There are some who believe cruises are just for old people. Or extremely drunk young people who ain’t looking for nothing but a good time. I used to think that way, and then I did a cruise around the Mediterranean. Followed by another one.
Having recently completed my first river cruise down the mighty Mekong, I can now safely say I’m a cruising convert on waters big and small. And not only because you get to unpack once and visit somewhere new every day.
My Mekong cruise took me from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Saigon in Vietnam. I fell in love with the pictures of Pandaw River Expedition’s ships when I did my research online, and I’m happy to say when I saw them in real life, I was not disappointed.
The ships may have been built recently, but their charm comes from the fact that they’re replicas of the old colonial steamers made by the Irrawaddy Flotilla company around a hundred years ago.
Stepping on board the RV Mekong Pandaw it felt like I’d stepped back in time, and I thought it a shame we wouldn’t all be swishing around in period costume (well, apart from the fact I’d probably be overcome in the heat). I had to hold back squeals of delight as I collected my key on its large brass key ring and went to find my stateroom.
As I opened the door and looked around my new home for the next week the internal squeals continued. I adored the teak, the brass finishings, the sweet beds, the Pandaw kimonos and water bottle coolers that were waiting for us.
And then I got down to the important things… the size of the bathroom (much larger than the ocean cruises I’ve been on), the amount of storage (more than enough to unpack everything and store my suitcases out of sight), is there a safe for my valuables (yes) and how’s the comfort of the bed (very nice, thank you).
Then it was time to head up to the sundeck, which takes up the entire length of the 180-foot long ship, for welcome drinks and to meet my fellow travellers. It soon became clear I was the only solo traveller, but no matter. Everyone was welcoming and warm, and I was invited to join a lovely English couple at dinner.
After swapping tales over drinks, which most of my fellow travellers were surprised to discover were complimentary (all local spirits, beers and wine were included in the price of the cruise, with only imported items for an extra, reasonable charge), we went to our first meal in the dining room, where we were given a choice of local or western dishes.
Then of course it was a few more drinks on the sun deck and some more getting to know one another before retiring to our rooms and readying ourselves for the next day.
Over the course of the next seven days and nights, life became a wonderful adventure of seeing the river life of Cambodia and Vietnam both from the RV Mekong Pandaw, and on the shore.
Pandaw had arranged tours each day, which were led by two guides on both sides of the border. We were able to join in, or sit the tours out if we preferred to just read a book or soak up life on the sundeck.
The tours took us to palaces, temples, floating villages, and to Cambodia’s horrendous S21 Detention Centre and Killing Fields. And having local guides was a real eye opener as far as local attitudes to things like the war crimes tribunal (forgive and forget and use the money for other things) and begging children (don’t give them money, it will keep them begging – give them pens or pencils instead).
I was also happy to discover Pandaw was working with local charities, and appreciated the fact that we got to go to an eco-village, and to support a cyclo conservation group by catching a ride with them in Phnom Penn. Then there’s the ongoing charity work that they do.
According to Pandaw’s brochure, their passengers have made it possible to build a dozen schools in Burma, build and support an orphanage in Cambodia, and work with an NGO run hotel training school in Vietnam, which sends interns to work on the cruises.
The Pandaw Charity has also bought and fit out a floating hospital, which sails in the Burmese Delta, treating around 200 passengers a day.
Needless to say, that all made me happy as we made our way down the river, waving back to the children playing in the water who laughed and squealed and waved at us throughout the day, and meeting the children at our various stops along the way.
Seeing Cambodia and Vietnam by river not only gave us the chance to see parts of the countries that would be very difficult to get to by land, it did it in such a seamless, enjoyable way that I can’t wait to do another one.
Sure, I also want to spend time on the ground before and after a cruise to see even more, but the idea of exploring Burma by river is definitely calling to me. At this rate, I’ll still be cruising when I am one of those little old people. And I’ll be telling the young folk that it’s not just for us oldies. Come onboard!
Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Pandaw River Cruises but all thoughts and opinions remain her own.
Heading to Vietnam and Cambodia? You may want to check out some of my other stories, including:
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