Angkor Away

A classic riverboat cruises the Mekong

By: David Wishart

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 sight.”

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 woodcarvings.

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 same.


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 each.

United Airlines has a direct flight from San Francisco, which has the added allure of a stopover in Hong Kong.