Retraced grandmother’s Mekong trip

By David Smith
This item appears on page 16 of the March 2021 issue.

I was one of three grandchildren who, in March 2018, along with our spouses, retraced a trip that was taken up the Mekong River by our grandmother, Phoebe Ellison, in 1909.

We elected to go by period riverboats that were owned and run by Pandaw (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; phone +84 985 417 758, The boats had been rebuilt or were reproductions of those of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, the largest riverboat company in the world in the mid-19th century.

For her 3-week vacation, our grandmother traveled with two other ladies. All were Thomason missionary teachers in Manila, Philippines, and wished to travel exotically.

A notice in the shipping news had shown a tramp cattle steamer, the Solstad, sailing to French Indochina for rice. After interviewing the Norwegian captain, they arranged passage for $1 a day each in his few staterooms.

They reached My Tho in four days, including crossing the China Sea. Their ship required a local pilot for sailing up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh.

Pioneering American women tourists in Cambodia, which was then a province of French Indochina, our grandmother’s group presented their credentials, including a letter from the governor-general of the Philippines, to the French resident general, and an audience with the king of Cambodia was soon arranged. The king was fluent in French and arranged for them to visit his harem and ride on his royal elephants through the city.

Before our visit, we sent all of that historical information along with period photographs to the current king. Included were photographs of a wall painting depicting the history of Cambodia and of my grandmother’s group on the royal elephants in 1909. Alas, we received no response.

For our embarkation, we took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho, where we boarded the RV Tonle Pandaw and headed up the Mekong Delta. Halfway to our destination, the ship stopped at Phnom Penh, where half of the 48 passengers disembarked, before continuing on to Kampong Cham. From there, we went by bus to Siem Reap and the many Angkor area temple complexes.

We were so enthralled with Southeast Asia, the lower Mekong River travel and Pandaw that we joined a more expedition-like trip in Laos on the 10-cabin, 3-foot-draft Laos Pandaw. This was more or less a barge converted for smaller rivers and restored in teak and brass.

After the Laos Pandaw was restored, Pandaw hired the captain to make the same run who had done so for years delivering timber. The passenger trip ran from Vientiane, Laos, to Chiang Saen, Thailand, with an extra night in Luang Prabang, Laos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The captain easily negotiated swirls, rapids and rocks and was able to dock at many of the sandbanks. As on our grandmother’s trip, it was the dry season, with a low water level, and the banks were often 50 feet high. We visited villages with less than a mile of road each, though, as on the Tonle Pandaw, there were mountain bikes on board that we could use to ride on trails.

The staterooms on the Laos Pandaw were adequate in size, with twin beds and excellent full bathrooms plus Western and local food. It was much more engaging than a cruise on a larger boat would have been. Our grandmother would have loved it.

Bend, OR