Blogger quote at http://thedogster.wordpress.com/extra-looking-for-jayarvarman/
There’s a war on the Mekong, and it ain’t very nice.
Pandaw Cruises began in Burma in 1995 and expanded operations to
Vietnam in 2003. The R.V. Mekong Pandaw pioneered the Mekong cruise
concept, grew the brand and reaped the not-inconsiderable rewards,
It was a brilliant idea; a week spent sailing up the Mekong from
Saigon to Siem Reap on an old-time river freighter. Intriguing,
adventurous – in a safe kind of way – perfect for the cardigans. It
didn’t take long to catch on. A year later R.V. Tonle Pandaw joined
the fleet and together the two leap-frogged their way to a growing
profit for the next five years.
Pandaw was running the river unchallenged. Prices crept up,
occupancy climbed – soon you couldn’t get a berth. Each ship has
about thirty cabins so, bar the odd tragic single, the fleet was
running with a capacity of around one hundred and twenty intrepid
cruisers a week. Each ship did one cruise every seven days – up
river or down. In high season every cruise was full.
In early 2009 they added a third, mystery ship; RV Indochina Pandaw
– this one reserved entirely for the kangaroo trade. Sold
exclusively within the Australian travel market, boat-loads of
cruisers are flown in and out secretly each week – a weekly Pand-awful
of Aussies, a relentless pandemic of ‘noice’. Every cruise is full.
The aesthetic of the Pandaw fleet hasn’t changed in fifty years; all
that dark wood; those wooden walls, wooden floors, wooden ceilings,
the wooden window frames, those dark wooden bathrooms, wooden
tables, wooden chairs, wooden toiler seat, wooden shower, wooden
lamp, wooden food. There is always the tang of boarding school about
a Pandaw – it’s a very brown experience; the basics clad in romance,
But it was perfect branding; a touch of the Raj, a bit of George
Orwell, a bit of Hogwarts thrown in; Singapore Slings on the top
deck, the muddy romance of low seas, high jinks for the old
Call it an ‘adventure’ cruise and you could get away with almost
anything. Surround yourself with indemnities and clauses, foreign
courts and company law, you could practically kill the punters and
you were covered. It was an intrepid, rather British thing to do.
Getting hoist on a sandbank, having to abandon ship, deal with
cyclone, low-water or high was all part of the jolly hockey sticks
appeal of it all, an ersatz expedition into the heart of darkness.
It doesn’t take the bean counters long to realize that if someone
offered something different, a more up-market brand catering to the
Euro-market, great riches would be theirs. If you build it, they
will come. They did and they did.
In late September 2009
R.V. La Marguerite arrived on the scene – a bigger ship with
forty-six cabins; a maximum ninety-two passengers, a different
Euro-aesthetic aiming at a new market. An offshoot of Avalon
Cruises, one of the major players in the European River Cruise
market and connected to everyone everywhere, they were geared to
adventurous, cashed-up Europeans intent on ‘The Authentic Mekong
Experience’ with maximum Euro river-cruise style. .
A month later, Pandaw and Uniworld
finally set sail. Bedeviled with shonky internet sites (haha),
cancelled cruises, outrage in internet chat rooms, dire warnings of
scam and corruption, the little player managed to get her head above
water and blitzed the opposition. Here’s a picture of the C.E.O.:
There’s no real reason to put a picture of Thomas Peters in here. I
never did meet him but there’s something about the picture I like.
It says a lot about the company.
Pandaw and Uniworld is a
smaller operation; just fifty-six clients – a more personal,
boutique vessel. Small is beautiful with river-cruises – the stops
are easier, the tours less frantic, the ambience much more relaxed
on board. This time someone got the aesthetic right.
Suddenly Pandaw was looking kinda old. Their ‘ye olde river-boat’
brand, beloved of geriatric British Pandodderers, was looking dated
and tired. All that dark wood, those dingy cabins with their tiddly
single beds and dim lights, those dark blue bedspreads, that
boarding school cuisine was looking very nineteen nineties. Pandaw
appealed to a certain type of British tourist, a certain type of
Australian and the odd New Zealander. While they had the market sewn
up they attracted the Americans, Germans and French intrepid enough
to brave such an Anglo-phile endeavor.
How big is the Mekong cruise industry? How long is a piece of
string? Nobody knows – the industry grows like Topsy. Once the
newcomers arrived with their Euro-Asian decor, luxury double-beds
and private balconies, the market split – and expanded. Both
recorded significant custom. The profits were instantaneous. Watch
out Pandaw, there’s a new kid in town.
After only nine months in the market,
Pandaw and Uniworld is booked
solid for the next twelve months, their second vessel;
R.V. RiverSaigon scheduled for
her maiden voyage in early 2011. That’s a considerable achievement
for the little player. La Marguerite is exactly the same. In March
2011 a second vessel,
Ama Lotus in their fleet begins cruising up and down the Mekong.
Then Pandaw is launching a fourth vessel. In only two years, the
number of Luxury River
Cruisers on the Mekong will have increased from two to eight,
the number of double cabins available each week from sixty to
five-hundred plus. That’s an increase in passenger numbers of eight
So there’s a war on the Mekong and it ain’t very nice. Three river
cruise companies are vying for the tourist buck – and there are a
lot of tourists and lot of bucks. Highly competent Cambodian and
Vietnamese staff are very happy to be paid third-world wages while
their passengers pay first-world prices and leave big fat
first-world tips. Everybody makes money; the crews can double their
wages on tips every season. The shore operations, the tourist
attractions, the boatmen, the bus-drivers, the orphanages, the
villages et al can see the future – an eight-fold increase in their
business delivered daily to their door.
Every one is positioning, making allies, staking territory – indeed,
in the dash for cash, as far as the Mekong tourist industry is
concerned, the more the merrier – as long as it’s more of the same.