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Two Asian rivers and two experiences

Author: John M.
Date of Trip: April 2007

Cruising two of Asia’s great rivers – the Mekong and the Brahmaputra – is rather like comparing driving the Hume highway between Melbourne and Sydney with a journey across the Nullabor Plain. And, if like me, you like being in sight of land 100 percent of the time, a river cruise is the only way to go.

The Mekong is an almost frantic river that carries a never ending stream of barges, cargo and passengers vessels, and its banks are regularly lined by cities, villages and crops. People are everywhere, be it on boats or on shore. The Brahmaputra, on the other hand, is remote and brooding. Because of massive annual flooding – the width varies from up to 25km in the monsoon season to less than five km in the dry – villages are few and far between and generally built some distance from the banks, while the scenery varies from massive sand islands to dense jungle habitats for elephants, rhinos and tigers.

I travelled both rivers within a 12 month period, and was astonished by the differences. Each offered unique 7-night cruises aboard immensely comfortable vessels with generally two on-shore excursions per day. And each is adventurous.

The Mekong cruise is operated by Pandaw, which has two superb vessels – the “Mekong Pandaw” and the “Tonle Sap Pandaw” – reminiscent of those of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and accommodate up to 60 passengers in total luxury. They ply between the Mekong Delta and Cambodia’s Siem Reap, and is a very professional operation.

The Assam Bengal Navigation Company makes no pretences about copying the Pandaw’s modus operandi, and cruises various sections of the Brahmaputra River in smaller but similar vessels that carry up to 24 passengers. While less luxurious, they are more intimate. It’s also more of a “do it yourself” type of cruise in terms of getting to and from the start-finish points, and perhaps more for experienced ‘travellers’ than ‘tourists’.

Both cruises are memorable.

My “Mekong Pandaw” cruise whetted my appetite for the Brahmaputra cruise, and later this year I am doing the Pandaw’s challenging 12-night Upper Irrawaddy cruise in Myanmar/Burma.

I met my travelling companions at the plush Riverside Renaissance Hotel in Saigon, and after a 2-hour bus journey to My Tho on the banks of the Mekong, we arrived at the vessel where we were shown to the massive rear saloon for our initial briefing before being handed the keys to our cabins.

The cabins are on three decks, and decorated in teak. Each is large, and air conditioned, and have their own ensuite bathroom and toilet, twin wardrobes, writing desk, very comfortable twin bunks, and cane furnishings. I was travelling in the bottom of the range cabins, which meant that I had two portholes as opposed to large windows, but it was larger and cooler than those on the upper two decks.

The vessel has a vast canvas-roofed panoramic sundeck with sun lounges, a self-service bar stocked with beer, soft drink, water and tea and coffee (all free); a plush dining room where meals are eaten in an informal atmosphere; plus the delightfully decorated rear saloon – ideal for before and after dinner drinks with your fellow passengers.

Meals are what one would expect in a quality restaurant. The buffet breakfast is vast, with juices, tea and coffee, fruit, cereals and porridge, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausages, hash browns and Vietnamese specialities. Lunch is also self service and very expansive (often including soup and desert), and the evening meal is always a three course table service event – and features a choice of western and Vietnamese or Cambodian dishes. Australian European and American wines are served with lunch and dinner.

The morning and afternoon on-shore excursions generally last about 2-3 hours each and use much smaller vessels that can navigate the myriad of canals and tributaries that feed into the Mekong. They include visits to magnificent temples through to an orphanage and school (both supported by Pandaw), brick works, snake wine makers, toffee manufacturers, a trishaw ride, floating fish farms, and walks through riverside villages and local markets. The cruise gets off to a wonderful start with an afternoon excursion of the floating markets at the Mekong delta.

Days merge into each other as you make new friends, enjoy the excursions and meals, or simply laze in the glorious sun on the panoramic deck, which also makes an excellent viewing and photographic platform. That the vessel is stable is symbolized by the full-size billiard table on the top deck.

The final several hours of the cruise is by a large high powered luxury speedboat 150km across Lake Tonle Sap to Siem Reap, location of the amazing Angkor temples. The lake is the biggest in Asia and doubles in size when the Mekong floods, forcing water to literally run uphill via the Tonle Sap River.

The Pandaw’s Mekong cruise also stops at large cities, including Chau Doc, near the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, and Phnom Penh – where passengers visit the Killing Fields Memorial Stupa and the grim S21 detention centre, as well as the Russian Market.

By cruise end, passengers have travelled 750km and seen a side of Vietnam and Cambodia that is rarely seen by Western tourists. The Brahmaputra cruise is an entirely different experience.

I flew into Kolkata and the next morning took a flight to Guwahti, in Assam, where I was met by representatives of ABN who took me on a five hour drive to Bansbari, the company’s jungle lodge on the edge of Manas National Park and only a short drive from the India-Bhutan border. After a four night stay, I was driven for about six hours to Silghat, to join the ABN vessel “Sukapha”. She is a relatively new ship and sister to the much older and restored “Charaidew”.

Both vessels are similar in design to the “Mekong Pandaw”, but are smaller and only have one accommodation deck for 24 passengers in 12 cabins. The “Sukapha” has a large saloon and outdoor area at the bow – offering splendid panoramic views – a large top sundeck with an honesty bar, and an excellent dining room. Passengers can also have access (for a fee) to the on-board massage parlor.

The twin-bunk cabins are a little smaller than those of the “Mekong Pandaw”, but still well equipped with an ensuite shower and toilet, writing desk, chairs, and wardrobe. It’s a more intimate cruise due to the significantly smaller number of passengers – but on trips like this you generally find that only interesting people book them. My cruise, for instance, included a hilarious Italian millionaire businessman (he once rented a vast apartment in the centre of Rome to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and his wife, the owner of one of Britain’s most successful independently-owned travel agencies, the UK’s first female Uniting Church minister (she professed to hate Easter and always took holidays at that time), a former CIA officer, and a couple of very humorous Indian travel agents.

Meals are similar to those of the “Mekong Pandaw”, although much more casual, and there is no table service for the evening meal. While local alcohol and soft drinks are free on the Pandaw, the ABN charges. Excursions are more remote, and made via a much smaller tender vessel that accompanies the “Sukapha”.

We visited a number of Missing tribe villages where visiting Europeans are still regarded as a novelty; Majuli – the world’s largest river island where we saw magnificent dancing monks; Hindu monasteries and temples; and majestic Kaziranga National Park – which is home to tigers, one horned rhinos, elephants and teeming birdlife. ABN has since opened a small luxury resort near the Park’s entrance.

The river is much quieter than the Mekong. Most cargo travels by road, so the river is very sedate in terms of traffic. The widespread flooding during the monsoon means that the river is constantly changing direction and creating new sand islands and channels – which makes navigation difficult. It is quite common to spend a day zigzagging and travelling twice as far as one needs to. But, as the with Pandaw, the top sundeck is comfortable and affords splendid views as you laze on lounges sipping a gin and tonic or take photographs.

The cruise, which covered about 350 km, ends near Sibsagar, and passengers are either taken to their prearranged accommodation in Dibrugarh or Jorhat – or to the cities’ airports for either the return flight to Australia, or the next section of one’s visit to India. Unlike the Pandaw, which operates the same trip up and down stream, the ABN offers a choice of about 6 different cruises as well as voyages along the Hugli River.

You can’t possibly compare the cruises, for each is so different despite being undertaken in very similar vessels. But each provides lifetime memories. Both navigate two of Asia’s greatest rivers, and both have wonderful on-shore excursions. Photographers, in particular, would love either cruise – for subject matter abounds.

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