A Conversation with Tom Markwell: Pandaw River Cruises Sails Into the Heart of Southeast Asia

To get to the heart of Southeast Asia, visitors often take land-based tours. But many travelers are increasingly opting for a river cruise as a hassle-free way to see the region’s diverse destinations in a pampered way.

River boats sailing Asian rivers visit top tourism spots but they also give guests a chance to explore small villages and see everyday life along remote rivers.

Pandaw River Cruises, which began cruising on Myanmar’s rivers in 1995, has expanded significantly over the years. It owns and will operate a fleet of seven luxurious river ships by year’s end, with two additional vessels launching in 2012.

Pandaw's small ships sail along the Irawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Myanmar; the Mekong River between Vietnam and Cambodia; and the Rajang River in Malaysian Borneo. The line will launch new voyages along the northern Mekong River in late 2012. 

As part of our ongoing series of conversations with river cruise executives, Travel Agent recently talked with Tom Markwell, Pandaw’s vice president of sales and marketing. Following are highlights.

What’s the history? How did you begin in Myanmar? 

Our founder and owner Paul Strachan is passionate about Burmese art, history, culture and, most of all, its people. He was one of the first people to re-establish a river cruise program in Burma [renamed Myanmar in 1989] for the western market.

Paul did very well with it, reviving the spirit of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It was essentially the first time since World War II that cruises were offered regularly for visitors on the Irrawaddy.

Our river cruise operation expanded to the Chindwin River in 1998, and in 2001, we were the first since Colonial days to offer a complete cruise from Yangon [formerly Rangoon] through Myanmar.

Along the way, the company’s name also changed to Pandaw River Cruises. Pandaw is Burmese and, when translated, means Sacred Flower, which was the name of Paul’s first ship.

What does Pandaw offer today for river cruisers in Myanmar? 

While the infrastructure within Myanmar is not so developed, we offer the most luxurious offerings on the country’s rivers. We currently operate the 48-passenger Pandaw II, built in 2001. And, we’ll launch the new 32-passenger Katha Pandaw in January 2012.

For 2011 and 2012, we operate 10-night, 14-night and 20-night Myanmar cruises. For example, Pandaw II offers a 14-night voyage that traverses 600 miles and allows guests to see virtually all the important sites of Myanmar. We spend two days in Pagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site with 3,000 monuments.

We also visit such small villages as Yandabo, known for its pot making. While there, we visit the Pandaw School, built with donations from our past Pandaw passengers. For each passenger who completes the post-cruise online survey, the line donates $25 toward projects of Pandaw Charity in all regions the line serves.

Myanmar is a very popular destination, but it’s an esoteric option. For some, there is a stigma, given the politics. But the country continues to fascinate people – particularly very seasoned, experienced travelers.

Cruisers will certainly appreciate knowing that we strongly support the local domestic economy. Most of our suppliers and contractors are small businesses.

Generally, people taking a Myanmar river cruise might also do a couple of pre- or post-cruise nights in Yangon. While we don’t do a lot of land in Myanmar, we do see a fair number of people going to Inle Lake.

You’ve really expanded on the Mekong? What’s new?

We currently operate three vessels — Mekong Pandaw, Tonle Pandaw, and Indochina Pandaw on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Built in 2003, the Mekong Pandaw is primarily reserved for groups and FITS. Tonle Pandaw and Indochina Pandaw are charter vessels primarily serving the U.S. and Australian markets. The Saigon Pandaw, a Uniworld ‘new build’ branded as the River Saigon, will begin sailing in January 2012.

We are also in the process of building a 16-cabin vessel which will set sail in February 2012. This is available on a charter-only basis at this time due to the demand for a vessel that can depart from the Saigon River and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam – [and sail] directly up through the Tonle Sap Lake.

We offer a seven-night program that really touches on the highlights of the Mekong. However, what really sets us apart from the competition is our onboard experience. 

On the land side in Vietnam and Cambodia, we offer optional pre- and post-cruise stays in Ho Chi Minh and a two-night pre- and post-cruise stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia. However, we’re considering offering a more comprehensive land program coupled with our seven-night cruise for the 2012-2013 season.

Let’s talk Borneo? What trends do you see and what’s ahead?

I anticipated when we started these “Into the Heart of Borneo” cruises that they might be a bit too esoteric for some clients. But within the past six months, I’m amazed at how much interest we have in these voyages and how many tour operators have come to us to pick up group space.
For example, we signed Road Scholar [the successor to Elderhostel], for example, to provide multiple group departures. I’d say we’re at the beginning of coming into the mainstream cruise market on this itinerary.
Our Orient Pandaw, built in 2008, operates five- and eight-night roundtrip cruises from Sibu. This four-deck luxury vessel is 180 feet long, hand-finished in brass and teak by traditional craftsmen, and has a Colonial character. Its shallow draft means it can sail to remote areas that are unreachable by land travel or by other river vessels.
We have a good ship, we offer all the Pandaw inclusions, and the itinerary has some unique elements for cruise guests. We visit Borneo’s long houses and we go into a bit more nature on this itinerary [compared with our other options elsewhere].

Also, we bring along a separate, 60-passenger, high-speed expedition boat – Pandaw Adventurer. The seats are comfortable and can be turned to face outward. It’s covered from the sun. And it has its own bathroom.

Guests get off the Orient Pandaw and board the Pandaw Adventurer for day trips deeper into the tributaries of the Rajing River. So they see more of this remote region.

Most guests on Borneo river cruises choose our two-night Kuching pre-cruise option, so many have the opportunity to visit the dolphin sanctuary, a nature preserve or a wild orangutan rehabilitation center. The cruise ends in Kota Kinabalu, where some guests stay post-cruise.

Further, with the offering of the five-night night departure, we’ve introduced a two-night, post-cruise tour to the Mulu National Park – arguably the largest cave system in the world.

We’re also working on a Brunei post-cruise tour. There is just so much to offer here, we’re just scratching the surface in bringing this to the U.S. market.

Will You Expand Further in Asia? And what about India?

Yet to come is our Laos program – featuring a 16-passenger vessel very similar to our new Katha Pandaw in Myanmar and our Mekong River new build.

We’re very excited about this project and the list of interested passengers looking for more information is growing. This will be offered exclusively to our Pandaw past passengers and will make its way into the U.S. market in late 2012 most likely.

As for India, it was an unfortunate chain of events that forced us to decide not to continue with our cruise program on the Ganges in India.  The entire situation just reaffirms the value of owning and operating our vessels outright – as we do in every other destination we offer.

We are now working through the US legal system as well as in India to regain possession of our vessel, the RV Bengal Pandaw and reposition her back in Southeast Asia in the not so distant future. 

Many lines lease river vessels, but you own yours? Also, I’ve heard your ships have a bit shallower draft than those some other lines?

Yes, we own all our vessels outright; they’re not financed in any form.

In addition, we’ve built them to our specifications and the draft is one meter (3.3. feet) on average — which makes our vessels very attractive in comparison to our competition.

Who sails on Pandaw? What’s the guest and business mix? 

We have a mix of international clients. In addition to guests from North America, we attract a large number of Australian guests, as well as British and German guests.

I would say that overall, about 60 percent of our clientele is FIT business, and about 40 percent groups. But we’re making a major turnaround in that, and heading through 2011 and into 2012, I see that definitely shifting in the other direction as we make ourselves available through tour operators.

How would you describe the service and amenities onboard?

The vessel is really the passenger’s home while they’re on the river. We offer luxury expeditions; the atmosphere is understated, but very elegant. The service provided aboard is outstanding.

English is the official language onboard.  Our pursers are Asian, fluent in English, and many have worked aboard our ship for a number of years. Our average shipboard staff is 24.

We also believe our vessels set us apart. The look of our ships is very colonial, very refined and very country clubbish. Our ships typically have lots of brass and teak. 

Competitors also may have beautiful ships, of course, but sometimes people get caught up in the aesthetics and don’t realize that on some ships, it’s tough to fit a suitcase in the cabin. In contrast, our vessels have good cabin storage and are very comfortable.

Our ships have deep promenades [rather than private balconies] that are very spacious and right outside your cabin. Every cabin has outside rattan seating.

To expand on this a bit, the primary reason for having a balcony is to have a semi-private outdoor space. This is lovely when cruising the Danube or Rhine, let’s say. However, due to the nature of the climate in Southeast Asia, it’s important to encourage as much air movement as possible around the cabins and public areas [rather than having a small balcony with an air conditioner blowing hot air].

Therefore, we’ve stayed true to the ‘Pandaw Promenade’ which provides comfortable outdoor seating with bar service that allows passengers to sit right outside their cabin and enjoy the passing scenery.

All our ships all have a cocktail bar and dining room. There is a spot for gym equipment for those who want to work out. Guests enjoy an observation or sun deck, as well as a small library, shop, onboard laundry and small spa with a range of treatments.

What’s included in a Pandaw Cruise? What’s not?

Passengers are looking for the best possible way to see remote regions. One factor that really appeals about Pandaw is the inclusivity of our cruises.

Included in all cruise fares is a welcome cocktail party; signature hors d’oeuvres at cocktail time each evening; afternoon tea with cakes or cookies when cruising; cookery demonstrations using local products; at least two cultural performances per cruise; a tour of the engine room, galley and working parts of the ship; a film presentation on local culture and history; cold towels on deck all day; and jugged coffee, tea and tisanes on deck from sunrise until sunset.
We also include wine with dinner for our FIT passengers as do other lines but what sets us apart is our open bar policy throughout the cruise. Some clients like drinks after dinner, for example. We include wine, cocktails, locally made beers and soft drinks within the cruise fare. 
Another perk is that include all scheduled excursions as part of the cruise fare. There are no so-called optional excursions except one to Cambodia’s "Killing Fields" sites, primarily because it's simply not a tour that appeals to all. But if guests choose to go, it’s offered to them at no additional cost. 
In addition, all gratuities for FIT passengers are included on our cruises. What’s extra? Guests typically pay for their own spa services, drinks from the espresso and cappuccino bar, personal laundry services, and some premium/select wines as well as imported mineral waters.
What can clients expect on the dining side?

All meals are at a single seating. Our onboard dress code for meals is smart casual.

The Dining Room – where all meals are held -- is inside and fully air-conditioned.  During breakfast and lunch, we try to keep the sliding doors open on both sides of the Dining Room as the fresh air is preferred. However, dinner is always in a climate controlled environment.

Breakfast is buffet style.  Both hot and cold western options are available, including pancakes, sausage, bacon, hash browns, made-to-order omelets, cereals, cheeses, fresh pastries and a wide selection of juices.

The lunch menu typically provides three entrée selections as well as several salads and a soup made fresh daily. Dinner is full table service. There is a special welcome dinner and farewell gala dinner. We always get really good marks on our food.

What can guests expect in their Cabin?

Our cabins are 168 square feet, all non-smoking and very well air-conditioned. All have private bathrooms.
The newer vessels – Orient Pandaw in Borneo, Indochina Pandaw on the Mekong and River Saigon, Uniworld’s new build on the Mekong, are outfitted with sliding French doors. This really creates a very roomy and open feel.
Guests receive fruit and flowers upon arrival. They also have robes and slippers in the cabin for their use during the cruise. Bottled water is replenished throughout the day. Cabins have mini-safes and hair dryers, and we provide American adaptors, if needed, for use in the cabin.
We have a pillow menu, so our passengers may choose from latex, down or micro fiber pillows: other types are available upon request. Guests also may choose from aromatherapy scents. Nightly turndown service is provided. 
Passengers enjoy Gilchrist & Soames or other bath amenities. Upon request, guests have free use of a mini-DVD player; a selection of DVD movies is available from the onboard library.
What’s important for agents to know?
Agents often call us on our toll-free number and are pleased we speak English and then surprised when they find out we actually answer the phone from our offices in Colorado.
So when an agent makes a booking for the Mekong, for example, it’s all handled here. The core of our organization is now here in the U.S.
We’re working through the agency community to explain the nature of our product. We believe it's a product best booked through a professional travel agent; it’s too much to expect people to go online and book it direct, given the nature of the product. We pay 10 percent base commission, higher for volume.
We’ve begun a monthly newsletter that’s now sent to travel agents. We've also become a member of USTOA. We meet with many agents at trade shows, such as Luxury Travel Expo.
We're planning Webinars for agents. And, we’re going to update and revise our website by year’s end.
We’re trying to get our name out. While a lot of agents have heard of us, they don't always know the differences between our product and that of other lines.

For more information, visit www.pandaw.com.