My wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed 3 prior river cruises with Pandaw, Mekong, Irra waddy and Red river/Halong bay, plus optional Pandaw land tours.
On 12th October all that credibility crumbled to dust and blew away.
Whilst in transit from Delhi to Kolkata afternoon of the 11th we received an email from Brett Lemish, Indian area manager of Pandaw, advising due to flooding our 14 day river cruise is not possible, causing changes to itinerary.
On 12th October, commencement of our cruise, my wife and I plus 18 other passengers gathered in the Kolkata Oberoi hotel lobby, rooms vacated, bags packed, anxiously awaiting Brett Lemish who informed us at 10am the 14 day river cruise is not possible due to extreme flooding, and the river Farraka lock gates closed. Consequently Pandaw now offered cancellation and refund, or 7 day cruise only and part refund, or a revised itinerary 7 day cruise/ 7 day land tour with Katha Pandaw departing and returning Kolkata, followed by flight to Patna and land tour and short flight on to Varanasi. Brett informed all passengers he would provide us with the amended itinerary the following day, adding it will be very enjoyable. Being "stunned" by this news, and being in Kolkata, bags packed, vacated room, additional holiday itinerary after India, and based on past high standard experienced, with Pandaw my wife and I reluctantly decided to stay for the 14 days. ( we felt we had little choice and such a short time to decide).
A BIG mistake.
RIVER CRUISE 7 days ( Kolkata and return Kolkata ).
Unfortunately the promised revised itinerary only arrived after 3 days cruising, and as the 14 days progressed we realised it lacked detail. We now know it was "scrambled" together. We passengers were testing and refining a "scrambled" itinerary.
Pandaw duty of care - Pandaw staff and local Indian contractor knew the river lock was closed 8 days prior to commencement of our cruise, yet Pandaw failed to inform passengers. We were denied the opportunity to review our holiday arrangements.
The Indian contractor General Manager (Captain) met all passengers on board the Katha Pandaw about 5 days into our cruise, and informed us it was known the Farraka lock was closed on 2nd/3rd October. He said the boat, having arrived from another country, had been detained in customs bonded area for 6 months, and end of August it was released to his company, leaving only 6 weeks to prepare everything and this was not possible. He stated he had insufficient time before our cruise. His company had never prepared a boat for Pandaw previously, no idea of standards required, apparently no check list provided from Pandaw.
Safety - Serious omissions. We set sail lacking life jackets and fire extinguishers, these arrived in a small boat 2 days later. Passengers were given no evacuation procedure instructions/training.
Maintenance - Katha Pandaw has many maintenance issues, water pipe leaking from our cabin ceiling as we unpacked our suitcase, then apparently fixed, but during that night water leaked again onto my wife's bed, soaking the mattress. We moved cabin first thing in the morning.
Passengers complained of faulty light switches, wall tiles in showers falling off, random and dangerous gushes of very hot (scalding) water .
Crew - very polite, but lacked english language and training, very frustrating when trying to order type of tea/coffee/variety of wine. All basic requirements for a river cruise. After 2 days another crew member came aboard and he appeared to have a better understanding.
In addition new cooking equipment was brought on board, to be used for breakfast next day, but abandoned as no staff could operate the new equipment, and breakfast then served from below deck.
LAND TOUR 7 days.
First day predominately travelling to airport, booking in, flight, travelling to Patna.
Hotel was "very average" and not to standard we expected.
Second hotel Rajgir Residency was disgusting, dirty room, we could not wait to depart.
Third hotel Bodhgaya Residency "hotel" was worse, shameful, our window was filthy not outside, but inside with years of dust and grime, bathroom filthy and poor maintenance (bath moved), electrical socket for kettle was "live" not possible to switch off kettle, only unplug. Bed sheet well worn with a tear about 25cm long. We felt grubby and unclean all the time, and could not stop washing our hands and were very happy to leave this dreadful place. A far cry from the Pandaw standard we knew, and expected. Two friends found their pillows were badly stained, and have a photo as memory. If this is best Pandaw can do, then don't do it.
We then flew to Varanasi, and taken to " The Tree of Life", a luxury small resort, and had a most enjoyable stay. Only problem being the resort was nearly 2 hours travelling time to the Ganges, by bus/motorised rickshaw/walk to the evening ceremonies. Very interesting ceremonies, and followed by a delightful dinner overlooking the Ganges. All good, but we were all so tired, and by the time we walked/rickshaw/bus we returned to our resort at 11pm, and our suitcase arrived about 11.30pm, by which time we were shattered.
Two days later we returned to the Ganges early morning, to experience a gentle river cruise and daily bathing and day to day rituals. Upon arrival we all boarded one large wooden craft, but no working engine. A smaller craft then arrived with an overworked engine disgorging fumes as we were towed, with all 17 passengers, guides, and crew aboard. Due to cruising against the strong current our boat was stationary or going backwards, very slowly forward. The whole cruise taking 3 times as long as planned. This meant we missed the opportunity to walk through Varanasi historical area.
On the final day at Tree of Life, purely by chance, a passenger and I, sat down with Brett Lemish, Indian area manager of Pandaw. Brett stated they are dealing with the many concerns we have all raised, and apologised profusely and that Pandaw have engaged consulting electrical and plumbing engineers, maintenance staff and crew training of the Katha Pandaw, after we disembarked in Kolkata This of course is of no use whatsoever for any of our inaugural cruise passengers, now at the end of our 14 day survival.
After receiving a very apologetic email from Paul Strachan quote " apologise for the appalling situation you are currently enduring on the Katha Pandaw. I am really sorry about this. " I can truly understand your anger". Judging by Paul Strachan saying how difficult it has been setting up in India, he seems to confuse what Pandaw offer with what we actually received. My wife and I entered into email correspondence with Paul Strachan, Brett Lemish and James Talbot. We requested 50% refund of monies paid, and that we are not interested in 25% from a future cruise ( must be joking ).
After very many emails, Pandaw paid usd1000 total and offered 25% discount from a future cruise. We have not accepted their offer.
We believe Pandaw senior management have much to answer for.
Katha Pandaw was not ready to commence the cruise ( admitted by the Indian Company GM contractor), Ganges was flooded and Farraka river lock closed. So, why not cancel the inaugural cruise ?
Never again will we use nor recommend Pandaw.
On a positive note, our travel guide for 14 days, Suvendu, was most helpful and knowledgable, and recommend he is provided an assistant, having 20 passengers and 1 guide is too much. Whilst in Varanasi, at night along the Ganges we "lost" a lady passenger, fortunately she was located again. Torches would have been useful.
Australian disgruntled passengers
When unpacking our suitcase, much water started to leak from the ceiling on to the floor. Crew called and mopped up with towels, then returned and said leak fixed. During the night was again leaked, this time on my wife's bed, through the mattress.
We moved cabin during breakfast.
Water in shower gushed at random with scalding hot water, very dangerous.
No life jackets.
Cabin was clean, cabin staff attentive.
Kolkata, we embarked and disembarked with no problem, other than having a very different river cruise, 5 days up stream and 2 days return to Kolkata. Not very interesting.
7 day land tour that followed was very tedious, wasting very many hours on a bus travelling between locations. Lost all ambience of cruising onboard the boat. Traffic congestion was significant. Fortunately no passenger suffered significant illness " delhi belly" etc, because there was no way we could rest, we just had to keep moving, except when we stayed at The Tree of Life, a most comfortable resort.
Considering the money we paid for a luxury river cruise, we rate value for money is 1 / 10.