When the borders open: What better way to travel than by river boat?

February 20, 2022 by No Comments


Where will we head when the borders finally open? What will international travel look like? Will airfares skyrocket or will they be discounted to attract travellers back into the skies? Let’s hope these questions will soon be answered.

We are lucky to have such wonderful places to explore in NZ and lately I’ve used the time to do just that, but the differences in overseas countries is what appeals to me. I love the contrasts foreign travel offers and then to come back home to our peaceful and familiar land is like a true home coming.

Friends frequently ask where I want to visit once it is safe to venture back into the big wide world. This is one question I can answer. Asia.

It will certainly not be my first time in the region and I hope it won’t be my last. There are so many interesting countries to explore, the people to get to know, the culture, the scenery, the sounds, the foods to try.

READ MORE:
* Following the Mekong River while riding a scooter
* A luxury cruise along the languid Irrawaddy is a great way to get to know Myanmar
* Chasing a movie on the mighty Mekong

For me who loves to visit isolated places what better way to travel than by river boat? And not just any river boat. I have become addicted to the beautifully crafted, comfortable small boats of the Pandaw Company.

The fascinating history of these boats makes travelling on board these vessels even more interesting. It was in 1865 that the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was formed in Burma to transport cargo and passengers throughout the country.

On the deck on a Pandaw boat on the Mekong in Cambodia.

Bev Wood

On the deck on a Pandaw boat on the Mekong in Cambodia.

The Irrawaddy River was, and still is, the major thoroughfare. By the 1940s there were over 600 boats in the fleet, but during the Second World War as the Japanese approached the city of Rangoon the decision was made to scuttle the fleet to hinder the progress of the invading forces.

Fast-forward to 1981 and Paul Strachan, a Scotsman from a long line of shipbuilders from Glasgow came on the scene. He was following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather who had been employed by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in its early days.

Paul’s interest in the company and his fascination with the history, art and culture of the region led to his setting up the Pandaw Company in 1995. The catalyst was seeing a derelict hulk on a muddy stretch of the Irrawaddy. This was a wreck of one of the few survivors of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. His dream to rebuild a fleet based on the style of the former riverboats became a reality.

And so the Pandaw boats were built using teak and brass to recreate the ambience of the old vessels. The boats are capable of carrying up to 50 passengers but some are smaller. This makes them intimate and they attract people who like to visit out of the way places, to see the real people going about their everyday lives.

Going ashore for a village visit.

Bev Wood

Going ashore for a village visit.

The ships are comfortable with well-appointed air-conditioned cabins, decks for lounging to watch the ever-changing scenery, attractive dining rooms, good food with choices of Asian or Western dishes and friendly and attentive crews.

The boats ply the waters of the Mekong and other Asian rivers as well as the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin in Myanmar (Burma). Unfortunately Myanmar is off the travel circuit at present because of the volatile political situation but the company is hoping to restart river cruises later in 2022 through some of the other Asian countries they are familiar with.

The rivers are frequently the lifeblood of a region, often with no other access to the outside world. It is not uncommon to see local women doing their washing on the river’s edge, men fishing or puttering along on small boats, children bathing and buffalo cooling off in the waters.

A river scene from onboard a Pandaw cruise.

Bev Wood

A river scene from onboard a Pandaw cruise.

In the evenings the boats usually moor on the edge of a tiny village or small town. Here the local children swarm onto the banks greeting passengers with friendly waves.

Foreign visitors are rare and everywhere we visited we felt welcome. Naturally we are seen as a source of income to the villagers so it pays to keep small change on hand.

Over the years I’ve purchased beautiful silk scarves and other attractive crafts at a fraction of the price we’d pay back home and I feel that in a small way I’m helping the local economy.

Pandaw is committed to helping the places they visit, funding medical clinics, supporting local schools and other worthwhile causes. For those who feel reluctant to travel to these destinations fearing we are intruding on their way of life, it is worth thinking about how the locals feel. We have seen nothing but gratitude for the little bit of help we provide.

Local children “helping” to tie the boat up in Laos.

Bev Wood

Local children “helping” to tie the boat up in Laos.

A visit by a Pandaw river boat is seen as a highlight of their lives. Back home I have had people critical of my fascination in visiting these remote settlements as if I am spoiling the local’s way of life but from Cambodia, to Laos, to Vietnam, to Myanmar I’ve been thanked for coming.

On my last trip, to Myanmar in November 2019, the local tourist guides were very concerned about the downturn in foreign visitors and how it was affecting their livelihoods. Now the country is completely off the tourist route I fear for the lovely people we met.

The Pandaw Company employs and trains the locals as crew and they in turn help their families financially. Now the tourists are not visiting how will they survive?

I have been asked which would be the best cruise to join as a first-time traveller to Asia. Maybe a shorter cruise, such as the seven-day trip from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, or vice versa may be a good start. It’s enough to give a taste of what is on offer. That is how I started, but each and every cruise I’ve done with the Pandaw Company has been a wonderful experience.

A traffic bridge on the Mekong.

Bev Wood

A traffic bridge on the Mekong.

I’ve cruised the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ve sailed along the Red River and across the enchanting Halong Bay in North Vietnam. I’ve been on the Irrawaddy in Myanmar and the Mekong through Laos. There’s no way I could tell you my favourite.

Each journey and each destination has its own charm and the crew and the locals make sure you enjoy every minute of it. And as a bonus once your fare is paid practically all expenses are covered – daily side trips, local guides, tips and most drinks, so apart from shopping at the local markets you can put your wallet away.

And the highlights? Seeing the delight on the faces of children when we presented a village with a couple of soccer balls – and their amusement when we joined an impromptu game. The delight shown by a young man from an impoverished village when the crew presented him with a pair of shoes so he could attend secondary school – and the passengers were moved by the song he sang in thanks. The delight we felt seeing the captain off our boat squatting in the dust reading a donated book to a group of children. The delight on a mother’s face when she found her previously naked toddler dressed in new clothes.

Then the delight we felt when the crew organised a cocktail party on a wide sandbank for us. They carried cane furniture onto the beach for our comfort, the captain formed an archway of vegetation he’d hewn from the jungle edging the riverbank for us to walk through.

What a magical evening it was, sipping cocktails and nibbling tasty canapés as we sat watching the evening sun slide down the sky leaving a golden path across the Mekong. That was one of the many activities that makes a Pandaw Cruise so very special.

So, before dismissing river cruising in Asia think of the local population and how much they appreciate foreign visitors. It is a two-way thing. We get to see and learn about different people and their culture and at the same time they are learning a bit about us and more importantly earning a bit of money to help ease their often difficult lives.

I can’t wait to once again experience the joys of a Pandaw River Cruise.

Staying safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Check safetravel.govt.nz prior to travelling to stay updated on the latest travel advisories.



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