The Pandaw experience is all about exploring remote rivers and coasts in Asia with authentic luxury small ships. In 1998, Paul Strachan discovered an original Clyde-built steamer called the Pandaw and arranged for its lease and restoration. And that is how the Pandaw was born! With that, a unique concept and a totally new style of river cruising was created. In 2003 the company took the Pandaw concept to the Mekong River in Indochina. A few years later they introduced new river cruises on the Rajang in Borneo and Ganges in India. Another two magnificent Asian rivers, rich in things to do and see. In 2015 they successfully establish cruises on the Red River in Northern Vietnam and the Upper Mekong through Laos, bringing the fleet up to 14 ships. These days Pandaw owns sixteen beautifully crafted ships that they have built themselves, plus their first coastal ship the Andaman Explorer. Each ship was carefully hand-finished by traditional craftsmen to offer luxury and comfort to its guest.
The original P-class ships were built by Yarrows of Glasgow in the late 1940s. The design was based on earlier 1930s designs with side paddles and the addition of a flying bridge. All the ships had a name beginning with a P and one of these was the original Pandaw that was acquired in 1998 and lovingly restored.
The ship that I sailed with was called RV Mekong Pandaw and it was built in Rangoon in 2002. This ship was designed especially for the Mekong river and it has more space than any other ship in their fleet. It has extended promenades, a larger dining hall, more public areas, gym, library lounge, professional spa, a billiard table on the deck and two bars. RV Mekong Pandaw is quite justifiably the most splendid ship on the Mekong and the envy of anything that floats by.
The whole ship is beautifully restored, with small details, finished in brass and teak. The same goes for the staterooms which have colonial-era character mixed with exquisite contemporary comfort. Just breathtaking! The cabins are spacious with a large king size bed, a small working area, a closet and a bathroom with a shower. All cabins are the same size and they all contain Pandaw’s signature amenities ( fruit and flowers on arrival, kimonos, and slippers and spa-branded amenities). You can choose to stay on the Main Deck or Upper Deck, depending on your preferences, but wherever you choose to stay during your trip, the cabin is amazing and the views of the landscape are breathtaking.
RV Mekong Pandaw has three different areas where you can enjoy a snack, lunch, dinner and a drink or two. The main dining area is located indoor on the lower deck, but it is designed to open up along the sides, so you can observe the beautiful scenery while you experience the delicious cuisine. On the upper deck is an open-air space with sun loungers, comfortable sofas and a bar where you can enjoy delicious snacks and a variety of drinks. If you wish to sit inside you can always go to the saloon where you can play some games or simply have a drink and enjoy your free time on the ship.
All meals are served at the main dining room. Breakfast is a buffet style with plenty of choices to choose from. You can order eggs in all sorts of variations, freshly made from the kitchen. Lunch features a buffet option for starters, salads, and dessert and the main course is served at the table. At dinner, all the dishes are served and you can choose the main course from the menu. The dishes are carefully picked by the chef, taking in the consideration that most passengers want to sample authentic dishes of each country they pass through. So, they offer a great choice of local cuisine with ingredients carefully picked from local markets and farmers. I must say that the food was always delicious and it was a new culinary experience every time.
There is never a dull moment on the ship. You can read, write, play different board games, visit a gym or relax at the spa and there are a lot of social activities that have become a traditional part of any Pandaw river expedition. For example, there is a welcome dinner for all guest where you can get to know other passengers, there are cocktail parties every evening on the deck, you can enjoy different lectures about the country you are driving through, interesting themed movie nights and even cultural performances. They also offer cooking demonstrations, fruit carving, napkin tying and even a tour of the working ship.
Excursions ashore are a key part of any Pandaw river expedition. From visiting the local villages, walking through the countryside, visiting different museums, exploring the jungle with horse carts, to going deeper up the river with rowboats, visiting small islands, helping the community and touring different cities. The schedule is full and the excursions are always different and exciting. All scheduled excursions are accompanied by members of the crew and a guide who will explain everything along the way. Also, all the entrance fees for sights are included in the itinerary.
If you wish to explore the villages by yourself, the Pandaw offers high-quality mountain bikes and the crew will advise on the best routes to follow for independent cycle adventure. There is also an option to visit the local markets and Pandaw Charity project along the way and you can interact with the local community.
Our journey started in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and ended in Siem Reap in Cambodia. On our first night we had a lecture on Vietnamese life on the Mekong Delta and during the cocktail hour, we were entertained by a local dance group.
The next day our first excursion took us to Ben Tre, where we traveled by sampans through mangroves to visit the local village. We saw the local Coconut Candy Factory, learned about the bee industry and tried famous Vietnamese rice pancakes.
The third day started with a visit to the Gao Giong and its bird sanctuary and then we continued to Con Phuoc Island to explore the island.
Our fourth day started with breakfast and then we traveled through the canals of Tan Chau where we saw fish farms, visited local villages and took a short walk to the Taoist Temple. This was our last day in Vietnam and in the afternoon we arrived at the border crossing. All the formalities were taken care of by Pandaw crew and we anchored near Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
Our sixth day on the ship started with a visit of two Monks and we took part in water blessing ritual before we took an excursion around the island of Koh Okna Tei also called the Silk Island. Our first stop was at a place where they showed us how to produce silk from the caterpillar to the final stage. We also had the opportunity to buy products made of silk. In the afternoon we had a lecture about Cambodian geography and life along the Mekong.
Our last excursion on day seven was a visit to the eco-tourism site where we explored the island, saw different farming activities and we also participated in the reforestation project and planted our own tree. In the afternoon the journey took us to the world wildlife protected area to see highly reclusive Irrawaddy Dolphins.
Our journey ended at Kampong Cham and we were transferred by coach to Siem Reap where we stayed a few more days to visit the famous Angor Wat.
The cruise price includes transfers between the meeting point and the ship at the start and end of a voyage, all entrance fees, guides, gratuities to the crew, main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), locally made soft drinks, local beer and local spirits, jugged coffee, selection of teas and mineral water.