds out of Kratie in Cambodia.
These wee Irrawaddy dolphins exhibit none of the shyness here that I’ve seen from their kin elsewhere in Indochina. Individuals in this pod seem inquisitive and confident enough to zip around and under our boats, drawing breath as they break the surface just metres from us, hundreds of kilometres from the sea.
We rise early most mornings, early enough to lounge about on the Sun Deck with a warm cup of Earl Grey tea in first light, no morning more memorable than the fourth when we approached Phnom Penh.
The Cambodian capital springs to life early, and we’re greeted by music and city sounds on the breeze some way downstream. The Royal Palace gleams, and the lively riverfront promenade is busy with locals exercising, socialising and getting their days underway.
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Arriving by water is a real treat, as the city reveals itself slowly in ever more detail as we approach and moor right in the thick of it. We’re just a short walk from night markets that receive a fair share-of-wallets that evening, our transactions accompanied by live Khmer pop performances on a central stage and wonderful smells from pots and hotplates and grills somewhere upwind.
We spend the next morning exploring the city by cyclo. These iconic pedal-rickshaws have been a feature of Phnom Penh streets since the 1930s, and drivers now rely on business from tour operators like Pandaw for their livelihoods.
We are a three-wheeled, lime-green peloton on a Tour de Phnom Penh that delivers us to the Royal Palace, National Museum and back to the Mekong Pandaw down side streets and laneways, drawing smiles from local passers-by. Right up there with our dolphin encounters, this is another highlight of our time with Pandaw.
Phnom Penh also brings us into the darkness of this country’s recent past with afternoon excursions to the notorious Killing Fields and the haunting, harrowing S21 Genocide Museum.
Other options include visits to the steaming Russian Market, and the wonderful Central Market housed in one of the most beautiful mercantile buildings you’ll find anywhere. Venture in for unexpectedly low-pressure market encounters – a pleasure after the combat shopping experiences in Saigon at start of our journey.
Back aboard Mekong Pandaw, few moments are spent in our comfortable cabins save for sleeping. We find ourselves with arms resting on handrails, engaged in contented conversations with our fellow travellers and wandering the walkway that runs the length of the ship.
There is no retiring to the private balconies and LCD TVs we see on other vessels. We enjoy a conviviality here that is old-school and charming, a tangible connection to the heyday of the original Irrawaddy Flotilla.
Our final sunset is spent on the wonderful Sun Deck, the barman kept busy mixing G&Ts and pouring cold, draft beer. The gentle sounds of the Mekong (in Cambodia, at least) are only broken by laughter, the clack of billiard balls and camera shutters, and the hum of the RV Mekong Pandaw’s mighty engines pushing us towards Siem Reap and the astonishing wonders of Angkor.
In the morning on the banks of the Mekong, a wistful farewell to our new friends, the captain and crew awaits.
YOUR PANDAW RIVER CRUISE STARTS HERE