The Pandaw Luxury River Cruise: An Odyssey on the Mekong from Saigon to Phnom Penh
I’ve always suffered from wanderlust. A desire to explore faraway places, exotic cultures, and to have unforgettable experiences. From my youth, I remember Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen trekking up the Nile exploring uncharted waters and discovering new adventures and peril. Fast forward and today that river exploration can be done in the lap of luxury. To fulfil a desire for exploration and intellectual stimulation, Pandaw River Explorations has created an unforgettable four-day odyssey of excitement and discovery up the Mekong River from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
This is a special trip. There are only 24 cabins on the ship and they usually travel half full. It’s more like travelling on a private yacht than a cruise ship. The ship is filled with interesting people who are fellow curious wanderlust travellers. They are looking for something a bit more special and bespoke than an ocean cruise ship with discos and casinos shared by 3,000 other guests. The type of travellers that are drawn to river cruising also leads to interesting conversation and laughter at dinner or on the promenade deck while sipping on cocktails.
The itinerary for this trip takes in the Mekong River from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Phnom Penh. The Mekong River is one of the longest rivers in the world and flows 2,700 miles from deep in China to Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam. The four day trip allows the passengers to sample two of these wonderful Indochina countries.
After meeting up in Saigon, a group of strangers boards a custom bus for the departure point at My Tho, where the mighty Mekong River terminates at the South China Sea. Along the way we pass the rice fields and begin to see the simple way of life in the Mekong delta for the Vietnamese people. Over the next few days, the cast of strangers will end as friends and many will forge close and long lasting relationships.
At this point we get our first presentation from our guide, who is from Saigon and has a wealth of information about the culture and history of Vietnam. He is very approachable and will take the group on forays into the villages during our stops along the Mekong River.
There’s a sense of excitement as we approach our home for the next few days, the RV Mekong Pandaw. It is a grand ship of hand-finished teak wood and brass fixtures, with rattan furnishings and an informal colonial character. Although the ship was built in 2003, the old world design is a replica of ships from decades past.
The sun deck is well appointed with comfortable deck chairs, lounge areas, open air bar and pool table. It is the place where guests will begin their day, congregating over a cup of coffee and wishing good morning to other guests while taking in the day’s new scenery along the Mekong River. It is perfect for reading a paperback or snoozing, lulled by the river’s fresh air breezes. At nights the promenade deck is where we’ll meet for gin and tonics and laughter-filled conversations about the day’s events or some other past adventure.
Downstairs there is a lovely bar in the front of the ship where we get together for lectures and movies. Below there is a library, a spa providing massages and a workout room with treadmill, stationary bikes and other equipment.
The air conditioned cabins are all the same size and nicely decorated with twin beds, writing desk and bathroom with shower. The upper deck rooms offer elevated views.
The Pandaw Company , like the ships they command, is a pioneer. Although many others follow, Pandaw is typically at the forefront of exploring new rivers and itineraries throughout Indochina and beyond. Pandaw has been cruising the rivers of Indochina since 1995, and in those 20 years has perfected the art of river cruising.
The company was founded and is owned by the Scotsman and Burmese historian Paul Strachan. Back then he took his love of Burma and began yacht excursions. He then discovered a dormant ship and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company which was founded by his fellow Scottish countrymen back in 1865. After a refurbishment of the ship, he began building his current fleet of 12 ships, as well as the business of providing bespoke riverboat experiences to discerning guests.
Life aboard the ship is as much a part of the cruise as the destinations that guests explore. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining room. There is no fixed seating plan, so every meal can offer interesting conversation from a rotating seating of guests. There are also tables for two set aside for couples.
The cuisine is good and varied with local dishes and an occasional western dish. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style with dinner a la carte. Ingredients are sourced locally so they are fresh and part of the experience. There is no dressing up for dinner and the atmosphere is casual and informal.
The service is particularly good in the restaurant and the staff quickly learns each guest’s name. Hong is a beautiful young woman who works in the restaurant and greets guests with a sincere smile and a warm hello. It is a great way to start the day and makes our dining experience that much more satisfying.
All the meals are included as well as local spirits and beers. There is an additional fee for wine and imported liquors. The excursions are also included as well as tips although guests may be compelled to add a bit extra for the staff.
Each day there’s an onboard activity such as a cultural program or watching a movie relevant to the next day’s excursion. Our ship manager or purser is Saroun and is there to make sure everyone has a good and safe time. He is professional and has worked in tourism for many years first with his own tour company and then on other ships before coming to Pandaw where he has worked for four years. Each day he gives the speech of what we can expect the next day and is there with endless reservoirs of information to respond to any questions or needs. Like most of the staff on the boat, he is Cambodian and was born in Siem Reap.
The average age of the passengers is late 50s and 60s. Most are early retirees. As with kids at summer camp, it’s easy to make fast friends on the ship. The guests come from all walks of life and from around the world. All were smart, cultured and well-travelled, which led to hours of entertaining conversation. Being aboard the Pandaw was like having a dinner party every night with interesting international guests.
Mike is the first friend I met. He is a big man, over six feet tall, with grey hair and a great sense of humor. With him is his lovely wife Carol of 40 years. They are Australian and have travelled around the world, living in China and other exotic locations. Their cabin is next to mine and they are the kind of neighbours you would wish to have back home. Like many on the cruise, Mike is a bucket-lister, looking to check off exciting destinations and experiences along life’s journey. This was his and Carol’s fourth river cruise.
Within the first few days, guests come to appreciate the power of the Mekong River and its impact on the lives of the people who live along its banks. The river is the lifeblood of the people, either for fishing, for watering the nearby farms or for transporting goods up and down the Mekong from city to city and country to country. Generations will live their lives on the river, either in its shanty towns, on stilt houses or on boats.
The Mekong River also has a certain pace and sound. As the RV Mekong Pandaw ushers its passengers up the mighty river, guests grow accustomed to the constant hum of its motor. The monotonous sound of the engine is often broken with sound of children yelling “hello,” monks chanting, or the ubiquitous fishermen and their river-worn motor boats puttering and crisscrossing our path.
We get into the mood of the cruise on the first night with a cultural performance of Vietnamese music and dances. It’s a nice taste of culture and also a chance for the guests on board to meet and mingle. Our first excursion will be to the town of Cai Be, followed later in the day with another village, Sa Dec.
The night before we watch the film The Lover, which is a bit risqué for a mixed audience but it gives us a sense of context about the town that we will be visiting. It is an autobiographical story of Marguerite Duras, the famous French novelist, who, in her youth, falls in love with a Chinese man. Part of the real life drama takes place in Sa Dec and part of the next day’s tour is to the home of her love interest in the film.
Excursions are marvellous. These are safe and well-organized tours by our knowledgeable guide. At the end of each tour we come back and are greeted by the staff with a cheerful “welcome home,” cold fragrant towels and much-needed soft drinks.
For our tour into Cai Be, we take the smaller Sampan boat along the canals and back alleys. It’s our first opportunity to get up close and personal with life in the towns along the river. As we pass rustic wooden fishing boats, we see people going about their daily lives cooking, washing clothes or working on the river. The shanty towns along Cai Be are built on stilts along the river high above where the floods are expected to rise each year. Though it is apparent that this is not an easy life, the river people are friendly and in good spirits.
Once in town, we begin our tour with our guide giving context to what we are seeing. Each of us has an earpiece so we can clearly hear the narration along the way. We walk past the shops and neighbourhoods and schools and get first-hand insight into daily life in Vietnam. Scooters whiz by, as this is the main source of transportation in Vietnam’s cities and villages. You’ll often see children on the scooters and sometimes a family of four or even five people riding on these two- wheeled rockets.
Our first stop is at a factory that makes pop rice, which is like popcorn and is used to make cakes and candies from rice heated with burning sand. It was an interesting process and they even have rice whiskey with a twist. They put the whiskey in bottles with snakes and scorpions just to give it an extra kick and potency. Some of the brave cruisers gave it a try and other even took a bottle or two to savour at home.
The second part of our first tour was to the village of Sa Dec and the market where locals buy fish and vegetables, as well as some more exotic menu items of turtles and even river rats. There’s also a market to buy the key export of the region, rice. There are hundreds of types of rice of different qualities, grown in Vietnam and other parts of Indochina and then shipped all over the world. The day’s excursion ended with the tour of the home from the movie, The Lover.
The RV Mekong Pandaw hummed along the Mekong River exploring new adventures on the way. The next day’s adventure brought us to a floating village, where many Vietnamese will spend their cycle of life from birth to death. We visited a fish farm which is a large enclosure under a floating house. Small fish are placed in underwater cages where they are fed, grown, then are harvested and sold in markets or exported overseas.
Our last stop in Vietnam is Chau Doc. It is a Muslim fishing village where the people live in stilted homes. The water levels can rise fifteen feet and flood the area when spring weather melts the snow in the mountains in northern China. Here we saw a silk factory with women manually weaving fabric while the men were on the river fishing or working in the nearby farms.
The trip terminated in Phnom Penh and it was time to say goodbye to the staff and new friends. Putting together a cross section of interesting people and taking them to interesting places seems to be the winning formula for Pandaw. It was a most enriching and enjoyable four days on the Mighty Mekong River filled with life long memories and friends for all aboard.
Contact details and various weblinks
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