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Grand river cruises set to return

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The Tonle Pandaw is set to cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap along the Mekong River. Photo by: JOHN McDERMOTT

SIEM Reap is set to benefit from a resurgence in the cruise ship industry, especially with the increasing interest in a niche segment of that market – river cruises.

Several international companies are gearing up to service the region with new river cruise itineraries and even new ships, starting next month when Pandaw River Cruises kicks off its seasonal seven-day voyage program from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa.

The vessel making this voyage, which departs Siem Reap on June 4, is the Tonle Pandaw which was launched in Myanmar, November 2002.

The Pandaw vessels owe some of their design to the 650 vessels that plied the rivers of Myanmar during the 1920s. That fleet belonged to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, and the craft were scuppered in 1942 as an Act of Denial when the Japanese invaded.

In 1995, Scotsman Paul Strachan revived the Irrawaddy Flotilla, renaming it Pandaw River Cruises, and now its vessels cruise rivers in Myanmar and Borneo, and along the Mekong.

Last year, in October, the company began constructing a new vessel, the RV Saigon Pandaw, to sail the Ho Chi Minh City-Siem Reap route later this year.

This will be a smaller vessel with a shallow draft giving it more scope for inland navigation in rapidly changing river conditions.

Last week US-based river cruise company Avalon Waterways said it would also build a vessel to sail between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.

According to USA Today, Avalon’s marketing chief Steve Born said the company is building the Avalon Angkor vessel, capable of carrying 32 passengers to sail the Mekong River which will begin some time in 2012 because, he says: “We’ve seen a rise in popularity in that area.”

Avalon’s managing director Patrick Clark told USA Today that the company’s plans for the Mekong are different from its competitors.

“The unique thing is it’s going to be a small vessel. It will be the only one that can sail from the centre of Ho Chi Minh City all the way to Siem Reap,” Clark said, adding that the larger ships that competitors are placing on the river aren’t as flexible.

Avalon is similar to another US-based river cruise company, AmaWaterways.

In September 2009, the company launched its “Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong” itinerary which includes Siem Reap, and the vessel plying this route is the 75-metre MS La Marguerite, decked out in tropical woods and regional Khmer artefacts.

In January the company announced that it will launch a new and larger state-of-the-art vessel this year to do the Siem Reap-HCMC run.

The 90-metre good ship MS AmaLotus will sail out of Siem Reap on September 13. The cruise boat features all-outside accommodations and deluxe 226-square-foot staterooms. 

Next year, Lindblad Expeditions will also run 14-day cruises on the Ho Chi Minh City-Siem Reap route using the 48-passenger ship Jahan.

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