The Pandaw riverboats (www.pandaw.com) are a unique way to travel the rivers of Asia. We previously traveled on a Pandaw boat from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam up to Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was a memorable experience, so we looked forward to traveling the Ganges on a Pandaw boat.
This is a new trip for Pandaw. We were on only their second trip on the Ganges. They previously made one trip upstream, and we were on the first trip downstream. They were still dealing with the infamous Indian bureaucracy while trying to tend to 41 passengers – all with a new Indian crew because the Indian immigration federalies deported the trained/experienced crew brought in by Pandaw.
RV Bengal Pandaw at anchor
The first trip had not gone well. The boat ran aground just a day or two out of Kolkata. A prop was damaged, and the turning prop damaged a rudder. The boat could not make adequate progress against the strong downriver current of the Ganges, so they traveled with a tug tied to each side – stinky and not particularly scenic.
Passengers got sick – mostly diarrhea. They complained that the service and food were both poor and that the ship was not clean. And, to make a bad situation worse, it rained every day but two. Not a good maiden voyage.
The day before we flew to Delhi to start our travels, we received an e-mail advising us that our 14-days on board would be reduced to 10 with two days in hotels on either end in Varanasi and Kolkata (our Delhi-Agra-Delhi trip was before the river trip). We don’t like hotels (which is part of why we like traveling with Pandaw), and we were not pleased with the news, but we did not see any options. So we flew to Delhi and started our travels between there, Agra, and Varanassi knowing that we would be staying in a hotel in Varanassi (do they have hotels there?) when we arrived there.
Delhi and Agra were great although exhausting. We were dragging, and Nita was already sick when we arrived in Varanassi.
Some of the ship’s passengers had left home before we had, and some did not know about the planned hotel stays. There were some very unhappy campers. However, one of the staff explained the problems with the boat and the first trip, and everyone seemed a bit more willing to go along with the change of plans.
We boarded the Pandaw a ways south of Varanassi at Gazipur. Some things went better than expected, and some were not.
Farrakha Locks moved us from the Ganges to the Bhagirathi River
The good: The boat was clean, and the food was very good despite a few chronic complainers on board. The staff was obviously new and a bit timid, but they were very willing to please. They loosened up considerably over ten days, and they were doing a good job. We had two good guides and a naturalist on board – all knowledgeable and helpful. We stopped at ‘virgin’ places that had not been visited by a boat load of travelers before, and we had some wonderful experiences. The villagers were remarkably friendly. We enjoyed some very nice on-board Indian music and dancing.
The bad: We spent days traveling through the state of Bihar which one guide described as ‘lawless’. So, we had armed military on board – probably six of them at one time flashing their very big guns. When we went ashore, the military went first, and they were rather pushy with the villagers. We understood their desire to feel the area was safe, but we think they created some ill-will with their attitudes (and guns). The boat lacks basic navigational equipment, so we had a tug ahead of us at all times scanning the bottom for the shifting banks. We also had a tug behind us. It’s difficult to feel like a pioneer when you have armed military and two tugs accompanying you. We had problems clearing wires that had been strung across the rivers, and we had to wait for the tide to clear two bridges.
The ugly: This was the worst boat handling we have ever seen. The design of this boat would almost guarantee that it would be difficult to handle – particularly in swift currents – but these problems were far more than just an awkward design. We crashed into the river banks at least five or six times, and we had at least that many near misses. We even ran over our own tender that we were towing to take us ashore – TWICE. The mother ship completely removed the stern and transom of the tender. We saw villagers scramble up the riverbank as we passed much too quickly and our stern swung out of control. We found it dangerous and frightening, and the scrambling villagers did too.
Although the boat can carry up to 60 passengers, we had 41 on board. We never felt crowded. Our cabins were as comfortable as we remembered on the Mekong trip, and the few maintenance issues were not problematic. The food was mostly very good. There were a few weak meals, but never bad.
All in all, we would summarize the trip as wonderful despite the glitches. Pandaw is a service-conscious company, and we are confident that the crew will only get better in time. Their only big problem is their captain, and we trust they will handle that problem appropriately too.
We would strongly encourage adventurous travelers to travel the rivers of Asia with Pandaw. It really was a fabulous way to see this part of the world!
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Our tender sans stern & transom