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Up the Mekong River

December 3, 2012

Call it Burma or Myanmar, either way it is a beautiful country that people fall in love with.

None more so than Paul Strachan, who went there as a student in Scotland back in the eighties, then became a publisher of academic and art books on Burma. Then, in 1994, he heard of a boat on the Irrawaddy River, a boat with no passengers. But he had a mailing list, and after he sent out a flier, the phone never stopped ringing.Pandaw1

One old colonial told Strachan he was mad, others were politely incredulous. There were veterans of the 14th Army, people born in Burma but forced to flee by the Japanese, people kicked out by Ne Win in the sixties. They all wanted to come. One 10-day charter was not enough and six departures ran that first season. Before he knew it, Strachan was running a business, naming it after a fine old Scots firm, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC).

Two years later Strachan found the wreck of the Pandaw, one of the original riverboats built by Denny’s of Glasgow for the IFC. Its condition was terrible, but as Strachan said, “it was love at first sight.” Pandaw was restored, and since then a fleet of 10 replica vessels has been built and renamed Pandaw to make Strachan’s company the major force in river cruising in southeast Asia.

They have 34-cabins, shallow draft, open decks, teak and shiny brass — just like the Old Flotilla as immortalized by Kipling.

“Great bales of cotton, bags of rice, blocks of jade, lacquerware from Pagan, silk, tamarind, elephants sometimes …oilcake, tobacco timber. Upbound … motor cars, corrugated iron, condensed milk, matches … sewing machines, soap, cigarettes, cement and whisky.” (Irrawaddy Flotilla Co handbook, 1936)


The flotilla was a naval task force of four paddle steamers and three flats (barges) sent from India to carry British and Indian troops up the Irrawaddy in the second Anglo-Burmese war of 1852. A treaty (probably of the version “sign here or get shot”) resulted and the new British governor privatized the flotilla, selling it to Todd, Findlay and Co, a Scots firm.

As it turned out the vessels were poorly built, so the merchants teamed up with Paddy Henderson, Glasgow shippers already established in Rangoon, a port of call on its runs to New Zealand, and Denny’s, which designed new steamers which were shipped out in pieces and reconstructed in Rangoon. Deck crews and engineers were Scots, hired at the St Vincent Street head office, and the sailors from Bengal.

As the vessels got bigger, such as the splendid Siam class 326 ft long and capable of carrying 4000 passengers, Denny’s boarded them up and sailed them through Suez. Some were paddle-wheelers, others stern-driven, such as on the shallow Chindwin, where the boiler was in the bow. The company based 200 mainly Scots in Burma and had a local staff of 11,000. It must have been a good life for the expat Scots, what with the club and little interference from Glasgow. In fact only one telegram a month would be sent from Rangoon to St Vincent Street, and that was one line only – the takings!

“The steamers … forge imperiously ahead as if all the space belonged to them, and swing round and roar out their anchor chains, while the lascars leap and the skipper’s white face gleams in the heavy shadows by the wheel – the face of a man in command.” (Scott O’Connor, The Silken East, 1936)

Pandaw operates in four countries including the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. Like the Irrawaddy, this is one of the world’s great river trips, up there with the Amazon and the Nile, and with a remarkable difference. This occurs at Phnom Penh, where the Mekong and Bassac Rivers merge, and are joined by a tributary called the Tonle that goes backwards once every year.

This happens as the snows melt in the Himalayas, when torrents of water flow from Tibet and the Tonle meets the Mekong, then amazingly it backs up and creates a lake that floods the central Cambodian plain. It happens every year and Cambodians take it all in their stride with floating villages; they also catch a lot of fish because it is a fertile breeding ground. When the monsoon is over the water level drops and the Tonle resumes its flow to Phnom Penh.

I did this cruise, visiting hamlets, towns and pagodas. There were excursions but no big groups or regimented stuff like they do on big cruise ships. We saw village workshops and were serenaded by children, vendors sold silk scarves and wood carving souvenirs, while some said the best part was simply being on deck, watching Asia go by.

Floating villages were everywhere, many of them with fish farms, where the locals got about on long-tailed boats which are canoes with throaty, direct-drive car engines mounted on a steering pole, although to go to the village shop some women did it by hand — standing in their canoes with a rowing motion that is like a dance step.

Most passengers are British but there were also Americans, Swiss and Germans. There were no children. All are well travelled and mostly wealthy as this is not a cheap cruise.

They appreciate the formula of air-conditioned comfort, good food and wine, as well as plenty of hot water, a civilized complement to conditions ashore. Getting there is amazingly simple – a Pandaw boat will nudge the river bank, two crew will jump off with pegs, a mallet and a line, tie us up, and a plank is put ashore. Eh voila!

The cruise was over at Siem Reap, but not the adventure, for the wonders of Angkor were on our doorstep.

The company now operates out of Singapore and Strachan lives in Scotland, and when he is now sailing his boat he runs the Pandaw Charity, which builds schools, clinics and runs a small hospital ship.

There have been problems big and small, like the time a galley fell off a stern into the river, or when Strachan was chased by a banana seller with a machete, perhaps none bigger than dark deeds stalling a fabulous new route down the Ganges – which I did from Varanasi to Calcutta.

But other destinations await, such as Laos, although for the moment Burma is the focus with another two vessels going into service there to meet demand.

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