Savoring Exotic Asia

There are few places left in the world where travelers can taste and experience the exotic, out-of-the-way destinations where the unique is the norm and getting there is as much a part of the adventure as the adventure itself. Enter Pandaw River Cruises and Asia Transpacific Journeys – two Asian travel entities that specialize in exotic, unique, Asian travel adventures.

Pandaw River Cruises explores the rivers of Asia’s most exotic countries—Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong, the Rajang and Baleh rivers in Borneo, and the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers in Burma or Myanmar—while Asia Transpacific Journeys does one-of-a-kind land programs in some of the remotest parts of Asia.

pandaw river cruises Pandaw got its start in 1995 reviving an old colonial river boat company and initiating cruises on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Burma, coming to the Mekong in 2002 with cruises between Saigon and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and followed by its Borneo program in 2010.

“It’s a niche market to begin with and we’re a niche within a niche if you will,” explains Tom Markwell, v.p., sales and marketing, Pandaw River Cruises. “To some extent, going to Vietnam or Cambodia is a bit of an esoteric, off-the-beaten-path experience for many Americans, so there’s your niche market. Then you go into a colonial-style, small ship program,” he says, referring to the style of the six ships Pandaw is currently operating with two more on the way. “We’re like one layer below that.”

But there’s something to be said about being first in the marketplace because after the interest in river cruising began to grow because of the explosive growth of European cruising, those consumers began to look around for new river cruising experiences and the big boys in the business looked to the Mekong, and Pandaw was already there with the ships and the expertise. As a result, they’re now operating programs for Viking River Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and this month, Avalon Waterwayshas signed on, and as a result, there are two new ships scheduled for 2012—one for Uniworld and the other for Avalon. And with this exposure, comes the opportunity for more growth in Pandaw’s Borneo and Burma programs from both consumers and river cruise companies.

“Without a doubt, with the exposure from Viking, then from Uniworld and now coming on board with Avalon Waterways, it’s pushed us forward so quickly and far better than any marketing I could have done just being one person,” Markwell points out. “It’s really been good for us because once they’re on board, the natural question after they’ve had a good experience, is, ‘Where else do you go?’ then comes the benefit for Pandaw because then these people are ready for the next trip. And, of course, companies like Uniworld know this. I’ve been on board with several of their staff and they’ve heard it themselves from the passengers, so naturally Uniworld’s next question with me is, ‘Where are we going next?’ So, it’s an interesting progression.”

Borneo is the soft adventure, Markwell says, the highlights of which are visiting the long houses, both traditional and modern, exploring the architectural vestiges of the Brooke Raj, jungle treks and boarding the long boat (expedition boat) to shoot the Pelagus Rapids.

“The selling point for Borneo is the soft adventure. The itinerary for those who are looking for that, it’s just ideal. The trekking, the days we shoot the rapids on the expedition boat and the biggest highlight is the addition of our excursion to the Mulu Caves—it’s a 2-night extension at the end of the cruise program,” he says. “The Mulu Caves are the largest cave system in the world and we spend two nights there on land, post-cruise and it’s just unbelievable. There are four caves—not too extremely difficult, a lot of walking but fairly easy walking. It is really well put together and that’s given the program a lot of life because I don’t know of any other company that has that as part of a program. The quality of the photography, the quality of our guides, and the experience of kayaking to the caves, it’s just unbelievable.… That’s an easy sell for people who are looking for that.”