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5 Stars - 4 Ships - 3 Rivers - 2 Countries

5 stars - 4 ships - 3 rivers - 2 countries - launched halfway around the world for my first taste of luxury river cruising and a glimpse of British colonial history in old Indochina. Pandaw River Expeditions was the first to run luxury sailing on two of Southeast Asia’s largest rivers, the Irrawaddy in Burma and the mighty Mekong. My job - to convey Pandaw to the UK media -required of me the enviable task of experiencing Pandaw’s pioneering adventures first-hand.

So to Mandalay. No picture had prepared me for the impressive sight of a Pandaw ship on water. These stunning and distinctive replica steamers, resplendent in teak and brass, tell of a bygone age of Scots trade routes and continue to set Pandaw apart from those who followed in their wake. I had a nose around two of the Pandaw fleet, each one different and individually-built yet of the same high standard, before setting sail on ‘The Road to Mandalay’, as the British fondly knew the Irrawaddy.

Now, as then, all life and commerce is on the river. Sunrise and dusk are busy times when fisherfolk come out in the cooler air to cast nets wide. By day the wide open decks of the RV Kalaw Pandaw invite a welcome breeze allowing us to sit back in the sunshine, cocktail in hand, and absorb the ever-changing scenery of the wide, hypnotically-beautiful river, lined with fishing villages and hills crowned with glistening golden pagodas.

Katha Pandaw

Shore excursions allowed us to explore local life. Our excellent and friendly local guide lead us to villages specialising in traditional pottery, silver, gold and silk, a horse-cart ride to the ancient capital of the Burmese kingdom, the ubiquitous and stunning pagodas and monasteries of stone and wood, and a very special rowing boat trip to the world’s longest teak bridge.

Evenings spent on deck enjoying fabulous service, delicious local and western food, speciality cocktails, wine, local beers, traditional entertainment and the company of fellow guests were a treat before settling down in the air-conditioned comfort of my spacious, teak-panelled, luxury cabin.

And onwards to Cambodia. The river and scenery changed, but the luxurious yet pioneering Pandaw experience remained. The shallow draught of our highly-manoeuvrable ship, the RV Mekong Pandaw, allowed us to get right into the heart of local life. This river cruise first- timer is a convert.

Between Kampong Cham and the capital Phnom Penh, the Mekong bustles with life. Turning onto the smaller and serene Tonlé Sap river - which feeds Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and reverses its direction every half-year because of rising and falling volumes of Himalayan meltwater - the pace slows. Coconut groves overhang the water, whole villages are afloat, and paddy fields stretch away to distant mountains.


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