You won't find cheesy keyboard players or bingo nights on this cruise. The emphasis is on engaging with local culture, through shore excursions to craft villages and golden temples, as well as onboard lectures and dance performances that give an insight to Burmese life. Most people go straight to bed after dinner or after the evening's cultural performance.
Daily -- sometimes twice-daily -- shore excursions are included in the cruise fare. The group travels together.
Passengers are accompanied at all times by the same guide, a freelance professional who travels with the group for the entire cruise. At least two additional members of the ship's crew escort passengers on the excursions, carrying cold bottles of water, wet towels and a first-aid kit. They are extraordinarily caring and attentive to passengers' needs, providing a steadying arm whenever necessary. Older and less mobile passengers especially benefit from their assistance. As the banks of the Irrawaddy shift and change according to the tides and the seasons there are no fixed jetties or docks. As a result, disembarkation is often on steep, muddy shores. A reasonable level of fitness is required to walk up the banks and for the village walks, which take 1-2 hours. It is not possible to push a wheelchair through the unpaved villages; guests must be able to walk. Walking sticks are ok. Crew members are always on hand to escort guests back to the ship if they become tired.
Mode of transport ranges from on-foot, to small coach, to Burmese tuk-tuk and even a horsecart. At times the roads are rough and dusty, requiring an intrepid sense of adventure - and a face mask. Crew members offer a complimentary shoe-cleaning service after each excursion.
As one would expect in Myanmar, the Golden Land as it is known, visits to golden temples and pagodas feature prominently on the itinerary. There is also an emphasis on visiting traditional Burmese craft workshops and villages (goldsmiths, pottery makers, weavers) to see how things are made and for the opportunity to purchase local souvenirs. Passengers will disembark this cruise with a feeling that they have learned a lot about Burmese culture and engaged with the local people. The smaller size of the group also helps facilitates this up-close interaction in a way a larger group would not be able to.
Additional excursions or private outings can be arranged in advance or after boarding. For example, an American couple on my cruise decided they preferred to see the sights of Mandalay alone with a private car and driver. This was arranged, at additional expense.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Split over two nights, the movie about Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady, is projected onto a retractable screen in the bar/lounge. On another night, a documentary about the history of Pandaw is shown.
Local performers come aboard on two nights to entertain with a traditional Burmese puppetry show and a colourful dancing display.
At sunset on one evening a beach party is held on an empty sandbank adjacent to where the ship is docked. A bar is set up on the sand, and a bonfire is lit. Crew members play soccer with the guests and then crank up the music for some barefoot dancing on the sand. The crew appear to enjoy this evening as much as the guests do.
The onboard guide presents several lectures on Myanmar's past, present and culture. For example, he explains the traditional use of thanaka, the yellowish-white cosmetic paste so beloved by Burmese women, and demonstrates its use on passengers. One of the young waiters is called on to be the model for the lecture on how to wear a traditional longyi, the national costume. One of the chefs presents a how-to cooking class on making ginger salad, a Burmese specialty. Passengers who are interested may watch and learn from waiters as they fold napkins for dinner into shapes ranging from dolls to swans.
Of particular interest is a 60-minute documentary video about the history of Pandaw and its links to the great history of flotilla shipping on the Irrawaddy, a story that goes back to colonial days.
All enrichment activities are free and do not require advance registration.
There is just one bar, known simply as The Bar, on the upper deck. With wooden floorboards throughout, and cane seating for at least two dozen passengers, the area is comfortable and spacious, doubling as the lounge. The bar/lounge is air-conditioned. In one corner is the purser's desk; in another is the small section of souvenirs for sale. It is the area where Wi-Fi works best, as this is where the modem is located.
It is here in The Bar that passengers gather for evening cocktail hour, usually 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm, when the head waiter prepares a specialty cocktail using local spirits. For example, the Irrawaddy Sunset was a fruity mixture of local rum, triple sec and juices.
With a complimentary policy on soft drinks (Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, Sprite, soda water), local beer, local spirits and tea and coffee, passengers are encouraged to help themselves if a waiter is not present.
Imported spirits (Absolut vodka, Cointreau etc), imported beer and wine are available to purchase. If a waiter is not present and passengers help themselves, they are requested to later notify a waiter so the charge is added to their bill.
It would have been a good idea at design stage to plan for at least one toilet in the bar/lounge area, or in fact anywhere in the shared public spaces. As it is, passengers must go back to their cabin if they need the facilities.
With teak wood floorboards and cane furniture, the upper deck's outside recreation areas are elegant and inviting, styled to resemble the glory days of river travel in colonial Burma.
The open-air section at the stern of the upper deck is where passengers do the majority of their onboard outside socialising and relaxing. The area is completely covered overhead by the roof of the ship, and it is comfortably cool and shady. Twelve deck lounges that recline are dotted around the perimeter of the stern where, with some manoeuvring at various times of the day, direct sunlight can be enjoyed. A few sofa seats, as well as an ample numbers of chairs and tables, are also available at the upper deck stern for those who want to sit together to chat, play cards, or perhaps to tap away on their tablets while enjoying the passing scenery.
At the bow of the upper deck, a more private outside spot is available, with seating for just six passengers. This is where the library cabinet of reading material is located.
There is no pool or whirlpool.
In one corner of the bar/lounge is a small selection of items for sale, including books, postcards, Pandaw-branded cotton bags, lacquerware bowls, bangles and other trinkets. Amounts over US$30 (AUD$38) can be paid by credit card.
The 'library' at the open-air bow of the upper deck is really just a small bookcase housing some books and magazines in various languages.
Upon request, the crew will provide a chess set and/or playing cards, free of charge.
Wi-Fi is provided, free of charge, however the availability depends on the vessel's location. Connection is not always good. Even when in a location where it is available, it works best in the bar/lounge area nearest to the modem. If connectivity is essential, passengers should be advised to pick up a local SIM at the airport upon arrival.
The purser is available to exchange small amounts of currency (from USD to the local kyat; no other currencies will be changed), as well as to break kyat into smaller denominations.
The purser is also able to arrange private shore excursions, where available, for those passengers who don't mind paying extra. For example, two passengers on my cruise wanted to experience Mandalay with a private car and driver, rather than with the group, and this was arranged for them.
Laundry services are available, for a fee.
Each passenger is gifted a stainless steel refillable water bottle to use throughout the cruise and then take home, in an effort to reduce plastic bottle landfill.
There is no spa on this ship. With plenty of steamer chairs on the sun deck, perhaps one could be utilised in the future as an outdoor foot massage station?
There is no fitness centre.
While not an official walking track, there is an unimpeded loop around the upper deck that one could walk several times for their morning constitutional. Otherwise, save the walking for the daily shore excursions, which are often on foot.
There are five Trek mountain bikes available for use, free of charge.
Officially, children are welcome on Pandaw cruises. In fact, Pandaw has launched a generous offer for kids to travel free during school holidays. The Family Offer has up to two kids aged 5-17 cruising free, in their own cabin, when travelling with two full-paying adults.
Older children will get the most out of the remote locations and educational experiences in local villages. Given the small size of the ship and intimate nature of socialising and group dining, kids' best behaviour is called for. With no TVs or kids' club, and often spotty Wi-Fi, children who know how to entertain themselves will enjoy this cruise most (as will the passengers around them).
There are no connecting cabins. Chef will cater to special requests as much as possible, so children who are more into ham and cheese toasties than curries should be ok.