In its heyday in the 1920s, the fabled Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. transported millions of passengers each year along the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (formerly Burma) with a fleet of more than 600 vessels.
Today, Pandaw Cruises, a Singapore-based river cruise line with head offices in Scotland, is slowly rebuilding that legacy, if on a smaller scale.
Like its bygone predecessor, Pandaw first began offering river cruises in Myanmar along the Irrawaddy River in 1995, expanding to Myanmar's Chindwin River in 1998. In 2003, the company began offering river cruises between Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong River.
Now, Pandaw is unveiling two new ships as well as a new river cruise on the Rajang River in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.
The two ships are the Orient Pandaw, which launched Sept. 29, and the RV Indochina Pandaw, which sets sail this month. Both were built in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon).
Like all ships in the Pandaw fleet, the Orient Pandaw, which will run the Rajang River itinerary starting in July, and the RV Indochina Pandaw are replicas of colonial-era river steamers.
All Pandaw ships accommodate 60 passengers, with 30 staterooms each measuring 168 square feet.
The four other ships in the Pandaw fleet are the Pandaw II, built in 2001; the RV Tonle Pandaw, built in 2002; the RV Mekong Pandaw, built in 2003; and the Pandaw IV, built in 2004.
The Irrawaddy of yore
The Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. was founded in the 1860s by Scottish merchants, according to Pandaw Cruises.
By numerous accounts, the company started with just a handful of vessels and by the 1920s, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. reached its peak with more than 600 vessels, the largest fleet in the world.
By 1930, the company was transporting several million people up and down the river each year.
The vessels were namely steamers, the largest class of which were 350 feet in length and licensed to carry 4,000 passengers, according to Pandaw Cruises.
The steamers were for the most part built in Glasgow and transported to the Irrawaddy.
In 1942, the majority of the fleet was sunken and destroyed when the Japanese invaded.
In 1948, what was left of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. was nationalized and became the Inland Water Transport.
Pandaw picks up the pieces
Pandaw Cruises was founded in 1995 when owner Paul Strachan thought to restore an original Clyde-built steamer called the Pandaw and revive river cruising on the Irrawaddy River.
Strachan, a Scotsman who lived in Myanmar for 18 months, bought a ship built in 1947 in the same style as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. steamers.
That ship, the 32-passenger RV Pandaw, as well as a replica, the 55-passenger RV Paukan built in 2007, are now run by Ayravata Cruises, based in Yangoon, Myanmar. The ships operate on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers.
Starting with the Pandaw II in 2001, Pandaw Cruises began building replicas of the old Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. ships from the ground up, first in Myanmar, and this year moved the construction to Ho Chi Minh City.
"It's all done the old-fashioned, beautiful way," said Mikkelsen. "It's solid, but it's also all brand-new."
Mikkelsen said that while he couldn't reveal the cost of building the six ships that make up the Pandaw fleet, he did confirm that all six are paid in full.
Pandaw's river cruises appeal to an international baby boomer clientele, Mikkelsen said.
The majority of business comes from the U.K., followed by other European countries, Australia and New Zealand, and then the U.S., South America and Asia.
"A lot of people that have traveled a lot already, quite well-educated, and a very international clientele," said Mikkelsen about the typical Pandaw demographic.
At an average cost of $170 to $250 per person, per day (not including airfare), Pandaw Cruises runs several itineraries in each of its destinations: six in Myanmar and three along the Mekong, and now the Borneo itinerary.
That price includes all shore excursions (at least one per day), transfers, all meals, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, entrance fees to museums and additional onboard services, according to Mikkelsen.
The newest itinerary, "Into the Heart of Borneo," will be an eight-day river cruise along the Rajang River, the longest river in Malaysia at more than 450 miles.
The new Orient Pandaw will make the trip three times a month from Sibu to the Pelagus Rapids and up the Baleh River.
Pandaw offers a standard agent commission on river cruise bookings of 10%.
As the volume of bookings increases the commission can go up to 15% with no deductions, according to Mikkelsen.
The company pays a flat 20% commission on groups, which it defines as 10 cabins or more.
As for Pandaw's competition in the Southeast Asia river cruising market, there isn't much yet.
In addition to the Ayravata ships, one of the only other river cruise ships on the Irrawaddy, the Road to Mandalay, owned by Orient-Express, was severely damaged in Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar in May.
According to the company's website, the 112-passenger ship isn't expected to return to service until the summer.
The Phnom Penh, Cambodia-based Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong owns and operates five ships along the Mekong River.
The company's 48-passenger Indochine is offered by Fountain Valley, Calif.-based operator Value World Tours.
Today, Strachan is retired from the operational side of Pandaw Cruises. His main focus now is the Pandaw Charity, which raises funds for schools and other projects along the rivers Pandaw sails.