It was just 10 years ago that the first overnight passenger vessel christened the
Mekong River for the Western market, touching off a decade of accelerating
growth. Next year, at least nine ships will ply the Mekong, offering a wealth of
itineraries along a waterway that flows directly through the heart of some of
Southeast Asia’s most desirable destinations.
“I’m always looking for potential rivers,” Rudi Schreiner,
president of Ama Waterways, said in a September interview
onboard the inaugural sailing of the company’s second Me-
kong ship, the 124-passenger AmaLotus. “And there were
several rivers always on my mind. The Mekong was one of
Schreiner was introduced to the river in 2007, when he
and his daughter traveled to Vietnam and took a Mekong
cruise on Pandaw River Cruises’ 66-passenger Tonle Pan-
daw. He fell in love with the destination.
“We had a wonderful time in the towns” up and down
the river, Schneider recalled. “I loved the itinerary.”
The classic Mekong river cruise sails a route from Siem
Reap, Cambodia, across Tonle Sap Lake, through the Cam-
bodian capital of Phnom Penh and onto Vietnam’s largest
city, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Many itinerar-
ies also include a flight to Hanoi for an overnight cruise
through Halong Bay.
Schreiner decided he wanted to build his own vessel,
“something along the lines of our European ships,” so he
partnered with a Hanoi-based shipbuilder, Indochina
Sails, which until then had specialized in junks that sail in
Halong Bay. Together they launched the 92-passenger La
Marguerite in 2009, touching off what would eventually
become a flurry of interest in the destination.
The recent rush of Western cruise companies to the Mekong came as something of a surprise to the river cruise
company that pioneered the waterway for the Western
“We’re all kind of surprised … by how quickly it’s taken
place,” said Tom Markwell, vice president of sales and mar-
keting at Pandaw River Cruises. “The companies that are
experiencing the real success with selling this are the Vi-
kings and the Uniworlds and the Amas of the world, who
have had past success [in Europe], and their customers are
looking for something new. Other than building another
ship on the Danube, what were they going to offer their
Markwell’s surprises have been decidedly positive. As a
pioneer on the Mekong, Pandaw has a solid foundation in
what Western cruisers are looking for in a Southeast Asia
product. As a result, the company has struck partnerships,
either to charter existing ships or build new vessels, with
many of the recently arrived river cruise operators that tar-
get the U.S. market.
Next year alone, for example, Viking will charter the
Tonle Pandaw; Avalon Waterways will lease the 32-pas-
senger Avalon Angkor, which will launch in September;
and Uniworld River Cruises is partnering with Pandaw
on a three-year charter of the 60-passenger River Saigon,
which will launch in January. Moreover, Uniworld has
already inked a second deal with Pandaw for an
additional ship on the Mekong, the 60-pas-
senger River Orchid, launching in January
many of the
world’s other great
inland waterways, the
Mekong has remained a
frontier in river
The birth of the Mekong cruise
Many of the world’s other great inland waterways, including the Amazon, Danube, Nile, Mississippi, Volga
and Yangtze, have a history, ranging
from a few decades to more than a century, of overnight cruise itineraries for
Western passengers. Yet the Mekong has remained a relatively untouched frontier in river
That all began to change in 1995, when Pandaw River
Cruises was founded by a Scotsman named Paul Stra-chan. His concept was to restore the Pandaw, an original
Clyde-built steamer, and revive the river cruising legacy
of the fabled Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which in its heyday
in the 1920s operated a fleet of more than 600 vessels that
transported millions of passengers each year along the Irrawaddy River in what was then Burma.
The first ship Strachan’s new company sailed on the
Mekong, in 2001, was the 56-passenger Pandaw I, later
renamed the Bengal Pandaw and repositioned to Myanmar, the former Burma. In 2003, the Tonle Pandaw and
the 64-passenger Mekong Pandaw were introduced on the
Mekong. In 2008, two more ships were brought onto the
Mekong, the Indochina Pandaw and Orient Pandaw.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Pandaw finally had some company on the Mekong. That was the year Ama Waterways
partnered with Indochina Sails to launch La Marguerite,
and Heritage Line, a Ho Chi Minh City-based company,
entered the market with the 54-passenger Jayavarman.
To build the AmaLotus, Ama and Indochina Sails cre-
ated a joint venture, Indochina Waterways, which owns
the AmaLotus. (Ama does not have any stake in Indochina
Sails, which owns the La Marguerite, but Schreiner said the
company is looking into the possibility of retroactively ac-
quiring partial ownership of the vessel.)
Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s allure
The growing demand for the Mekong
has been remarkable, in part, because the
destinations it touches have matured.
“In the past few years, Vietnam and Cambodia are
getting quite mainstream,” Markwell said. “The infrastruc-
ture is there. Even five years ago, you didn’t have the Inter-
But there is another part to the story, as well: the healing
of old war wounds.
Jim Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran who sailed on the
inaugural AmaLotus cruise, has seen the changes firsthand,
both in the infrastructure and in the psychology of people
on two sides of a controversial war that whimpered to a
tragic end in the 1970s.
Today, Anderson lives in Lakeway, Texas, with his wife,
Joann, owner of the Joann’s Travels agency. But from September 1965 to February 1966, he served in Vietnam, flying
helicopters that transported troops into and out of Vietnam’s central highlands.
He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1995, accompanied by Joann and a fellow veteran.
“We had been there during the war and wanted to see
the country,” he recalled. “We went to Saigon, and at that
time they were not ready for tourists.”
But by the time he and his veteran buddy “went back in
’07 … they were ready. The hotels were all updated, and it
See MEKONG on Page 18
Life along the Mekong in Vietnam; right, children at the Ama Waterways- sponsored English-language school in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
NOVEMBER 7, 2011