Last Updated on 04/05/23 by Rose Palmer
I was sipping my Pink Lady cocktail and enjoying the brilliant orange sunset across the Mekong river over the city of Vientiane, Laos’ capital. It was the last evening of my Laos Pandaw river cruise and the day had been very hot, but now a gentle breeze was slowly cooling off the open top deck lounge.
A dragon boat sped by in the evening twilight, its crew chanting loudly as they oared in perfect unison, dipping their many paddles into the water in synchronous time to their chanting beat. Not far from our docked vessel, a local fisherman squatted on the tip of his longtail boat, checking his nets. I marveled at the ease with which he maintained his balance as he twisted and twirled on his boat’s narrow tip, his gyrations worthy of an Olympic balance beam routine.
I eagerly anticipated one final delicious dinner on board before moving on to experience the Bassac Pandaw on the lower Mekong River. I had just spent ten glorious days aboard Pandaw’s inaugural cruise through Laos after the pandemic and I was looking forward to another week exploring Vietnam and Cambodia.
This was also my inaugural cruise with this company, and as it turned out, I was the only Pandaw “virgin” on board. All the other guests had cruised not just once, but many times with Pandaw in the years prior to the forced shut down.
The pandemic hit the cruise industry hard, and as a privately owned company, Pandaw felt the consequences more keenly than the larger cruise brands. Ready to call it quits and go down in flames, Paul Strachan, Pandaw’s sole owner, made the difficult decision to shut down a business that he had built from scratch starting in 1995 with a single boat tour on Burma’s Irrawaddy River. Now it looked like all of the company’s 17 boats would be forever grounded.
Mr. Strachan pioneered the river cruise concept in Asia, learning how to work with (and sometimes around), the diverse and challenging bureaucracies and political hierarchies in each country. In his book “The Pandaw Story” he recounts the winding path that took him into the riverboat tourism business, not just in Burma, but beyond to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and India.
It certainly was not smooth sailing all the way. Yet despite the persistent impediments, he managed to build one boat after another to his exacting vision and developed itineraries that opened a part of the world that appealed to travelers looking for unique adventures combined with comfort.
And then came the Pandemic. Despite running a business model that focused on generating cash, two years without an income put a heavy strain on the company’s reserves. There was just not enough money to restart and bring the ships back to the standard that Paul and the customers expected.
But shortly after his public announcement to shut down, a silent, saving angel come to the company’s aid, and Pandaw was able to rise from the ashes like a newly fledged phoenix – to the delight of the company’s many loyal followers.
We weren’t on the water very long before it became evident that the crew was just as happy and enthusiastic about being back on board as the guests were. There was a tangible joy and a level of energy and enthusiasm that was palpable.
The 19 crew members on the Laos Pandaw were mostly from Laos with a few from Thailand and one from Myamar. Most had spent the last 2 and a half years doing odd jobs and trying to survive, waiting, and fervently hoping to go back to the security of their jobs with Pandaw.
As the crew took care of us, I got the sense that the attention to detail and their pride in craftsmanship was as much to please us as it was an expression of their pleasure at returning to the roles for which they were trained.
Despite this being the first time out on the river in a very long time for both the boat and all its crew, my Laos Pandaw cruise was pure perfection without a single hick up and with exceptional service throughout. I know this was no accident and was due to lots of hard work and preparation from everyone at Pandaw, including the dedicated staff on board.
The joy at being back was especially evident on our Bar-B-Q picnic evening. The captain deftly pulled up to one of the large sandbanks that lined the Mekong in this part of the river. Once we were securely tied off, the crew starting unloading all the supplies for a beach side bash.
Plastic chairs were wrapped in white seat covers and gold ribbon. A bamboo frond, folded towel swans, and candles decorated the middle of the festivities, and candle votives made on the spur of the moment from bamboo lined the path to the boat.
Our bartender quickly started the Mai Tais flowing and the chefs began grilling all manner of skewers on a portable charcoal grill. In the background, a speaker softly played a selection of popular American songs interspersed with local traditional music, and as the sky turned that magical hour of blue, the crew started a large bonfire.
The guests enjoyed the party late into the evening, but as we called it quits and went to bed, the crew happily continued their get-together around the fire, undoubtedly celebrating their happy return to “normal”.
After my Laos cruise ended in Vientiane, I flew on to Saigon to start a classic Mekong River cruise on the Bassac Pandaw. In 2003 Paul Strachan was the first to develop this Mekong River itinerary through Vietnam and Cambodia – not an easy feat at that time.
Overcoming the challenges of border crossings between two countries that had never experienced something like this before – and which had very dissimilar government systems and philosophies – took a lot of perseverance, ingenuity, and patience (and possibly a few gifts of whisky and cigarettes at the border as well).
Twenty years later there are now a plethora of companies that offer this Mekong cruise experience as a global economy has faded the once harsh dividing line between these two neighbors. But while the original Pandaw itinerary may have been imitated by many, the true Pandaw experience has not been successfully duplicated.
After experiencing 17 days on two different Pandaw ships, I too have fallen in love with this company and its style of cruising. I now understand the loyal following because I have joined that crowd and hope to be on another Pandaw ship in the near future.
“I wasn’t a tourist. I was a small part of the life that unfolded on the water every day.”
So, what makes a Pandaw cruise so special?
Let’s start with the beautiful ships. They are all custom built to Paul Strachan’s specifications and are made of locally sourced burnished teak and shiny brass. His special design has produced a vessel with a very low draft which allows these boats to go where others dare not – like the fast running, rock strewn Mekong River in Laos. This means the ships are small and nimble and responsive.
My Laos Pandaw had only 10 cabins, and the Bassac Pandaw, which is one of the larger ships in the fleet, only had a total of 30 cabins. Best of all though (in my opinion), the “Colonial” look of the Pandaw ships just seem to fit into the surrounding environment through which they sail because they are made of local materials. So even though I was only passing through, for a short while I felt like I too belonged to the scenery. I wasn’t a tourist; I was a small part of the life that unfolded on the water every day.
You won’t find cabins with private balconies here because they are not necessary. The covered upper sun deck offers plenty of space to lounge and watch the river drift by. It is also the ship’s living room where passengers socialize and get to know each other. If it is too hot or too cold, there is also an indoor temperature-controlled lounge and bar on the top deck.
My cabins were comfortable and had everything I needed. For one person they were certainly roomy enough, though I did not spend much time in my room, preferring to be up on the sun deck watching the river. My room had a queen bed (two twin bed configurations are also available) with under bed storage. There was a small table and chair and a small closet with a safe. The bathroom was surprisingly roomy with a full-sized sink, a flush toilet and a large shower stall. All the necessary toiletries were provided along with a robe.
Each day our boat stopped once or twice for an excursion unique to that part of the river. In the large historic cities like Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh, we had tours to see the most important historic and cultural sights. But we also stopped at small riverside villages and saw first hand how the locals lived. These were some of my favorite experiences because they were authentic and unique (and sometimes a little bit raw) and I could not have duplicated them on my own.
At each stop, Pandaw went out of their way to make it special, like touring Phnom Penh by cyclo or providing a traditional local dance performance on board (there are way too many such examples to describe them all).
And let’s not forget the food – oh such glorious food!
Three times a day the chefs on board prepared feasts that could easily have fed twice as many guests. Every meal provided a variety of choices which were beautifully presented, and always delicious.
Both western and southeast Asian dishes were available every time, all of which were prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. I especially liked sampling the Asian dishes on board because they were an initiation to the flavors of the region without the spicy heat that is often a trademark of this cuisine.
To compliment the food, there were also plenty of fine international wines from around the world along with cocktails, juices, sodas, water, teas, and coffee. And after each excursion we were greeted with a cool washcloth and a refreshing drink. We most definitely never went hungry or thirsty.
As I write this post and relive the memories, I long for those slow, perfect days on the river. For me, it was an ideal balance between luxury and adventure, between novelty and the familiar, all wrapped up in a comforting blanket of service that was both personal and friendly.
I can’t wait to go back on another Pandaw cruise!
Please note that I received a media discount for my cruise with Pandaw. All content and opinions are my own.
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