Cruising With Pandaw on the Mekong River


By Rose Palmer

Imitated, but never duplicated, Pandaw is the original riverboat cruise company on the mighty Mekong in Asia. Pandaw founder Paul Strachan pioneered the Mekong River cruise concept and successfully put it into practice in 2002. Since then, many other brands have followed in his (boat’s) wake, copying the company’s itineraries, but not the unique essence that makes a Pandaw River cruise special.


I was recently privileged to cruise on two of Pandaw’s classic river boats on the Mekong. I started with an 11-day sailing on the upper Mekong through Laos on the Laos Pandaw. I then followed this with a classic 7-day cruise on the Bassac Pandaw exploring the Lower Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia.

I’ve taken luxury barge cruises in France and ocean cruises in a variety of locations around the world, but this was my first river cruise experience, and I went into it without any preconceived expectations. It was also my first time exploring the diverse delights of Southeast Asia.

I absolutely loved my time on both Pandaw boats, and they set an extremely high bar for any future river cruises. I discovered that my Pandaw experience was not in the minority as almost all the other guests were repeat cruisers with Pandaw. This company must clearly be doing something right when passengers choose to come back, not just once, but many times.

One of my favorite aspects of a Pandaw cruise is the look and feel of their boats. Each boat was specially designed by Paul Strachan and has been beautifully handcrafted in Asia to Mr. Strachan’s exacting specifications. Because they are made from locally sourced teak, the boats blend in harmoniously with the environment they sail through.

I also love the intimacy of a Pandaw riverboat. These are not large ships with 100 guests or more on board. On the contrary, the Laos Pandaw has only 10 staterooms and the Bassac Pandaw has just 30 cabins. This means that during a cruise I got to know my fellow passengers quite well since we were a small group. It also means the staff got to know us and our particular preferences very quickly.

My cabins on both boats were very comfortable and provided everything I needed. Though not large, the quality of the rooms was on par with a boutique hotel. The beds, which could be set up in either a twin or a queen configuration, had high-end bedding, duvets, and a choice of pillow types. The ensuite bathroom with its roomy shower was surprisingly spacious, bigger than some of the ones I have had on larger ocean-going vessels.

But it’s in the details that I think Pandaw really excels. I am quite detail-oriented, so when someone else spends time and energy on the little things, I notice that and appreciate it. It started by being greeted with a cold washcloth and a refreshing drink. This was the practice every time we boarded the boat after an excursion. Each time we came back on board, we also had to surrender our shoes which were quickly cleaned and reappeared back in our room in no time.

The attention to detail extended to our excursions and cultural experiences as well. It seemed that Pandaw went out of its way to provide special activities that I could not easily have had any other way. We explored Cambodia’s Phnom Penh by Cyclo, a tricycle that is pedaled by a driver in the back while the guest sits in a seat in front. In Vietnam, we had a traditional dance troop perform for us, and in Laos, we stopped each day to visit one of the small local villages.

We also toured the popular sights along the way with our onboard guide providing excellent commentary. In Luong Prabang we took part in the early morning almsgiving tradition, giving sticky rice offerings to the many monks that make their home there. And though it was emotionally challenging, in Phnom Pen we toured the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum.

  • A-traditional-dance-troup-performs-on-the-Pandaw-boat---Rose-Palmer


But my favorite off-the-beaten-path activity was the evening when the crew from the Laos Pandaw hosted us to a beachside bar-b-q. After our boat tied up to a large sandbank, the staff set up chairs, a grill, music, and candles for a “beach” side bash. The Mai Tais and the kabobs flowed freely as the sun set over the Mekong and we all just savored this magical moment.

Finally, there was the food – delicious and abundant food. The onboard chefs prepared a daily array of choices that appealed to all palettes and dietary needs with locally sourced ingredients at the forefront of each dish. I liked that I could get a taste of the flavors for which Southeast Asia is famous, but without the excessive spicy heat that often accompanies such traditional dishes. I also liked that at each meal there were western options that I was familiar with. So, along with the local freshwater prawns and rice, there were freshly baked baguettes and cheeses, eggs, French toast, and plenty of local fresh fruits.

For me, the Pandaw cruises were the perfect balance of comfort, unique sightseeing experiences, and personalized service that was delivered with sincerity and pride. And because the boats fit into their environment so well, for a short while, I also felt like I was part of the scene. As I stood on the gleaming deck, watching the riverbank slide by, I felt as if I were part of the daily Mekong ritual, not just an observer passing through.

Rose Palmer believes that life is a patchwork of experiences. Traveling the world is one of her deepest passions which continues to add to her ever-growing quilt of life experiences. She likes to focus her traveling lens on art, architecture, history, nature, and soft adventure with a touch of luxury. Rose shares her award-winning stories and photos on her blog


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Rose Palmer believes that life is a patchwork of experiences.

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