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Trip report: Indo China - Yesteryear’s ambience but today’s luxury

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I have always avoided cruises. My memory of my younger days, when I was on the hippy trail from London to Istanbul and suffered seasickness on five to nine hour ferry trips to the Greek islands has always been hard to dismiss.

So when I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday by becoming a geriatric back packer in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was astonished to find, while surfing the internet, a luxury 750-kilometre river cruise over seven nights from the Mekong River delta in Vietnam to Cambodia’s Siem Reap, location of the magnificent and ancient 1,000-year-old Angkor temples.

The temptation was too great. I booked, knowing that seasickness would be only a remote possibility! And the end result was one of the most pampered yet exciting holidays I have had in some 35 countries over a period spanning more than 30 years.

The cruise is operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (www.pandaw.com), which early last century was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Road to Mandalay”. The company, established by a Scotsman in 1865, operated more than 600 vessels along the Burmese river systems, with some of ships being as large as 120-metres in length and licensed to carry up to 4,000 passengers - often including royalty and viceroys. Sadly, the entire fleet was scuppered in 1942 after the Japanese invaded Burma and the allies feared the enemy might use the vessels for transporting troops and equipment.

However, in 1995 the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was revived by Paul Strachan, a modern day Scot with a strong sense of history and tradition. He constructed replica vessels to recreate the halcyon days of the original fleet – but with facilities unheard of on South Asian passenger river vessels of more than 50 years. Today, the fleet of four old world-style yet exceptionally modern and well equipped ships offer a high degree of understated luxury that would have astonished those who journeyed aboard any of the original Irrawaddy fleet in the 1800’s.

Initially, Strachan limited the cruises to the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar (previously known as Burma), but in 2002 he added the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers in Vietnam and Cambodia. This has provided a memorable 7-night voyage along two of South East Asia’s most important rivers and the region’s largest freshwater lake, giving passengers to get off the beaten track, yet to do so in luxury and safety, often visiting remote villages rarely visited by tourists.

The route is sailed by the RV Mekong Pandaw and the RV Tonle Pandaw, and carry up to 68 passengers each. Cruises range in price per stateroom from $3,480AUS to $2,760AUS for two people sharing, and $2,450AUS to $1,380AUS for single use of a twin cabin, depending on which deck you are. The lower the deck the lower price – yet even lower deck staterooms are exceptional in their fit-outs, and are actually more specious and cooler than the more expensive main and upper deck staterooms.

The voyage is great value when you look at the inclusions: Accommodation in a plush stateroom, three gourmet-style meals a day, soft drink and locally made beer and bottled water, and tea, coffee and tisanes. Also included are fascinating professionally guided on-shore excursions (generally two a day) and port dues.

The only additional costs are laundry, imported alcohol and on-board souvenirs, plus a Cambodian visa if cruising upstream to Siem Reap (Vietnamese visas for those travelling the reverse route must be purchased in advance of entering Vietnam, as unlike those for Cambodia, they are not available on at the border crossing). Passengers also pay their own pre and post cruise hotel fees, and international and domestic flights.

The cruises are a blend soft adventure and a generous taste of Indo China culture as the vessels pass through scenery that changes hourly from riverside villages through to rice paddies, floating and land-based markets, fish farms, cities and large towns, temples, boat building yards and an endless examples of river lifestyle from men washing their herds of water buffalo through to children bathing, people irrigating crops and families doing their laundry.

The RV Mekong Pandaw’s 34 large twin staterooms are lined in teak decorated with brass fittings, and ooze style and class. They include extremely comfortable twin bunks, private ensuite bathroom and toilet, wardrobes and cupboards, writing bureau, air conditioning, hair dryer, toiletries and power points for recharging items such as digital cameras or mobile phones (the mobile networks in Vietnam and Cambodia are amazingly good, although calls are expensive). Cabins don’t have TV or phone.

The upper and main deck staterooms each have large windows and comfortable twin whicker armchairs on the external companionway outside each cabin. The lower deck staterooms are a little larger, and have brass-framed portholes – initially somewhat eerie when you realise that from the chest down, you are below the river level.

Meals are served in a bright and airy dining room featuring panoramic windows, and food is exceptional. There is no set seating, so passengers tend to mix easily, with the option of meeting new people at each meal sitting.

Breakfast is a hot American buffet, but with additional Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes, plus fresh fruit, cereals and juices.

Lunch is also semi buffet-style but generally with one fixed main course such as baked whole sea bass, phat Thai, beef lok lak and soup.

The evening meal is more formal, and people dress more elegantly than the shorts and T-shirts that are perfectly acceptable by day, although there is no need for a jacket and tie. Dinners are three or four course mouth-watering gourmet meals and generally reflect the local region through which the vessel is cruising. Typical is a Vietnamese appetizer followed by sweet and sour fish soup, stuffed squid, fried beef with five spices, sautéed spinach with crispy shallots and pineapple fried rice, pumpkin custard, coffee and a selection of cheeses.

We also had Cambodian and Myanmar gourmet meals and some western-style meals. With advance notification several days before embarking, the crew will cater for special diets (once the voyage starts, no local food is purchased along the way, as the chefs only use hygienic raw products from reputable outlets in Saigon and Siem Reap).

Wines, served with lunch and dinner, are French, American and Australian, and very reasonably priced – generally less than what one would pay in an up market Australian restaurant. There is also an excellent range of imported beers.

On my cruise, the other passengers were mainly Americans and Britons, a smattering of Europeans and a few Australians. This was, I was told, is a fairly typical mix.

The beauty of the voyage is that, by day, the cruise vessel becomes a mother ship or base for the extremely well-planned daily excursions – a place to retire to for relaxation once the on-shore 35C heat and the humidity become too much. However, there is no obligation to participate in the excursions. The RV Mekong Pandaw, like its sister ships, has an expansive 60 metre metre sundeck with ample shading, comfortable sun lounges and whicker chairs, and an all-day complimentary tea, coffee, bottled water and soft drink station. An honor system applies to any non-complimentary alcohol in the self-service on-deck refrigerator.

Over the eight days we visited many remote villages and temples along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, explored backwaters and canals, as well as well-known places such as Phnom Penh. Each day blended easily into the next and a chronological list of the activities would simply compartmentalize a voyage that was as a varied as it was fascinating.

Shore excursions ranged from passengers transferring to up to four comfortable but much smaller vessels and voyaging down tributaries to places such as the Mekong Delta’s floating markets through to stopping at villages to watch rice paper being made, admiring weaving demonstrations, enjoying rickshaw rides, and touring markets in the large towns and cities including Phnom Penh and Chau Doc.

Most are highly entertaining and educational, although in Phnom Penh most passengers are quickly brought down to earth by a visit to the grim S21 Detention Centre where the Khmer Rouge, acting under orders from the despot Pol Pot, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent Cambodians. The night prior to berthing at the Phnom Penh wharf the award winning film “The Killing Fields” is screened in the RV Mekong’s saloon bar, and this shows passengers some of the butchery that occurred under Pol Pot’s regime of terror. The emotion of visiting S21 is compounded by subsequently taking a short bus journey bus to the “Killing Fields” outside Phnom Penh and seeing the mass graves of hundreds of the some up to two million people believed exterminated by Pol Pot’s followers. Central to the field is a towering glass memorial, or stupa, containing hundreds of skulls and the sad remnants of the clothing their skeletons were wearing when selected mass graves were opened. Even today one only has to scuff the dirt paths with one’s shoe to expose human bone. And if that is not enough to break the heart of the toughest of tourists, there is a sign alongside a large tree which describes the trunk as the one that the Khmer Rouge used when grabbing children by their feet and swinging their heads against it, before unceremoniously tossing the small bodies into the adjacent mass grave.

The horror of Pol Pot’s regime was further hammered home by our guide, an attractive Cambodian woman who was aged seven at the time, and who was among the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to march from the cities into the countryside – many to their death. She explained in vivid yet unexaggerated detail the march and seeing friends fall by the wayside, only to be shot or battered to death by the guards.

For several passengers, however, savagery of the movie was too much, and they stayed on board or wandered through Phnom Penh’s fascinating Russian Market – a smaller version of Istanbul’s covered bazaar – rather than visiting the prison and “Killing Fields”.

But excursions such as the “Killing Fields” were tempered by more light hearted visits to places such as a caramel popcorn manufacturer and watching snake wine and rice paper being made, marvelling at the skills of weavers in small isolated villages, factories and fish farms. On several evenings there was on-board entertainment provided by local dance groups and musicians. While these lacked professionalism, they were enchanting by their simplicity.

Sometimes the passengers were – accidentally - more entertaining that the tours. One woman who had turned up her nose at grilled aubergine one night because it sounded “too foreign” left me puzzled the next morning when, while visiting a small village, enthusiastically gulped down a non-too-small glass of snake wine.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I said as she tossed the drink down.

“Why? It’s only rice wine,” she haughtily retorted.

But she turned visibly green when I explained what it was she had really consumed.

“Oh my God,” she gasped in horror, “I truly thought it was rice wine!”

I stared in disbelief as she frantically asked the location of the nearest toilet.

But she was typical of a number of passengers, especially the Americans: pleasant, delightful company, but a trifle naïve.

An older American woman was somewhat stunned by a rather cheeky Australian passenger when she overheard him jocularly talking to me about his dog. He quickly noticed her edging closer, and spiced up the story.

“He is so smart, my dog, that last year he even sent out my Christmas cards,” he exclaimed to me proudly and loudly so she could hear. “And in Phnom Penh I went to an internet café and discovered the little rascal had send me an email!”

The woman’s eyes grew as big as saucers and expanded even further as he continued, trying to maintain a straight face: “His typing has greatly improved since he discovered the spell-checker…”

The woman looked stunned, turned on her heel rapidly and raced off to tell her husband about the amazing Australian wonder dog.

Another asked the same Australian, who by this time had gained a reputation for expansive general knowledge, if he could assist her by naming the seven wonders of the ancient world.

He grinned at me afterwards: “I was able to name six,” he said. “But couldn’t remember the seventh. The lady attempted to be helpful, and said cautiously ‘perhaps it is Niagara Falls’. When I said that I didn’t think so, she added hopefully, ‘then it must be the Grand Canyon’. I was so stunned, I felt it better to agree with her!”

As the days progressed, one could be forgiven for regarding the RV Mekong Pandaw as a second, albeit temporary, home because of the brilliant service, ambience and affable nature of the other passengers.

Most were retired and in their 60s and older, but still very active and enthusiastic. I met people who had worked in a range of fields including BBC and German television producers, two cinematographers, several high ranking ex-British and American Army officers, computer software engineers, Americans who worked in the aerospace industry, scientists, journalists, a puppeteer, and travel agents (including one woman whose trip to Cambodia enabled her to join the 100 Countries Club).

The physical nature of the on-shore excursions tended increase as we acclimatized to the heat and humidity and became more confident, although the crew maintained a level of service I have rarely encountered, watching us like hawks as we climbed and descended river banks, undertook boat transfers or looked in danger of becoming lost in sprawling markets.

Helping hands always assisted passengers to embark and disembark between the small vessels that took us along tributaries and canals where the RV Mekong Pandaw was unable to navigate. Steady gangplanks with handrails were provided when the excursion was merely stepping from the vessel to the riverbank. And always, as we disembarked, we were handed iced bottles of water by smiling crewmembers.

Two enjoyable trips ashore were a school and an orphanage financially supported by the Irriwaddy Flotilla Company, and on these occasions, we handed out pens and pencils, crayons, paper and coloring books (at the time of booking, passengers were advised in their confirmation notes to bring materials for the children) and were rewarded by songs by the youngsters. Another included visiting unique fish farms – where the fish were kept in massive cages that hung beneath floating homes and were fed daily over a six-week period before being sent to market.

We also visited a number of temples and wats, all of which provided wonderful photographic material. The excursions were significantly enhanced by the guides – all spoke excellent English, and clearly had a highly detailed knowledge of the destinations we visited. Although I admit to feeling somewhat ‘templed’ out towards the end of the voyage.

The final day provided perhaps the most dramatic. Because the water level was low across the 100 km long Lake Tonle – the biggest expanse of fresh water in South East Asia – the 57 passengers were transferred near Kampong Chhnang to a massive high-powered speedboat in order to reach our final destination of Siem Reap.

This is not always necessary, but because I was on the last voyage of the 2005-2006 season, I had been warned in advance that this might be the case due to the lake’s dry season water level. In fact, for most of the year the lake is only about one to one and half metres deep with an area of 2,700 square km. However, during the monsoon, the Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake with the Mekong, reverses its flow due to the massive torrent of water flowing down the Mekong and actually flows uphill! This increases Lake Tonle Sap’s area to up to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine metres, inundating nearby fields and forests. It provides a perfect breeding ground for fish and makes the Tonle Sap ecosystem one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supporting over 3 million people and providing more than 75 percent of Cambodia's annual inland fish catch.

The speedboat leg was an uncomfortable yet adventurous grand finale to a cruise that, while perhaps totally different to an ocean voyage or, in my case a Greek ferry!

It represents excellent value for money – for who could argue about roughly $250 per person per day for a upper deck stateroom plus three superb meals, two fascinating daily excursions and complimentary on demand hot beverages, soft drinks and beer, and bottled water – or less than $200 a day for sole occupancy in the lower deck stateroom (certainly much less than daily accommodation in a 5-star hotel and breakfast, lunch and dinner in Sydney or Melbourne). And it offers a rich dividend on your holiday investment for those wishing to experience a cruise through one of the world’s most remarkable and impressive river systems.

Reflecting on the voyage, there were no downsides - despite my sometimes hard-to-please nature. The staterooms were perfect, the food a gastronomic delight, the sun deck was highly relaxing, and the excursions were varied and fascinating.

Certainly, the cruise was too smooth for me to suffer from any seasickness. In fact, it is testimony to the ship’s stability that the sun deck features a full-sized billiard table, So steady is the RV Mekong that, even while under way, the balls never moved even a fraction of an inch after being cued.

I suppose if I was picky, a plunge pool on the sun deck might have been welcome, but when one considers reserving time for three meals and two excursions a day – which in total would take up about six hours – I’d probably not have had time to use it, anyway. Besides, there is far too much to see as the ship journeys onwards. And while the ship is cruising, the breeze makes the sundeck more than bearable, despite the temperature.

It is a tribute to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s commitment to service, fine food and wine, and luxury accommodation that a large percentage of its passengers are repeats. For that reason alone, bookings fill quickly with some passengers on my cruise admitting they had tried for up to five years to gain a berth for a cruise on the date of their choosing.

A word of warning: This may not be a cruise for young people unless they put together a group of 4-6 couples. Children would be a liability, and are not really catered for.

The Pandaw ships are not party vessels. Most people are in their cabins by 9.30 pm, although a few die-hards often remain quietly chatting in the saloon bar until 11 pm. To tell the truth, the food, on-shore activity, excursions and relaxation make an early night almost instinctive.

In addition to its Myanmar cruises, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is currently negotiating to include the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh and India.

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