Editors' Note: As of October 2021, Pandaw Cruises is no longer in service.
Pandaw Cruises specializes in river itineraries throughout Asia, all on small ships and with programming that focuses on local exploration. With offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon, the line caters to an international audience from English-speaking countries and offers an unpretentious vibe in often remote settings.
When you're reading Pandaw's website, you might need a map to figure out where the cruises go, as line owner Paul Strachan is always pioneering Asian waterways to sail. Myanmar (Burma) is a specialty; the line offers numerous sailings on not just the Irrawaddy River but also the Chindwin and along the Mergui Archipelago on the Myanmar (Burmese) coast. It's the only cruise line sailing the Upper Mekong River through Laos and into China and also the only one sailing the Red River in Vietnam. In 2019, the line will sail on both the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers in India.
A laidback onboard atmosphere.
There aren't a lot of structured activities on a Pandaw river cruise, and even those that do take place are come-and-go. It's not unusual for passengers to sack out on the comfy loungers for a nap or spend the entire afternoon reading a book. While the line does schedule a few enrichment lectures and bring local entertainment onboard, it's not every night, and most people are in their cabins by 10 p.m. No one will pressure you to take part in anything or buy anything, and that sets the stage for relaxation.
Pandaw's fleet takes inspiration from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, a Scottish trading group that operated in Myanmar (Burma) from 1865 to 1942, and the cabins have a historical feel. The rooms are a study in teak, with wood throughout. Charming double louver doors block out the heat, sun and insects. On the majority of Pandaw river cruise boats -- the line has one coastal cruiser -- all cabins are the same square footage, with the only difference being that a few on the upper levels may be farther from the engine noise.
Pandaw includes almost everything -- shore excursions, transfers, gratuities, soda, bottled water, local spirits and local beer anytime -- in its fares. Pandaw boasts a 45 percent passenger return rate overall -- on some sailings, it's 80 percent -- and repeat cruisers receive a house wine package that's unlimited during lunch and dinner. That means you won't have to worry about a big bill at the end, and you can use your kip (or dong or riel or kyat) for souvenirs.
Pandaw boats carry no more than 60 passengers, and some have far fewer. The company won't cancel a sailing unless fewer than half of the cabins are full, which means you might be on a cruise with a dozen people. For those who wouldn't be caught dead on a big cruise ship, it's a nice size for mingling. Plus, it keeps the excursion groups intimate, which helps when many of your tours involve going to local villages to learn about a different way of life.
Pandaw makes a commitment to hire local guides, as well as crew members, which means your education takes place both on and off the boat. Your guide will be with you every day, handling excursions and answering your questions. The chefs hail from the region, and all of the menus feature various Asian specialties. (You can get familiar food if you want but where's the fun in that?)
On a Pandaw cruise, you'll spend many mornings and afternoons visiting local villages and interacting with the people who live there. On a typical sailing, you might meet grandmothers, school teachers, farmers, distillers, fishermen, market vendors, craftspeople -- and, in every town, a crowd of curious children. They'll follow behind your excursion group like a noisy entourage, and you'll run out of room on your memory card from all the photos you'll take.
Pandaw ships do not have televisions or phones in the cabins. While Wi-Fi is free, it can be spotty, and you will have days where you're out of contact with the rest of the world. Pandaw passengers are also on the quiet side, drawn more to the cultural offerings of the itinerary than a party-hearty atmosphere. If you sail with Pandaw, be content to read or make your own fun.
A rigid schedule.
The rivers on which Pandaw sails often fluctuate with high and low water levels. On some itineraries, the wet season route will be different from what you experience in the dry season, and bussing might occur. The line also has a reputation for pioneering itineraries, and in the "reconnaissance" years, things occasionally go wrong. (When the line entered the Upper Mekong, for example, their boat was turned away at the Chinese–Myanmar (Burma) border, necessitating bus transfers.) An adventurous spirit and a go-with-the-flow attitude will help.