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Two Asian rivers and two experiences

Author: John M. (More Trip Reviews by 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.

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