The shipbuilding yards in Ho Chi Minh City must be teeming with activity. Pandaw Cruises, the Singapore-based cruise line with head offices in Scotland and a new sales base in the U.S., is building a new ship. Actually it’s a 60-passenger replica of the luxury colonial-style teak boats they are famous for. On the drawing board are two 16-cabin “little Pandaws” that will cruise down smaller, less traveled tributaries. One, destined for the Rajang river in Borneo will begin construction this month. A brand name in the U.K, Europe and Australia, Pandaw is the leading luxury river cruise operator in Asia, focused on expanding not only its fleet but its market. The company’s eye is now on the intrepid American traveler. Known for quality, service and attention to detail, it appears their ships are cruising toward success.
The Pandaw History
It all began with Paul Strachan, an adventurous Scotsman, historian and author who fell in love with Burma in the 1980′s. Traveling the country, he discovered the abandoned paddle steamer Pandaw on the Irrawaddy River. An original steamboat, it was built by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., at one time the largest privately owned fleet of ships in the world. Constructed in the shipyards of Glasgow—where Strachan’s grandfather had worked—perhaps it was his destiny to restore the Pandaw to its original colonial elegance with teak decks and brass details. The ship began tours on the Irrawaddy and in 1995 the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. was reborn, reviving the tradition of river cruising and becoming the largest river company in the region. In 2003, Pandaw expanded to the Mekong River and then on to Borneo. It is the only cruise operator that owns and controls its ships outright.
Pandaw’s fleet of five beautifully crafted shallow draft ships sail the mighty rivers of southeast Asia—the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Myanmar, the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam and the Rajang in Borneo, exploring remote areas which are unreachable by larger vessels. Burma—renamed Myanmar in 1987—offers the most cruise options. Clients can choose from a variety of trips on the Pandaw II including seven nights traveling either north or south of Mandalay and a comprehensive twenty-night trip to the remote parts of both the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers. Exploring the Mekong on the Mekong Pandaw or Tonle Pandaw, your client can choose a seven-night trip from Saigon to Siem Reap. In 2003, Pandaw expanded to the Mekong River and in 2008, to Borneo.
Cruising the Irrawaddy on board the Pandaw II
What could be more inviting than sailing down the Irrawaddy river on a colonial-style teak boat, fans cooling you, gin and tonic in hand? Saddling up to the shore, you disembark to explore hidden villages, world heritage sites, and centuries-old monasteries. No matter how hot it is—or how undeveloped the area, your air-conditioned, floating hotel awaits you at the river’s edge—along with a crew eager to serve. A soft gong sounds announcing a meal, prepared by a chef who includes gourmet continental and Burmese cuisine in each day’s menu. A pastry chef bakes fresh bread and pastries daily. Waiters attentively serve complimentary wine or local alcoholic drinks and always remember how you take your coffee. On Pandaw your clients will be spoiled.
Pandaw boasts the highest space to passenger ratio of any ship afloat. Staterooms are 168 square feet, finished in teak and brass, and well designed for maximum space. All are twin bedded rooms with rich wood paneling, ample drawer space, a desk or vanity, a granite counter in the bathroom, and a window and door that open to the outside promenade deck. Most passengers find themselves on the upper observation deck, lounging on comfortable rattan couches and deck chairs.
The Pandaw II, as all of the fleet’s ships, has a shallow draft and can anchor right at the shore, where curious villagers gather as the ship pulls in. Daily land excursions can begin with a waiting jeep, an air-conditioned bus, a horse cart or a trishaw ready to whisk passengers off to a mornings adventure. Whether it’s Yandabo, a village that specializes in pottery making or a teak carved monastery, the day unfolds with tour guide explanations and endless photo opportunities. Mornings end as the heat of the day signals a return to the ship and air conditioning. Lunch is served and then the rhythm of the river slowly takes over as passengers relax or nap until the afternoon land excursion begins. The mood is always relaxed and casual and dress is informal. Crew members are always there to offer assistance, whether on land or on ship, their attentiveness is matched only by their kind nature. Sunset cocktails begin at seven, followed by a three-course dinner. Evening entertainment can be local folk dancing or puppet theatre by members of a nearby village, a documentary film about the history of Myanmar, or drinks and conversation. “Special surprises” delighted us all—Champagne served at sunset at the U Bien bridge, candles set adrift on our last night onboard and other equally magical additions.
Right Product, Right Time
Marcus Leskovar, President of Pandaw America recently told Travel World News, “It’s amazing that four years ago southeast Asia was difficult to sell. But in the last few years it’s been transformed from an esoteric destination to a boom destination.” Leskovar, based in Pandaw’s Colorado office, realizes southeast Asia is now seen as a destination fit for mainline travelers. Statistics back him up. In the past two years, the U.S. market for the Mekong destination has grown to 40%, with Europeans and Australians vying for the rest of the market share. “Vietnam and Cambodia are no longer off the charts for Americans,” agrees Tom Markwell, Chicago-based VP of Sales and Marketing for Pandaw. Demand has been so high that Pandaw’s new ship, the RV Saigon Pandaw, will join the fleet at the end of 2011, along with the Mekong Pandaw, Tonle Pandaw and Indochina Pandaw already sailing through Vietnam and Cambodia. “We’ve got the right product at the right time,” Markwell told Travel World News confidently. And so it seems. Excitement is high at Pandaw since they signed an agreement with Viking River Cruises to sell their Mekong product. “Having a partnership with Viking will push our product further into the US market than we could have done on our own,” Markwell explained. Viking sent out a 350,000 piece mailing for Pandaw and within thirty days, eighteen charters on the 66-passenger Tonle were sold out. Both travel agents and retail passengers came to the party, proving that Viking’s retail base could sell a product in demand in a bigger way than “little Pandaw” could. Goway is also offering Pandaw cruises on the Mekong, Irrawaddy and the Rajang. Pandaw’s new Breckenridge, Colorado sales and reservations office has helped to boost stateside sales. Since it’s opening in April, it’s been catering strictly to the U.S. market, using U.S. banks, in an agent-friendly time zone. Tour operators have increased bookings with strong interest being shown in the Mekong, with Borneo a close second.
Pandaw’s relationship with local villagers is an essential ingredient to their success. Giving back has been a big part of their philosophy whether monetary or material. Leftover prepared food from ship meals is packed up and given to local fishermen for their families. Table scraps get donated to farmers as pig feed. Locals are hired to unload baggage off the ship. Because of this, everyone knows Pandaw and in many ways, is protective of their ships. Security is never an issue and welcoming (and curious) villagers warmly greet passengers. Funds were raised from passengers to build schools in villages ships visit. An outpatient clinic and a floating hospital now exist thanks to accumulated donations of Pandaw passengers. Cultural and educational projects in Burma are also funded by Pandaw grants.
Nothing signals success like repeat customers. Dr. Kay, a British doctor now in her 90’s has been on 27 Pandaw cruises. Maka Kahlbaum, an elegant 82-year-old American, has been on five, with children or grandchildren. Beverly Hudson, a spirited 44 year-old Australian just returned from her second and is planning a third to Borneo. “Historically, a majority of our passengers are repeat travelers,” explained Marcus Leskovar. “We are the only company that can provide tour operators and travel agents with multiple Asian destinations,” he concluded.
Pandaw discounts last minute cruises. “Last minute” discounts are 10% while “Very last minute” discounts are 20%. Some cruises have no single supplement as departure approaches. Booking early also has its advantage with a 10% early bird discount.