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Back to Homepage / Blogs / Dec 2019

Issues in India

No one said going back into India would be easy. Having pioneered Ganges cruising ten years ago we had some experience of the challenges of setting up in India. However, reforms under Premier MODI have made investing and operating in India simpler and safer so we decided to give it another go and three ultra-shallow draft vessels were towed by tug over from Myanmar earlier this year, which in itself was a story. Our first recce voyage on the Lower Ganges last September went well, if a bit shambolically as a new crew on a new river found their feet.

Given the difficulties of management in India we appointed a local partner 'Indus Cruises' to manage the ships. Having just come back from India myself I was very pleasantly surprised by their progress. Long experience of set ups on new rivers in new destinations has taught me that it usually takes a year or two before a new routing streamlines. Indians are quick learners and they are getting there fast.

The seven night Lower Ganges expedition is now running well and crew have got up to speed on the service side and the excursions into the towns and villages of West Bengal get good feedback.

On the Upper Ganges challenges abound: one moment too much water and the next too little; groundings on sand banks are frequent; promised openings of pontoon bridges to allow us to pass can cause considerable delays.

India River Cruises
Upper Ganges River 

Ganges River Cruises

This is not like cruising on the Rhine or Rhone, waterways with controlled flows and regulated levels. These are extreme rivers. For example, on the Irrawaddy there are places where the water level goes up 60m in the monsoon. In Cambodia we navigate a major river that twice a year actually reverses direction. On the Chindwin river our 90cm draft vessels scrape through labyrinthine shoals only a meter deep, guided by sailors poling with bamboos. For twenty-five years Pandaw have specialised in remote river expeditions. These are intended to be adventurous. It is what we do. To reinforce this we have very clear messages on our website warning passengers about the challenges ahead: groundings are every day events; that if there is too much or too little water the voyage may be curtailed and land arrangements made to make connections; that all itineraries are indicational only and subject to almost daily revision, depending on the state of the river. Pandaw passengers relish these challenges and keep coming back for not just the excitement but the exceptional level of care they receive on our ships.

For India, we make it very clear on our website that the ships are not managed by us but by an appointed local partner. We explain that the service style may not be up to what our regular travellers have been accustomed to on our well-honed expeditions in South-East Asia. We ask all bookers sign a waiver to say they understand this and fearful that passengers may not have read this properly we even wrote to everyone before the cruise with an additional advisory and an offer of a full refund if passengers preferred to cancel in view of this.

Last week we received some very negative press coverage from a journalist travelling as our guest on the Kindat Pandaw on the Upper Ganges and in the UK an article appeared in the Sunday Times over a collision with a bridge.

Following our investigation, which has included interviews with the master and other key crew members, we have established that that the ship accidentally bumped into a pontoon or floating bridge that was about to be opened to allow passage through. The hull was holed above the waterline with a gash of about 20cm and a very small amount of water entered the sealed hull compartment. Bilge pumps were immediately activated. These ships are designed to cop e with water ingress and have water-tight bulkheads and bilge pumps. Collisions on busy waterways do occasionally happen, usually with other vessels, and crew can temporarily patch any hole in a moment using patch kits we carry on our ships.

In this case the tour guide, who is a freelancer, panicked and ordered the evacuation of the ship. This should have been the master's decision not the guide's. It could be argued that this was a correct precautionary measure, but it was a complete overreaction. It caused considerable distress for the passengers. For this we can only apologise. What was a relatively minor incident quickly became a drama. We are really sorry that the passengers had this experience.

RV Kindat Pandaw
RV Kindat Pandaw next to the pontoon
RV Kindat Pandaw 



Learning from this experience, we are working with our Indian partners on improving crew training to ensure such a panic does not happen again and that there is a clear chain of command.

We are also revising the Upper Ganges itinerary to avoid the section with the pontoon bridges and will transfer passengers overland for the final leg between Ghazipur and Varanasi.

Working with the IWAI (Inland Waterway of India) we are making good progress on improving navigational aids and channel markings. IWAI have been incredibly helpful supplying us with expert pilots and pilot boats.

We at Pandaw pride ourselves on our safety record and the professionalism of our crews. A common comment on passenger feedback is the excellent seamanship of our river masters. Other than one minor incident eighteen years ago in Vietnam (when we hit a fish farm), we have never made an insurance claim, nor have we ever been sued by anyone, and only once ever evacuated a ship as a precaution when we had a cyclone warning on the Chindwin, and that was many years ago.

India by river really is the only way to do it – the scenery is incredible, the culture dazzling and there is just so much to see and do. To get our ships there running to the standards of what we do in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam will take time but I have complete confidence in our Indian partners and know that with the support and encouragement of our Pandaw regulars it will not be difficult.

Paul Strachan



River Cruise itinerary for The Upper Ganges River

The Upper Ganges River

Kolkata - Varanasi

12 nights

from US$5,790

River Cruise itinerary for The Upper Ganges River
River Cruise itinerary for The Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra

Guwahati - Silghat - Guwahati

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

7 nights

from US$3,147.30

River Cruise itinerary for The Brahmaputra
River Cruise itinerary for Bengal to Assam and the Sundarbans

Bengal to Assam and the Sundarbans

Kolkata - Dhaka - Guwhati

21 nights

from US$13,800

River Cruise itinerary for Bengal to Assam and the Sundarbans
River Cruise itinerary for The Upper Ganges & Brahmaputra River

The Upper Ganges & Brahmaputra River

Varanasi - Kolkata - Guwahati

19 nights

from US$3,846.50

River Cruise itinerary for The Upper Ganges & Brahmaputra River


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Valerie Lamont, Forest Hansen Easton, Maryland, USA posted in Feb 2020

We were sorry to hear of the negative article that came out of the river cruise on the Upper Ganges. We were passengers on the cruise September 2019 on the lower Ganges, probably the one described in the blog as 'somewhat shambolic'.

That cruise was our third with Pandaw and although it was a different experience than the one on the Red River and the one on the Irrawaddy it was equally fascinating and a credit to the top notch customer service that Pandaw provides. Any reduction in service by the newly trained crew was more than made up for by both the Country Manager and the Operations Manager who travelled with us. They worked overtime to fill in any gaps in service and were constantly available for help, information and feedback.

We choose Pandaw because we want an adventure, the novelty of the new and unexpected in the company of passengers and crew who seek the same. All the literature provided by Pandaw emphasizes the nature of the cruises and we assume serves to select out those looking for 'same old, same old'.

Pandaw is the antithesis of the mega cruise ships that are now causing havoc in so many places. The beautiful teak river boats are ideal for small groups of people who want to explore a country beyond the usual and who are interested in the life and culture of a place rather than simply what souvenir shops have to offer.

One negative article in a newspaper but hundreds of satisfied passengers who happily spread the word about what a great experience Pandaw river cruises provide; we think the balance is very much in favor of satisfied and loyal Pandaw passengers.

Valerie Lamont, Forest Hansen Easton, Maryland, USA


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