View From the Bridge - PAUL STRACHAN

Paul Strachan and Pandaw River CruisesPAUL STRACHAN
Pandaw River Cruises

In 1995 Paul revived the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in Burma and pioneered river cruising there for the first time since the war. Paul had been living and travelling around Burma on and off since his first visit in 1981. In the mid 80s he spent 18 months in the country researching for his book Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma. His second book Mandalay: Travels from the Golden City describes his adventures in Upper Burma and includes chapters on pioneering river journeys. These journeys, the first by  a foreigner since the war, were the inspiration behind the re-establishment of the Irrawaddy Flotilla. 

In 2003 when the company opened new routes on the Mekong it was renamed Pandaw Cruises. Paul created the ethos on board, designed and built the ships and pioneered all the routes Pandaw offers. These days Paul has retired from the operational side and is based in his home country of Scotland where he offers information and advice to travellers on Pandaw’s river cruising. Paul’s main interest now is the Pandaw Charity and he is actively involved in fund raising activities and the development of the Pandaw schools and other projects along the rivers Pandaw sails.


By Paul Strachan

Now both the upstream and downstream voyages are over, I am taking stock and trying to work out if they were a success or not. My own feelings are mixed, as are the evaluations and reports we receive from the intrepid who came with us. Some say it was brilliant and others are asking for their money back. Where do I begin?

First of all we made it. For the first time in living memory, certainly since the 1920s, a passenger vessel made it all the way from Calcutta to Varanasi. That is 1,280km in 14 days. Given the challenges of low hanging power lines, bridge restrictions, high flow rates, dealing with bureaucracy through three separate states, etc, this was an achievement. Many said it could not be done. They said the same when we started on the Irrawaddy in 1995 and on the Mekong in 2002. Once again we cracked it.

On the plus side I would say the excursions are fascinating – there is a lot to see and do along the banks of the Hugli and Ganges, more than on the Mekong and as good as the Irrawaddy. The riverscape really is amazing – varied and full of contrasts. There are lots of dolphins and bird life is rich. The village people are warm and welcoming and there is none of the hassle you would expect of India. There is no doubt this is one of the most beautiful river cruises in the world. Given the mess of India’s land infrastructure surely the only way to see this wonderful country.

On the down side the food, service, maintenance standards were a total embarrassment to me personally and all our Pandaw team. It is a long story but the delivery of this ship from Burma and its subsequent arrival in Kolkotta was a catalogue of disaster. To sum it up we found we had lost control of the ship’s management to our local joint venture partner.

A carefully selected Pandaw set up team of 14 under our German hotel director had unceremoniously been expelled from the country a month earlier. The partner put a mixed bunch of inexperienced staff on a week before departure. None of them had worked on the ship before and the partner insisted in travelling with the cruise micromanaging every detail. Close to tears, I seriously considered cancelling the cruise when I saw the state of our once beautiful ship on the eve of the voyage.

Nearly all the passengers on board were old Pandaw passengers, which can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, these are well-travelled and highly adventurous people up for anything. On the other hand, they could not help but compare with past Pandaw experiences, which were well run, with great food on immaculate ships.

On the upstream one of the propellers was damaged by submerged debris and this reduced speed until a tug boat arrived from Patna to assist and help us catch up. A very poor decision was taken to disembark passengers too early for a torturous long day by coach to Bodh Gaya and then on returning to Patna discovered that the ship, sluggish on one engine had not caught up. Dinner was in a hotel restaurant as passengers awaited their lost ship.

We had well warned passengers of these issues in advance and the maiden voyages were well discounted to compensate for such discomforts. However, I took the decision to reduce the number of nights on board on the upstream from 14 to 12 and the downstream to 10 nights. Transferring passengers to/from Varanasi from Gazipur and to/from Kolkotta from Bandel This reduced the sailing distance by about 200km. I felt so bad about the low standards on board that it seemed imperative to get people off and into a nice comfortable five star hotel.

At Varanasi passengers stayed at the very smart new Radisson and in Kolkotta we use the wonderful old Oberoi Grand, one of the best hotels in the world. This did make sight-seeing much easier in these places as at Varanasi the authorities were going to make us moor out of town and at Kolkotta due to the tides and bridges we had to moor several hours upstream. Some passengers were grateful to be rescued others unhappy to be moved. It was a tough decision but the right one and for future cruises will stick with this arrangement of ten nights on board and the pre and post two nights in hotels. Pandaw absorbs this extra cost.

The downstream maiden voyage went more smoothly and there are some glowing appraisals from passengers, though generally it was felt the food, mainly Indian, was monotonous and the lack of wine was sorely felt. (Our partner is working on the liquor licences for all three states.) However there was lots of beer and local spirits on board, which flowed freely.

All in all, it will take a lot of work and a long time to get this ship up to the standard of the rest of the fleet. Indian immigration laws will not let us bring our own people in to train up the locals. We have to start from scratch with a completely new crew. We are assured by our Indian partner, that he will allow Pandaw managers to come on board and run the actual ships, which is a big step forward. However it will take time, at least a couple of years, to get this up to scratch and I am glad to say our partner is really co-operating to move things forward.

Nowadays everyone regards our three ships on the Mekong as a benchmark of Pandaw excellence. But it was not always so. It took at least three years to get these cruises up to the standard of our Burma cruises, and then the complaint from old passengers was that the service was not nearly as good as Burma. These days people go from the Mekong to Burma and tell me that Burma is not a patch on the Mekong. Just shows you, with a bit of spit and polish we can turn things round.

For more information visit Pandaw River Cruises


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President & CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

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Pandaw River Cruises

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