(10:40 a.m. EDT) -- River cruise operator Pandaw announced this week that it would cease all operations, a victim of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since March of 2020, cruising in Asia has remained closed, with no reopening in sight, compounded by the political situation in Myanmar, where Pandaw had offered particularly interesting itineraries, which shows no sign of improving.
In a release, Pandaw said that although it had bookings for 2022, it no longer had the funding to keep its 17 ships in layup for another year. Efforts to find investors have been unsuccessful.
"This is a very sad moment for me, my family, our crews and clients," Pandaw founder Paul Strachey said in the release. "It marks the end of an era for all of us after twenty-five years of real adventure. We are truly sorry to disappoint our regular passengers who were so looking forward to making a trip after the lifting of travel restrictions. We are also heartbroken for our three hundred plus crew members and shoreside personnel who have stood by Pandaw and were hoping to get going again next year”.
Most Americans have never heard of Pandaw; the line was always more popular with Australian and New Zealand travelers. But it's always hard to see a cruise line fail, particularly one that made off-the-beaten track and cultural exploration such a focus.
My own experience with Pandaw was a surprising one. The food stalls in rural Laos are not for the faint of stomach, we had been told by our guide, and that proved correct as we stared down at the bats for sale, fried and ready to eat. Did we want a taste?
We passed. This was in 2018, long before the world learned the ins and outs of coronaviruses. But I thought about that day often, one of many special moments on a river cruise on the Upper Mekong with Pandaw, a company that specialized throughout its history in southeast Asia river cruises.
Several other cruise lines sailed in Myanmar and on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam. But no other river cruise line pushed the boundaries with its itineraries like Pandaw. Beyond the Mekong, they brought cruisers to Vietnam's Red River in the north and to islands off Myanmar's coast.
The Upper Mekong itinerary that I sailed from Thailand's Golden Triangle into Laos was only offered by Pandaw. The company had pushed at one point up into China, with mixed results; the first cruise was turned away at the border. But those are the kind of chances that Pandaw often took with guests, most of whom were game for what the company called "exploratory cruises."
Cruise Critic even awarded Pandaw with an Editor's Pick award for Best River Cruise Line in its 2018 Cruise Critic Australia Editor's Picks Awards.
Sailing that stretch of the Mekong had its touristy highlights in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. But I'll never forget the more remote sectors, where we tied up on sandbars and Wifi signals were nowhere to be seen.
Most of our stops were in small villages, where crowds of children followed us around. This type of tourism can feel dicey at times, when the passengers have so much and the people so little. Yet the Pandaw guides, all local, did a fantastic job of providing the history and context we needed to process what we were seeing.
It's a shame to see a company that focused on showing people more of the world shut its doors. The ships themselves were not fancy, but quite comfortable, with plenty of southeast Asian touches and fantastic crew. I hope they have found new opportunities.
Perhaps Pandaw will rise again, or another company will step into its place. You always learn from traveling -- I nodded my head in recognition when I read about why bats are consumed as food in some counties at the early stages of the pandemic -- and Pandaw did its best to educate people about places where cruisers might not normally go. They will be missed.