The glorious temples of Angkor Wat are the new Venice a sight to
behold before hordes of tourists flock to Cambodia to see these
wonders of the old Khmer kings, thereby changing the exotic nature
of the place forever.
On hearing this, the temptation to some clients will be to grab the
first flight to Siem Reap, the Cambodian gateway for Angkor, and
line up for a temple. There is a better way, however. Urge a more
relaxed approach, combining a comfortable yet adventurous cruise up
the mighty Mekong River that will give your clients a better trip
and earn you more commissions.
Voyage From Vietnam
We began the journey by flying into Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City,
still widely known as Saigon. We spent several days relaxing at the
modern and stylish Renaissance Riverside hotel.
Pickup for the cruise was at the hotel as well. Although the Saigon
River is part of the sprawling Mekong Delta, we set off in buses
actually providing us with a pleasant journey and useful
introduction to the Vietnamese countryside.
The first sight of the Tonle Pandaw was unforgettable. It was like
a big, toy boat with a stubby bow, and braced decks just like an
old colonial steamer. Indeed the pedigree is just that, for similar
vessels were cruising in Myanmar (Burma) in 1865.
In 1995, a young Scot named Paul Strachan started adventure cruises
and two years later he found an original riverboat, the Pandaw. Its
condition was terrible, but as Strachan said, “it was love at first
The Pandaw was restored, and since then three replica vessels have
been built, the Tonle Pandaw being the latest.
Though it might be new, the boat feels authentic, right down to the
black and red funnel of the original. Natural teak and shiny brass
are everywhere, and cabins have air conditioning as well as windows
that open. Cabins are a roomy 170 square feet on average, bigger
than on many cruise ships, and bathrooms are also spacious. Outside
our door were two handsome wicker seats nicely placed to allow
one’s feet on the railings.
There are 10 single cabins on the bottom deck, two decks with 14
double cabins on each and an observation deck with the wheelhouse.
The dining room and salon are on the main deck. The food is good
with a moderately priced wine list. Service was excellent from a
willing and smiling crew.
As for the cruise, this ranks up there with the Amazon and the
Nile. There were shore excursions every day to visit hamlets, towns
and pagodas galore. We saw village workshops, were serenaded by
children and haggled with vendors selling silk scarves and
The best part of the trip, however, was simply being on deck,
watching the river go by. On board there were comfortable loungers,
free tea and coffee all day and an honor bar too, where the
romantic could imagine what it was like taking “tiffin,” as the
British called afternoon tea in these parts a century ago.
The scenery was never dull. The river wide at the start and a
jungle stream at the end is full of life. Floating villages were
everywhere. Bigger boats, some with whole families living on board,
came and went with cargoes of lumber, boxes of vegetables and bales
of cotton goods.
Even when we could not see a village or hamlet, we watched as women
washed clothes along the banks, and cattle were urged into the
river for a good scrub.
As we got deeper into Cambodia and the river narrowed, men fished
with nets standing in shallow water.
Sunsets were glorious, viewed by passengers as they had their
pre-dinner drinks on the observation deck. Few mosquitoes were
seen, although it would have been a brave bug that tried to get
through the quinine consumed in rounds of gin and tonic!
Dinners were sociable and casual. The majority of the passengers
were British, but there were also Americans, Swiss and Germans.
There were no children.
On to Angkor
On arrival at Siem Reap, many passengers stayed at the Raffles
Grand Hotel d’Angkor, a nicely restored French colonial building.
Like the Renaissance in Saigon, it is the best place in a town
where hotels are springing up on every corner which is not
surprising considering the wonders of Angkor’s temples located just
a few miles out of town.
We stayed four nights to explore these marvels, which is about
right to get a first taste.
A good finale is to make the short flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok
and enjoy a legendary hotel like the Oriental. We did that, and
noticed several of the U.S. passengers on the Pandaw did the
Irrawaddy Flotilla Company
Fares range from $780 single in the low season to $1,650 per person
in a twin cabin in high season, Oct.-March.
There are 10 single cabins and two decks with 14 double cabins on
United Airlines has a direct flight from San Francisco, which has
the added allure of a stopover in Hong Kong.