October 11, 2009

Slowly on the Ganges: An Eight Hundred Mile Voyage Across India

Paul Strachan (Owner of Pandaw Cruises) writes frankly on his return from the maiden voyage

In October 2009 we were the first passenger ship to sail between Calcutta and Varanasi on the Ganges since the 1930s. This was a historic occasion, but not without many challenges and difficulties. This is the most beautiful and culturally varied river I have explored - but it is also the most daunting for crew and passengers alike.

The RV Bengal Pandaw was launched in Burma as Pandaw IV in 2004 and has twenty-eight promenade deck staterooms. The eight hundred mile expedition is of fifteen days duration and only ten sailings are planned for the coming season. The expedition takes in a number of the most important historical sites in India including the colonial splendours of Calcutta, the sacred places of Buddhism around Bodh Gaya and Benares, now called Varanasi, the great cultural centre of Hinduism. In addition, the Pandaw stops daily in smaller towns and villages to see handicrafts, rural life and a variety of local cultures as we pass from region to region.

Given the practical difficulties of crossing India by land, a river cruise makes the best sense covering a vast landscape in comfort and safety and exploring the real India well off the beaten track. The scenery is amazing and the excursions ashore are varied and exciting. Each day is quite different with a wealth of things to do and see. The standard of guides in India, with their good English and intellectuality, is far better than in the other countries we operate in and the lectures and briefings proved highly stimulating.We also have a medical doctor on the team who doubles as resident naturalist.

Each of the subsequent river expeditions will be highly adventurous and should not be booked by the faint hearted. Itineraries are skeletal and indicational only. Each day the schedule will be subject to constant revisions. Some excursions may be cancelled, whilst you may find yourself on excursions never offered in the first place! All depends on water levels and flow rates, the weather, local bureaucracy and a hundred other factors that make and shape a cruise. Do not expect this to be a slick well-oiled operation like our cruises on the Mekong! These cruises really are expeditions in the full sense of the word.

Note also that the service, food and beverage standards that you would expect on a Pandaw will not be up to standard. The food is mainly Indian and this is generally good, but over 10 days can become repetitive for many. Despite initial licencing scares we have been able to offer complimentary beers and local drinks. Please understand that this is a new destination for us working with a new crew in a country with quite different standards to what you would find in South-East Asia. Please bear this in mind if you are considering booking this cruise.

We had planned 14 nights on board but given the disparity in service standards between India and our other operations I have decided to reduce the number of days spent cruising to 10 with 2 nights in deluxe hotels either side of the cruise: in Varanas at the brand new Radisson and in Calcutta at the splendid Oberoi Grand. I feel that given the fact that it will take some time for us to get standards up to scratch, working in a very tough environment, we should offer our passsengers a little more comfort before and after the cruise. Pandaw will absorb this cost and the original rates offered remain. These revised itineraries are now online.

I would say, though, that this is the 'Mother of Rivers' - no other river can match the Ganges in terms of scenery, cultural variety, quantity of historic sites not to mention profuse bird and wild life. This definitely is the way to do India. If you are not too sure if you are ready for it, or rather we are ready, give us a couple of years to get up to speed. In this first year of operations nearly all the people joining the cruise are old Pandaw passengers, who, thankfully, understand what our team are up against and do their best to support them. We are very grateful for that.

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