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May 30, 2010

CRUISING’S BOYS’ OWN, HUCK FINN AND FAWLTY TOWERS

Part one of one of the world's most amazing cruise odysseys; part two next week.

david ellis

HAVING Paul Strachan tell you how he started a company called Pandaw River Cruises – and actually kept it running to go on to own a half dozen river boats in five Asian countries – is almost like something out of Boys' Own Annual, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… and Fawlty Towers.

Scottish-born Paul had a long fascination with Burma, and when visiting in 1994 was invited to the launch of a river cruise-boat to be called Irrawaddy Princess.

It changed his life. While the colourful launch ceremony was wonderfully Burmese-theatrical, the owners had overlooked that they had to market their new ship to foreign tourists, and on launch day they had no bookings. "They just thought that because Burma was opening its doors to foreigners, tourists would flock to them."

So with no cruise-boat experience, Paul took a punt and said he would charter Irrawaddy Princess himself, spending all of $100 on an advertising flyer that he sent to 500 mainly-Brits on his little publishing company's mailing lists.

His phone went into almost melt-down. Most callers said he was mad: the way Burma in 1962 had killed-off democracy would ensure no-one would ever want to return.

But others were more enthusiastic, and what was to be a single 10-day charter ended up as six, each filled with aficionados interested in Burma's history, culture, botany and ornithology.

But it was anything than plain-sailing: the ship was invaded by rats and cockroaches, generators stopped generating, toilets went into reverse flush, and at one stage the entire galley – weirdly hung precariously off the ship's stern – broke off and disappeared into the river below (fortunately without loss of life.)

That, and the ship nearly sinking when the passenger deck flooded so that guests had to camp in the lounge-bar, aged the Irrawaddy Princess six years in just six months, and she was done for.

But now well and truly bitten by the Burma (now Myanmar) Bug, Paul and his Spanish wife Roser looked around for another ship, settling on the Chinese-built Myat Thanda that had "chandeliers in every room except the loos."

To make the Myat Thanda more in line with their vision of the historic passenger/cargo ships of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once had 600 vessels carrying 9-million passengers a year in South East Asia, the Strachans scoured markets for genuine antiques, or had local artisans create replica.

They also became astute industrial advocates: when finally taking delivery of the Myat Thanda in Rangoon, the company they chartered it from suddenly noted that with twenty guests in ten staterooms would require First, Second and Third Officers on the bridge, and the same ranks in the engine room – making forty crew for just twenty guests.

Plus each officer, because of their rank, would be entitled to one of the ship's guest cabins – leaving just four for guests.

After that problem was resolved with diplomacy and a cheque book, the Myat Thanda finally sailed on her first Irrawaddy cruise in 1996. But to Paul and Roser's amazement the sprightly mid-60 year old captain revealed there could be delays because in three ports of call he had a "wife and family he needed to spend time with" – a marital problem he further compounded for himself by proposing along the way to a buxom German spinster on board.

As well, local 'tour guides' knew little about their areas, so Paul researched these and escorted guests himself on shore tours by day, and gave destination lectures in the bar at night.

And a 'hotel manager' they employed turned out to be simply an ex-merchant navy cook who sported a uniform with more braid than the captain –  and proudly paraded himself in public, snappily returning salutes from police officers, military and anyone else in uniform.

But the Strachans sacked him before sailing when half of his Burmese hotel staff walked off after he yelled at them on their first day of training.

And when a cook also walked off on the eve of sailing, Rosa went to their favourite Rangoon Chinese restaurant and hired one their cooks, who was just 16.

Today he's Pandaw River Cruises' Head Chef – part of the Strachan's determination that their venture would be the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.


Continued next week.

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[] The ill-fated Myat Thanda: aged six years in six months on the Irrawaddy

[] Scenes like this that lured Paul and Roser Strachan to Burma (Myanmar)

[] Old advertising brochure for Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once had 600 river-boats in South East Asia carrying 9-million passengers a year 


FLOATING A DREAM BRINGS HISTORY ALIVE


David Ellis


LAST week we told how Scotsman, Paul Strachan created a mini replica-fleet of Burma's once mighty Irrawaddy Flotilla Company – overcoming onboard floodings, galleys toppling into rivers, crew walk-offs, and officers demanding six of his ten guest cabins.

THE original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was founded in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1865 by fellow-Scotsmen, and at its 1920s peak carried 9-million passengers a year on 640 riverboats. But it virtually died in 1942 when Japan invaded Burma: IFC unflinchingly ordered all 640 vessels scuttled so they could not be used to move Japanese troops and supplies.

Miraculously in the 1990s, Paul and his Spanish wife Roser found several surviving, but-decrepit IFC vessels, on a riverbank in Mandalay. One, the Pandaw was sufficiently intact to rebuild as the genesis of their cruise venture.

She'd been stripped of all brass fittings, and was occupied by pigs, chooks and dejected unpaid crew who'd simply stayed-put when the ship was abandoned.

But the Pandaw would be Paul and Roser's Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once carried 50- to over 4000-passengers on majestic paddle-wheelers and simpler propeller-drive craft… as Kipling wrote: "Where the old Flotilla lay - can't you 'ear them engines chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?"

Pandaw's owner was only too willing to sell his hulk to "the crazy foreigner." Using historic photographs and drawings, the Strachans spent a year overseeing her reconstruction, including air-conditioning and ensuites.

The Pandaw proved a mechanical nightmare, and to keep her going parts were "borrowed" from other abandoned vessels with similar equipment: at one stage five such ships had been virtually stripped to keep Pandaw going.

But certain that he was on the road to success, in 2000 Paul took the risky decision to build Pandaw II – the first passenger ship ever constructed in Burma.

He recalls today that despite the complex Buddhist launching rituals that would ensure her safety and good fortune, on day three of her maiden voyage  Pandaw II slammed hard aground onto an Irrawaddy River sandbank.

Stuck there for a week, the passengers revolted. But not because they were stranded, rather as Paul recalls: "Just the opposite. We kept offering to evacuate them, but each time they just dug their heels in deeper, and said they were having such a great jungle adventure they wanted to stay!"

Sand was slowly pumped out from under the ship and after 7-days she floated free.

With the business now attracting more and more adventurous holidaymakers to the Irrawaddy, Paul decided to expand further afield and in 2003 built another vessel to operate on the River Kwai in Thailand, then another for the Mekong between Vietnam and Cambodia, and still another for Malaysian Borneo.

But a foray onto the Ganges in India this year was "disastrous… frequent groundings damaged engines and propellers, and shore support  was seriously lacking."

He plans to reposition the Ganges ship on the highly-popular Mekong, where he's already got three vessels, and in 2011 will open new routes on the Upper Mekong in Laos, and in Kapuas in Indonesia.

It will give Pandaw River Cruises seven ships in six South-East Asian countries – a not inconsiderable effort from an investment of $100 to advertise the Strachan's first cruise on the Irrawaddy with a chartered boat in 1994. And all by cash-flow, with not a cent borrowed from the banks.

Guests will tell you that the joy of cruising aboard the Pandaw fleet is their small size – they carry between just 48 and 66 guests – and shallow drafts allow them to nudge up to river banks for guests to simply walk ashore for guided explorations of rarely-visited villages, remote temples, markets, schools, plantations and jungle-clad one-time colonial forts.

Even a village chief in Borneo with a "souvenir basket" of human skulls…

And while the exterior designs are yester-year, today's Pandaws offer luxury that Britain's 19th century Raj could only dream of.

Cabins have picture windows and open-out directly onto the deck, vast upper-  decks under shade covers sport colonial wicker furnishings amid myriad potted plants and palms for fantastic views… and a bar dispenses no-charge local beers, spirits and soft drinks.

Dining is Asian and Western, with fusion dishes of the two.

If you're intrigued see travel agents, email australia@pandaw.com or phone (02) 80805622.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] A 1920s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company sternwheeler

[] INDOCHINA Pandaw today, replica of originals but with all mod cons

[] FUTURE King George V and Queen Mary aboard IFC ship with Governor of Burma in 1906.

[] PART of original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is scuttled to prevent use by invading Japanese army.


Plan Less, Travel More, Grab a Bargain

Abandon your plans, throw away the brochures and take the flight of fancy. Jump into the swirling pool of last minute travel opportunities and see where you end up.

For many, the family holiday is as meticulously planned as a military operation. Timetables, visas, schedules and check-in/check outs all conspire to make vacation planning as stressful as the life we are attempting to escape from. How about throwing plans out the window and trying some of the many “last minute” travel, holiday and adventure possibilities flourishing on the ‘net?

It’s no secret that hotel and resort bookings can be found on the Internet at rock bottom prices, especially if you seek them out close to your anticipated travel time.

Industry leader in what the trade calls “distressed inventory” is perhaps the website www.wotif.com which currently offers more than 11,000 properties in over 40 countries and books almost 3 million room nights each year – numbers that grow every day.

“Large hotels will always drop their rates if they look like getting stuck with unoccupied rooms,” advises Robbie Cooke, CEO and Managing Director of Wotif.com, “a conference cancellation, for example, can result in a lot of empty rooms at short notice and this is the time to act. The downside, if there is one, is that it might not be the exact hotel in the preferred location, but that’s the fun of it.”

Wood also says to consider slightly out-of-the-way locations, serviced apartments and avoiding peak times.

The other industry leader, lastminute.com.au, operates Secret Hotels, a stealthy plot to offer premium 5-star properties at bargain basement rates.

This scheme is a proactive way for hotels to sell discounted rooms without fear of brand erosion. "The hotel name is not advertised to the public, just the location. Some hotels are now selling in excess of 1000 room nights in a single month which would otherwise have stayed empty," says Angie Bohlmann, spokesperson for lastminute.com.au.

Recent examples from the Secret Hotel menu include rates as low as $165 per room for a 5-star Sydney CBD hotel. Full relaxation or naughty weekend packages are well under $400 per couple per night and can sometimes include such niceties as spa treatments, champagne, chocolates, premium in-room movies, breakfast in bed for two, dinner, late check out and valet parking. Bohlmann was tight-lipped about which properties are participating in their program, but would neither confirm nor deny such landmark Sydney hotels as Marriott, InterContinental, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons or Amora Jamison.

Wotif.com has since countered with a similar service, WotHotel.

“The Wot Hotel feature is a win-win for hotels and consumers. Hotels get to drop their rates without affecting the way people perceive their brand and consumers get even better deals," say Cooke.

Lastminute.com.au is quick to remind us that their array of product extends well beyond crisp linen and comfy pillows. If you’re on a loose end, you could choose from a joyride in an authentic combat fighter, bunk down with the animals at Taronga Zoo, skydive or go rally driving in a fully-tricked Subaru WRX. These spontaneous activities can set you back up to $750pp, but for penny-pinchers, why not take The Rocks Ghost Tour and be scared witless for just $34.

Rising star, www.check-in.com.au has integrated eBay's PayPal on-line payment system into their booking mechanism as well as Google's Street View and Microsoft's Virtual Earth(tm) mapping system, while wego.com (formerly bezurk.com) will search 100 sites simultaneously for hotels, flights and tours.

Fancy a Cruise?

Just like hotel rooms, cruise lines must fill cabins and there are some wild bargains to be had.

Since launching in 2000 with just two staff, on-line cruise agency, www.ecruising.travel, has grown on the back of Australians’ love of the cruise ship product to become one of Australia’s top cruise-only agents with over 30 consultants.

“Even though we are not strictly a ‘last minute’ agent, we have sold thousands of cabins through our ability to reach people quickly and efficiently via the ‘net and through our regular newsletter,” says ecruising.travel MD Brett Dudley. “Cruisers have become used to finding amazing cruise bargains at our site. They can find a cruise and be booked and ticketed, with flights if needed, often in less than an hour and sometimes sail within a few days.”

Dudley advises that it is often the less desirable cabins, low and inside, that cruise lines find harder to sell. If you don’t care for a balcony or an owners’ suite, then all your other shipboard facilities are equal. Savings of up to 65 per cent are possible and Dudley predicts that with P&O’s growing fleet here in Australia, bargains will be easier to find.

Tip: Be careful. Overseas cruise and travel booking sites are not members of the Australian Travel Compensation Fund who protect you against failed businesses.

Timing is Everything

Just as airlines have peak, shoulder and off-peak times, so too have hotels, resorts, cruise lines and experiential products. Needless to say, the holiday crush is the least likely time to yield bargains, but if you can defer to outside peak seasons, your savings will quickly add up.

Tip: Stay flexible with travel times and be ready to pounce on a deal as soon as you see it. If you wanted to travel on Friday but there’s a better deal on Saturday, consider changing your plans slightly.

And don’t give up. Keep checking the sites regularly, maybe even more than once per day, as the dynamic information can, and does, change any time.

Don’t fixate on a destination. You just want a getaway at the right price, yeah? Look in the general regions and states. For example, if you can’t get the deal you want in Surfers Paradise, there may be a better offer from Noosa, Townsville or Cairns. That’s the joy of spontaneity!

Stay Connected

Every travel supplier will want you to stay in touch with them regularly, and why not? Each one has their own bulletin and newsletter packed with opportunities and must conform to stringent e-mail privacy guidelines. You can opt out at any time and just get the information when you want it.

Get a Lesson in Life

It’s a great double header to snare a deal and have great holiday, but to spice the recipe with spontaneity can add an element that might lift your next vacation from routine to truly memorable.

May 24, 2010

Craig's Trek and KELY Fundraiser

this note received from pilot and adventurer, Craig Adams

Dear Travellers,

A group of ageing rapscallions (Martin Hills, Chris Coulcher, Roger Best and myself) are engaging in a venture which gives the adage that one should grow old gracefully a slap in the face. With limb and life at risk we intend to take on the lower reaches of the Himalayas reaching Everest Base Camp 1 in a breathtaking sprint of 2 weeks from leaving Kathmandu. We then intend to slide down more quickly to where we started trekking, Lukla, in about 7 days. The elevation of Base Camp 1 is 17,575 ft although in reaching it we might saunter to 19,216 ft  (Gokyo Ri). This side trip is optional but the view is apparently breathtaking (both literally and figuratively!).

Whilst this exercise is being undertaken for personal reasons of endeavour and achievement it was felt amongst us that our friends might be interested in identifying with us, not through physical participation, but through a small but noble financial sacrifice. The activity that has bound this group of hikers together is an annual golf trip to Phuket each autumn.  Consequently we felt it would be appropriate to consider including a Phuket charity with which we are familiar.

The Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation is its unusual name. It was formed in 2005 in recognition of a situation in Phuket that most holidaymakers and visitors would not be too familiar. In the space of a few years Phuket tourism has taken off, as well as becoming the home to many expatriates. Whilst this is good for the overall economy of Thailand it has placed particular stress on local families who find it increasingly difficult to earn sufficient to cope with the rising cost of living in Phuket. A large number of Thai children in Phuket are seriously disadvantaged. The need for an education which embraces the service industries together with language skills is obvious. Many students cannot reach the required standards, suffer, drop out and frequently move on to Bangkok with all the "attractions" that its bright lights offer.

This charity recognises the beauty of Phuket and what that now means to the newly arrived residents. It supports activities of one of the larger schools mainly through volunteer work undertaken by both local and expatriate residents together with imported volunteers. We have seen them in action and the enthusiasm of students and volunteers is very impressive. A real commitment is being made. Enough chat - look up the charity's website www.phukethasbeengoodtous.org and see for yourself. 

The footsloggers considered that half the total raised from friends would be given to this worthwhile cause and the balance to a charity of each walker's choice.

My choice of second charity is The Kely Support Group (KELY).  This Group is a not for profit charity that was established in Hong Kong 18 years ago by a young a person dealing with her own drug and alcohol issues.  She found that by talking to her peers it helped her overcome these issues.  As a self-help organization, the Group's mission is to empower all young people in Hong Kong to achieve their highest potential in their journey to adulthood.

KELY has since grown and has been focusing on 4 key issues affecting youths today: drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, chronic low-self-esteem / low-self confidence and negative body image.  Their range of programmes and services include a suicide prevention / drug information hotline, harm reduction workshops, youth forums, multi-media art projects, circus skills training and peer support workshops.

For more information visit KELY's website at:  www.kely.org.

Please dig deep and commit generously to these two worthwhile charities.  Send me an email by reply letting me know how much you are happy to pledge (unless it is zero in which case I don't want to hear from you!).

With best wishes,

Craig Adams

 ==========

Dear All,
We have returned from our trek to the Himalayas safe and sound. (see above). A great trip with no injuries or altitude sickness. For those of you that would like to donate please either deposit Australian Dollars into my ANZ account in Australia or Hong Kong Dollars into my HSBC account in Hong Kong.
 
Please drop me an email - crog@netvigator.com  to let me know .
 
Cheers and Thank You

 

Struth! Wedding Plans in the Can

STRUTH !  

IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a couple who walk the streets at night of their home-town Spokane in America's Washington State to pay for their July 31 wedding, are well on target to reach their goal of raising $4000.

But they're not up to anything illegal: they spend several hours each night gathering discarded aluminium drink cans from streets, parks and rubbish bins around town, and sell these to a scrap dealer with the proceeds going into their "Wedding and Honeymoon Bank Account."

Calling themselves just Pete and Andrea we first mentioned them back in January when they told us of their bizarre scheme, and how at that stage they'd collected and sold 29,000 cans.

This week they told us they'd now reached an amazing 344,000 themselves, plus with the help of friends, relatives, workmates and complete strangers who've heard their story... and now have just 56,000 more to collect in the final ten weeks before their wedding.

And they've had a surprise boost to the wedding celebrations: a group of mates have taken it upon themselves to make and donate enough home-brew beer to slake the thirsts of all guests at the reception.

We hope to let you know in July how it all went…


May 10, 2010

Explore A Million Different Journeys in Papua New Guinea



Papua New Guinea is a country of adventure where you can enjoy experiences found no other place on earth. PNG is linguistically the most complex nation in the world. Over 800 distinct languages are spoken, estimated as an average of one language for every 900 square kilometres.

The rugged terrain of the Owen Stanley Ranges on the mainland and over 600 islands offshore means tribes have developed in geographic isolation ensuring their original cultures have been preserved.

The individual heritage of each tribe is maintained through their art, sing sings, dancing and initiations - expressions of their culture that continue regardless of tourism which to date has barely touched most of Papua New Guinea. Examples include the Baining fire dancers near Rabaul and the Asaro Mud Men and Huli Wig men in the Highland regions.

Visits to remote villages scattered across the islands and forested landscape, second only in size to the Amazon basin, provide plenty of opportunities to see and in some instances purchase primitive art, timber carvings, masks (decorated with hair, shells, pig tusks), string bags (bilums), crafts, hand dyed Tapa cloth, woven baskets, penis gords and clay pots - and endless opportunities for photography.

Also on offer is a cultural explosion of colour and sound at PNG’s regular festivals: The Goroka and Mt Hagen Shows are world famous but also consider the Canoe Festival in Alotau, the yam festival in the Trobriand Islands or the week-long Malagan Festival in Kavieng - anyone of which provide unforgettable opportunities to experience large numbers of colourful, often raucous, tribes performing en-mass (in some instances this means thousands of participants).

PNG is widely recognised as having some of the best scuba diving in the world. The coral reefs are largely untouched, with outstanding marine life including reef sharks, pelagic fish, hammerheads, barracuda, manta rays as well as WWII wrecks (tanks, downed US bombers and Japanese Zeros) all in 28 degree waters. Apart from dedicated live-aboard dive boats popular dive spots include Loloata Resort, close to Port Moresby, Tufi Dive Resort, Jais Aben Resort in Madang or Walindi Dive Resort near Kimbe, all offering comfortable accommodation and plenty of options for those who may not be there just for the diving.

Pick just about any coastal destination and there is great fishing (including the famed Black Bass and Barramundi) to be had. A great lad's weekend away and a favourite for serious fishermen from around the world.

The view across to the coast from the summit of Mt Wilhelm is well worth the climb. At 4509 metres (Mt Kosciusko is 2230 metres) you can encounter snow, just a few degrees from the equator. Apart from Kokoda, there are plenty of other easier and harder treks to choose from including Black Cat near Rabaul, said to require half-marathon fitness level before considering the challenge!

The reputation of PNG's surf spots is growing, luring surfers who seek consistent waves with barely another person to jostle with. Kavieng and Vanimo are the stand outs. The Surf Association has a code of practice to restrict visitor numbers and ensure traditional land owners benefit from visitation.

For the fit and healthy kayaking is one way to explore the extraordinary coastline of PNG, surrounding islands and remote coastal Villages. What better way to meet locals in their dugout canoes than from your own kayak? Intrepid adventurer meets savvy local. Papua New Guinea waters and rivers offer enormous diversity for kayaking, providing a great opportunity to combine coastal exploration with outstanding fishing and cultural experiences through Village stays.

There are myriad choices to offer adventure travellers of all ages. Sited on the 'Ring of Fire' Papua New Guinea has a number of active volcanoes including the thunderous Mt Tavurvur in Rabaul, where you can walk through valleys of black ash, around fissures of escaping steam and sulphurous gas, while observing massive black clouds of volcanic waste looming above.

On thermal Fergusson Island locals wash and bathe in the cooler streams and cook vegetables in boiling hot springs and pools.

It's no wonder that keen photographers and birdwatchers flock to PNG to capture the wildlife and flora. PNG boasts the world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing which grows to 30cm across, the largest pigeon in the world, the Queen Victoria Crowned Pigeon (the size of a chicken), multiple species of Bird of Paradise, Cassowary and thousands of other species.