Cruise Articles - Cruise Reviews :
 Asia - Vietnam / Cambodia with Pandaw Cruises

Mayanmar Cruises - Pandaw River Cruises
Slowly Down the Mekong

with Robert Tilley

The Burmese purser warmly welcomed passengers aboard the Mekong River cruiser and added a request that held in just two sentences a tantalizing promise of the exotic mysteries they would be encountering in their week-long voyage through the heart of Indochina.

“Please don't bring any white flowers aboard,” he pleaded with a smile. “They're unlucky.”

The strange request somehow suited the surroundings in which it was made – the teak-walled saloon of the Mekong Pandaw, a luxurious replica of the colonial-era river boats that once cruised the inland waterways of Southeast Asia. Sipping cocktails served by the saloon bar staff, the vessel's 26 passengers – 21st century seekers of “soft adventure” – were transported by the purser's words back to the era of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and early European explorers.

In the days ahead, the Mekong Pandaw, powered by two Japanese 550 bhp diesel engines, ploughed its elegant path through a river scene that hadn't changed in centuries, past bamboo-roofed sampans, bobbing fishing boats sitting dangerously near the water line and slender skiffs propelled by women wielding oars as easily as knitting needles.

Barges laden with rice and other bulk cargo bore on their stubby prows huge red-ringed eyes – to scare off the crocodiles that still lurk in the canals and tributaries that feed the Mekong. Fishing boats lacked the painted prows – “the skippers don't want to scare the fish away,” was the explanation.

The Mekong Pandaw – one of a fleet of six colonial-style vessels operated by the Scottish-based company Pandaw Cruises on the rivers of Southeast Asia and India – plies a seven-night route between central Cambodia and the Mekong delta. Passengers are bussed to and from embarkation and disembarkation points in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Siem Reap, the Cambodian town that has grown to prosperity because of the nearby Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat.

The cruise can be made in either direction. Although many prefer the upstream route, with a visit to Angkor Wat as its highlight, our group of intrepid travellers had opted to follow the natural flow of the Mekong, ending in the heart of the delta, before the mighty river flows into the South China Sea.

From Siem Reap we travelled by comfortable bus to the busy Mekong port of Kampong Cham, skirting Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap, too shallow for most of the year for boats of the Pandaw fleet. The four-hour bus trip passes through vast rubber plantations and dusty villages, small clusters of simple homes on stilts, untouched by such modern conveniences as electricity or piped water.

The Mekong Pandaw is a welcome contrast after the dusty, bumpy ride, tethered to Kampong Cham pier with welcoming cocktails, hot showers, air conditioning, a four-course dinner and soft beds – a sybaritic introduction to a week of luxurious pampering.

Accommodation is on three of the Mekong Pandaw's four decks. The snug cabins lack nothing in the way of comfort or convenience. Like the rest of the ship, they appear to have been constructed entirely of teak and brass – even the few public notices are on brass plates, including a very reassuring “No smoking” sign in the tinder of the teak-walled and floored cabins.

Topside is a sun deck running 60m from stem to stern, with room for a bar – serving free coffee, tea and drinks throughout the day – a small massage corner, an undemanding selection of fitness machines and even a pool table (where skills are tested by the mood of the Mekong currents.) Afternoon naps on cushioned loungers are interrupted at just the right intervals by bar staff offering tea and cookies or highball sundowners. A gong summons passengers to the dining table for meals featuring local specialties and prepared in a gleaming, stainless steel galley.

It's an effort to drag the pampered body away from such luxury to join the regular jaunts ashore – although conscience prods even the laziest to totter down the gang plank or clamber aboard a sampan and get to know the other side of life on visits to riverbank communities and to learn more about the rich history of this region by rooting around Khmer and pre-Khmer ruins.

Pandaw passengers – our group included a retired Australian judge, a Swiss chocolate magnate in his 80s and two prize-winning British photographers – don't appear to fit in the usual package tour mould. On a shore excursion to a Cambodian orphanage they spontaneously collected enough money to buy bicycles to get the children to school.

First major stop on the voyage south is Cambodia's scruffy but fascinating capital, Phnom Penh, where passengers are taken on a tour of the teeming city by cyclo, a hazardous form of tricycle transport. The evening is free for a trawl through Phnom Penh's riverside bars – favorite destination is the city's famous Foreign Correspondents Club, where tourists outnumber media people. Local hacks hang out at the nearby Cantina bar.

Formalities at the river crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam are as smooth as the Mekong's unruffled surface. With rural, undeveloped Cambodia vanishing in our wake, the Mekong Pandaw pushes deeper into the busier world of southern Vietnam. Boat yards and brick factories replace the Mekong riverside vegetable gardens, fisheries and poultry farms of Cambodia. Once away from the Mekong, threading through the canals of the Mekong delta, travellers are brought back into contact with rural communities where the skills of centuries are still the main source of income.

The delta is Vietnam War territory and it's easy to picture American “Swift” boats, bristling with gun emplacements, cutting through these quiet canals. When darkness falls, the shadows of “Apocalypse Now” descend on villages that were once in the front lines of Viet Cong assaults.

The cruise ends – too early – at a town that had particular strategic importance during the conflict, My Tho. From there it's a two-hour bus trip to journey's end – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, now a modern, cosmopolitan city rivalling even Bangkok for glitz and style.

In one enchanting week, we've done more than cruise hundreds of kilometers down one of the world's great rivers – we've travelled 1,000 years, from the ruins of Angkor Wat to a 21st century city destined to become the “Paris of the Orient.” Lord Jim would surely envy us.

Robert Tilley with Pandaw River Cruises

Robert Tilley is a travel writer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he runs the Writers Club and Wine Bar in between touring Southeast Asia in search of stories. He can be reached at or at [email protected]

Photos courtesy Pam and Eddy Lane ARPS and Robert Tilley

For more information about Pandaw River Cruises please visit:

 Cruise Travel  Writers

Find out even more aboout the top Prow's Edge Travel writers

 Cruise Articles - Reviews

• Africa : Single Women Out to Sea
• Africa : Seychelles

• Alaska : Into the Last Frontier
• Alaska : Hot and Icy
• Alaska : Cruise to Lose
• Alaska : Dah'monds
• Alaska : Gone Fishin’
• Alaska : Small Ship Cruising
• Alaska : Up Close

• Antarctica : White Continent

• Asia: China to Japan
• Asia: Japan to Canada
• Asia : SuperStar Gemini
• Asia : On the Mekong
• Asia : Star Cruises 1
• Asia : Star Cruises 2
• Asia : On the Irrawaddy
• Asia : Borneo Journey
• Asia : Boutique Luxury Cruising
• Asia : China River of Heaven
• Asia : Down the Mekong
• Asia : In Japan
• Asia : On the Rajang River
• Asia : The Road to Mandalay
Asia : Victoria Cruise Line

• Atlantic : Crossing the Pond
• Atlantic : TransOcean Adventure
• Atlantic : All Inclusive

• Australia : Celebrity Solstice
• Australia : Great Barrier Reef
• Australia : River Murray
• Australia : Sydney Harbour

• Canada : St Lawrence River
• Canada : BC's Coast

• Caribbean : An Oasis of Memories
• Caribbean : Grenadines
• Caribbean : Cruise Into Mystery
• Caribbean : Down-island Groove
• Caribbean : Disney
• Caribbean : Escaping Winter
• Caribbean : At a Different Pace
• Caribbean : Jazz all at Sea
• Caribbean : Island to Island
• Caribbean : Island Hopping
• Caribbean : Navigator
• Caribbean : Puerto Rico
• Caribbean : Windsurf Cruise

• Europe : River Cruises in France
• Europe : Beautiful Britain

• Europe : Croatian Adriatic Coast
• Europe : On the Danube
• Europe : Mv Minerva
• Europe : Along the Danube
• Europe : Canal Barge in France
• Europe : Languedoc’s Vineyards
• Europe : Ireland’s Shannon River
• Europe : Norway’s Coast
• Europe : Scotland’s Isles

• Galapagos : The Golden Age

• Mediterranean : Luxurious Lifestyle
• Mediterranean : Luxury
• Mediterranean : More luxury

• Middle East : Lycia - Turkey
• Middle East : Sailing in Turkey

• Pacific : French Polynesia
• Pacific : Cultural Fijian Cruise
Pacific : Heritage Fijian Cruise
• Pacific : Tahitian Princess
• Pacific : Tahiti - Just Imagine
• Pacific : A Charter in Tahiti

• Panama Canal : With Cunard
• Panama Canal : Getting it Right
• Panama Canal : The Big Ditch
• Panama Canal : Ruby's Progress

• USA : Columbia River in Comfort
• USA : Cruising on the East Coast
• USA : Maine Windjamming
• USA : Maine by Schooner
• USA : Mississippi Steamboatin'
• USA : A Taste of Britain