November 15, 2010
PANDAW – THE PHOENIX OF ASIA
David Ellis with David Ovens
HAD it not been for Sir Arthur Phayre the beauties and mysteries of some of Asia's greatest waterways may well have remained the secret of those hardy souls who live along their banks.
As Governor of British Burma in 1864 Phayre founded the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, a Scottish-owned fleet of paddle steamers and barges that over a near-80 years grew to some 650 vessels – the largest privately-owned shipping fleet in the world.
The company thrived until 1942 when its owners ordered that the entire fleet be burned to the waterline to prevent Japan, as it marched south as part of its Asia-Pacific campaign, from using the ships to move its troops and weapons.
But the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company has morphed into a new format, Pandaw River Cruises that today operates contemporary versions of the old river boats on the great Mekong and Ton Le rivers in Indochina, the Irrawaddy in Burma and from Sarawak to Indonesian Kalimantan along the Rajang river in Borneo.
Pandaw's 300-odd kilometre journey up the Mekong from Saigon to Phnom Penh or further to Siem Reap provides a unique introduction to a way of life pursued by the millions who live along the banks of the mighty Mekong.
From its source 5000 metres up on the Tibetan Plateau the Mekong flows generally south-east 4200 kilometres through China, forming borders between Burma and Laos and then Laos and Thailand, flowing through Vietnam into a rich delta, and finally emptying into the South China Sea.
It begins humbly as a few trickling streams and develops into a prodigious waterway that's a staff of life for tens of millions of people.
Along its banks thousands of villages thrive on the four billion cubic metres of water and 250-million cubic metres of silt which make their way down to the 20-million people who rely on these riches around the Mekong Delta.
To slowly traverse this mighty waterway on a 21st century-fitted traditional-style vessel is to merge into the very way of life of the people who grow rice, fruit and vegetables, raise ducks, bake hand-made bricks and pursue a host of cottage industries. It is a step into a rural world which depends for survival on each other…and the river.
Pandaw's four- and seven-day journeys up the river make stops every day with expert guides taking guests ashore to places like the floating market at Cai Be, and to visit villagers in their homes making pop-rice (Viet popcorn), rice paper and a tasty candy of coconut, toffee and ginger.
A traditional sampan journey along the small canals leading to the Sadec marketplace unveils some local delicacies which are seriously alien to western palates, but there is ready business from the locals for such delights as skinned rat, and candied, baked and fried insects, beetles and even cockroaches.
Thankfully, none of these make the dining salon aboard Mekong Pandaw whose chefs whip-up other more-recognised Asian dishes, with western options available for the less adventurous.
Typical of onboard offerings are the Mekong Fishermen's dinner, the Vietnamese Farmers' dinner and the Khmer regional dinner.
For the Mekong Fishermen's Dinner, local fishermen and their wives provide family recipes and the freshest of seafood for such creations as fried watercress with shrimp and sweet chilli sauce, mixed vegetable and native spices kako soup, and pickled fish with minced pork.
Vietnamese fare includes Szechuan soup with black mushroom and tofu whilst Khmer favorites include hot and sour duck soup and stir-fried seafood in Khmer curry paste.
There's an eclectic wine list on board including vintages from France, Italy, Chile, South Africa and Australia but most passengers lean towards the complimentary local spirits and mixes before dinner and free local beers which tend to blend better with the spicy cuisine than more delicate wines.
TRAVEL DETAILS: Specialist Asian holiday operator Wendy Wu Tours offers the seven-night Pandaw Mekong cruise from Saigon to Siem Reap from $2300pp, depending on season and cabin choice. This includes twin-share accommodation, all meals and local drinks on board, transfer to departure point, all excursions and entrance fees, port fees and an English-speaking guide.
There are upstream departures from Saigon and downstream from Siem Reap between September and March.
More details from Wendy Wu Tours phone 1300-727-998 or visit www.wendywutours.com.au
 THE Mekong Pandaw, 21st century replica of 1800's Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's river boats.
 SHIPS of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company burn on the Mekong in 1942 to prevent them falling into enemy Japanese hands.
 PART of the busy fabric of life on the Mekong.
 A PICTURESQUE Mekong riverside village restaurant.