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New Horizons - Pandaw's maritime revolution

After 21 years of innovation on the great rivers of Asia, Pandaw is about to enter a whole new chapter in its extraordinary story, venturing into salt water for the first time.

This autumn, the MY Andaman Explorer sets off on its maiden adventure into the spectacularly beautiful but still-little known corner of the Andaman Sea.

The Ranong to Rangoon and the Mergui Archipelago expedition, whose debut October 2016-March 2017 season is booking up fast, will explore lower Burma's peninsular coastline and the Mergui Archipelago, one of the most historically rich and least-explored corners of tropical East Asia.

These exploratory expeditions on this fabulously-appointed 10-suite ship represents both a long-held dream of Pandaw's and it portends an exciting new maritime phase in the company's inspirational story of growth and development. Founder Paul Strachan is characteristically enthused about the prospect:

"What"s so exciting about this is that it's the first time Pandaw has gone to sea". Paul says. "We have been wanting to do this, almost since we launched the company in 1990s."

"Back then [my wife] Roser and I went down to Mergui and explored it and found it a really fascinating, culturally, historically and scenery-wise. It is extremely beautiful."

Burma's Mergui Archipelago

So what took them so long to launch the product?

Well, as anyone in the cruise business will tell you, it is harder than it looks to find exactly the right vessel for the route. You need to get it right, however long it takes. As Paul describes it, encountering this bonny 61-metre former Norwegian coastguard vessel was a distinct case of love at first sight.

Says Paul: "it took years for us to find a vessel that would work for what we wanted to do, and searched all over the world, going to Greece and to Croatia and other places where they specialise in coastal cruises."

"Eventually we found her. She was built in the 1960s with a very sturdy 'ice class' hull and a very high powered engine. After her service in Norway she had been then refitted as a luxury cruising yacht by an Italian Cararra Marble millionaire, so there was lots of marble everywhere! By the time we found her was working as a pleasure cruiser for wealthy people in the Middle East. "

"For us, she fitted the bill perfectly. She was a classic ship of the right size, and very beautiful, with more than a touch of 1960s dolce vita glamour about her. Not only was she totally in keeping with the Pandaw style, but had been very well looked after and in great condition. Since we bought her we have taken every part of the ship to pieces and refurbished every moving part. We've invested about $1 million in the engine room alone. "

The passengers who are fast filling up the cabins for the Andaman Explorer's first 12-expedition season have a treat in store, though Paul Strachan cautions that "on maiden voyages, things rarely go exactly to plan". That is how it should be. The spirit of adventure and experiment is after all part of Pandaw's DNA.

Those who are booking certainly have a treat instore. The 800-plus limestone and granite islands that make up the Mergui Archapelago, are as beautiful as they are mysterious, and rarely seen by Western eyes. With their abundance of rare flora and fauna, their pristine beaches and rocky headlands and mangrove swamps are still pristine and undeveloped, having only recently been opened up for tourism.

Burma's Mergui Archipelago

Inhabited by the Moken People, also known as 'sea gypsies', the islands were part of a notorious smuggling route during Burma's long decades as a closed country, and retain an aura of mystery and aloofness from the modern world that makes them the perfect Pandaw destination. Likewise, the Mergui coast is one of the last undeveloped tropical Asian coastines, full of fabulous beaches and secret coves.

Culturally as well, it holds a lot of interest, not least for those interested in the history of the British Burma. This part of the country and the city of Moulmein were among the first parts of Burma to be annexed by the British, and are full of interesting old colonial churches, graveyards, and long-forgotten relics of a remote outpost of the Raj.

Because of the monsoon in that part of the Indian Ocean system, MY Andaman Explorer's season in Mergui is limited, but she will not be idling for the rest of the year. Pandaw has exciting plans to take her down to Indonesia for the rest of the year, another major development for a company that firmly believes that standing still is not an option.

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