River Cruise Blog First on the Mekong: Pandaw's inaugural voyage from Saigon to Angkor, 2002 by Barry Broman | Pandaw.com
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First on the Mekong: Pandaw's inaugural voyage from Saigon to Angkor, 2002 by Barry Broman

It is no exaggeration to say that the British empire was built by the sweat of Scotsmen, especially Burma and particularly the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company of Glasgow. In its heyday the IFC had the largest fleet of privately-owned ships in the world. Alas, the fleet met an ugly end in 1942 when more than 600 vessels were scuttled in the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers to avoid falling into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. When in Rangoon In 1995, I met a young Scotsman, Paul Strachan, who salvaged the RV Pandaw, an aging IFC ship, then went on to build a new Scottish-owned river cruise company called Pandaw.

Over the years I navigated the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Tonle Sap, Ganges, Rajang (Borneo), and the Chindwin rivers on various Pandaw small ships, usually as a working photographer and occasionally lecturing. Travelling on a Pandaw ship is to step back in time and there is no finer way to enjoy the great rivers of Southeast Asia than on the teak deck of a Pandaw ship watching the landscape pass gently by.

Every trip on a Pandaw is an adventure, albeit in luxury. In 2002 I almost experienced too much adventure when Paul invited me to accompany him on the RV Mekong Pandaw maiden voyage up the Mekong river from Saigon in Vietnam to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. These days I rest easy when on a Pandaw voyage with Paul as he is a master in fast thinking and problem solving.

We met in Saigon where I booked into the old colonial Majestic Hotel, having previously stayed here in 1963 when on assignment for the Associated Press from Bangkok. We set off from the port of Saigon on the first and only voyage of the RV Mekong Pandaw that would start from here, passed under the My Tho bridge, crossed the Great Lake of Cambodia (the Tonle Sap) and returned to Saigon. The canal was filled with exotic craft and a busy shoreline of Vietnamese at work and play. It was a good start to a voyage up the fabled Mekong although the actualwaters of the Mekong lay beyond the My Tho Bridge, where clearance of the canal was going to be tight. The ship was constructed to allow the railings to be lowered for this very situation but they had been painted into position and would not fold down!

Reaching the bridge at full tide, it was clear that we wouldn’t make it through. Despite being dark, Paul arranged an impromptu excursion ashore while we waited for the water level to drop. Paul and I remained on the bridge with a lascar from the ship with a measuring tape in hand as the ship pulled into the middle of the Cho Gao Canal where the bridge was at its highest. Paul maintained communication by mobile phone with the skipper as he approached the bridge. It was going to be tight but we succeeded with a clearance of only ten centimeters. We all breathed a sigh of relief as we scrambled back on board, later learning that the crew had wagered against our getting under the bridge. The odds were against our making it but this was just another day at the office for Paul.

We reached the Mekong and motored up the delta towards Cambodia, crawled through border control and steamed towards the provincial town of Kompong Cham. As night fell, Paul decided it would be necessary to tie up on the bank of a nearby village. One of the many strengths of a Pandaw ship and crew of lascars, in the finest tradition of the old IFC, was the ability to put in practically anywhere. Of course there are no steps up the riverbank so the crew swiftly dig steps out of the soft soil.

Barry Broman - Up-Angkor

A crowd gathered to witness our unexpected visit. Using a combination of Cambodian and French, I explained that we wanted to explore the village before proceeding to Kompong Cham the next morning, I discovered it was Bon Om Tauk festival, known in Thailand as Loy Krathong, when respect is paid to the river spirits on the evening of full moon of the twelfth lunar month. Parcels made of banana leaves are filled with offerings such as food, incense, and candles, then floated down rivers or canals. Pandaw passengers were invited to participate in this unexpected colorful and ancient ritual to the delight of all concerned. Just another day on a Pandaw river ship.

After Kompong Cham we proceeded to Phnom Penh where Paul arranged a small cocktail party for passengers on board and invited several VIP Cambodian guests including a few friends of mine from the royal family. Entertainment was provided by a classical Cambodian ballet troupe and Paul arranged a quick cruise around the confluence of the rivers for his Cambodian guests.

Bidding farewell to Phnom Penh, we cruised up the Tonle Sap river; rich in local riverine commerce and villages along the banks. Most villages adhered to Theravada Buddhism but others had mosques, belonging to the Muslim Cham minority. Many were damaged or destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the seventies in their bid to wipe out the Cham.

Finally we arrived at the lake which was very shallow and featured a number of floating villages of fishermen. The floods here produce an immense supply of fish, some weighing over 20kg! A famous local product is fermented fish sauce, pra hok, esteemed by Cambodians as a national treasure, but a challenging taste for foreigners to acquire.

Across the lake and through a floating village, we moored near the provincial town of Siem Reap, by the ruins of the great Cambodian civilization of Angkor that flourished for hundreds of years before falling to invading Siamese (Thai) in 1431 CE. Here our journey ended although I spent a few days photographing around Angkor Wat. A fresh group of passengers, mostly Japanese, waited to take the Pandaw down to Saigon.

BRIEF BIOGRAPHY

Barry Broman
I was with the American Embassy when I met Paul in Burma in ’95.  We quickly became friends and I started photographing his ships after I retired in ’96. As an ambassador I served 20 years in Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia as well as Paris. In 1963 I met my wife BJ at the University of Washington where she was studying Japanese and I was studying Thai and have since celebrated 48 anniversaries together. She is from Hawaii, being half Japanese and half Filipina. We have two sons who work in graphic design and film editing.

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