Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Cruise Weekly: An empire experience along Borneo's Rajang River

A neatly arranged set of wicker chairs under a sprawling awning on the top deck is peopled by a selection of the Empire's finest citizens. Urbane conversation on the arts, literature and geography can be heard above the clink of ice in glasses of gin and tonic.

A timeless vessel
This scene could be either one of the original 1920s Irrawaddy Flotilla Company vessels making its leisurely way up the Mekong through Burma or indeed our own vessel, the brand new RV Orient Pandaw, here on a ground-breaking 10-night itinerary on Borneo's Rajang River, the longest in Malaysia.

Such is the authenticity of this vessel, she was built according to original blueprints obtained by fastidious fleet owner and patriotic Scotsman, Paul Strachan. After restoring an original Clyde-built vessel, the Pandaw, Strachan went on to build a further six faithful replicas, all finished in copious teak and brass and dripping in colonial history.

The Rajang River
Today the Rajang is a busy commercial waterway around the Chinese-founded port city of Sibu. Shipbuilding, timber and various marine commerce dominate the lower reaches, while upstream is wild Dayak territory, populated by an assortment of indigenous ethnic groups, the largest being the fabled Iban headhunters. The tradition of the longhouse is maintained, but the signature buildings are now mainly ironroofed structures resembling vast barracks.

The itinerary
This itinerary is best described as a work-in-progress, but the excitement of seeking out new destinations is irresistible and hordes of curious, waving locals line the riverbank as we motor serenely past. Children cautiously cling to their mothers before managing a delicate wave in response to our own greetings.

Onboard living
Onboard living is an unrepentant throwback to the glory days of Empire, when England was the world. Doting Burmese staff tend to your every whim with such reverence, it's almost comical, but their sincerity is genuine and heartfelt.

Meals are served in a bright, airy dining room, ventilated by enormous picture windows that open out across the expanse of river. Gentle breezes waft through the room making air-conditioning both intrusive and redundant.

Lemongrass-scented baked fish fillet, ginger roast duck or Cambodian dried beef with black pepper emerge from the kitchen along with chicken, steak or ostrich fillet to be crowned with local sweets such a onde-onde, a rice flour, palm sugar and coconut delicacy.

Coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer and local spirits are included. Wines are typically US$25 per bottle and US$8 per glass.

There is also a library and video theatre with wi-fi connection on the top deck.

Passengers and excursions
Passengers are certainly of a more refined ilk and few cite experiences aboard traditional large cruise ships. Repeat expeditioners and Pandaw frequent cruisers are in the main with retired, but active couples filling most places. Our contingent is Australians, British, a few Americans and a Swiss couple.

Shore excursions are mainly village visits and naturalist treks, but those wanting more intimate wildlife encounters can book optional pre- and post-tours from the website. The vessel is currently without its own tenders, which places undue reliance on local operators to ferry passengers on excursions, but two ten-passenger tenders are planned.


Read more at Yahoo!'s Adventure Cruising section.


For further information on this Pandaw river cruise, visit:
www.pandaw.com

Fly to Borneo with Malaysian Airlines:
www.malaysiaairlines.com

For further information about visiting Sarawak:
www.sarawaktourism.com