Nothing compares to a Mekong River Cruise through Cambodia and Vietnam for cross-cultural experiences to delight the senses, as John Roberts discovers.
A horde of excited Cambodian kids run towards us from the village, faces beaming. Today, we were going to help them with their English lesson.
It’s the highlight on a spectacular day that started when we hiked into the hills to the 7th-century temple village of Wa Hanchey and an equally warm welcome from residents and Buddhist monks, who honoured us with a traditional water blessing.
Now, meeting with these eager students in the rural village of Angkor Ban, I feel doubly blessed.
They’re the kinds of interactions I’d hoped for while travelling with my wife and two other family members on our Avalon Waterways’ Mekong River cruise.
The school is open on a Sunday and the kids, aged seven to 12, want to learn. My two students, lovely girls of 10 and 12, wave me over to sit next to them and we start reading from a book.
This is just one of the dozens of cultural and local experiences on the 13-day trip. The itinerary, which began in Siem Reap, Cambodia, included a seven-day cruise on the 36-passenger luxury river ship Avalon Siem Reap.
We went downriver to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam – but you can book an itinerary in either direction.
Avalon Waterways designed Avalon Siem Reap especially for the Mekong River, teaming maximum comfort with access to places other ships can’t reach.
There is no sundeck. It’s far too hot for one. Instead, on the new ship, interior space is optimised. The 18 cabins are immense and the design includes showers big enough for two and beds that face floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall sliding glass doors offering a panorama of the Mekong.
The ship has just two passenger decks, and its shallow draft allows it to reach points farther north than other lines cruising the river.
We began in Siem Reap and spent two days exploring the majestic temples Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. Then, it was on the ship for a transit of the largest lake in South-East Asia, Tonle Sap, and its floating villages. We passed schools, churches, homes, gardens and stores, all perched on boats that can be relocated as lake levels rise and fall seasonally.
We familiarised ourselves with the ship quickly and get to know our fellow cruisers. People had come from New Zealand, the States and Canada in equal measures. We settled into comfortable chairs and couches in the lounge (where the bar is!) and at the outdoors observation deck at the bow on Deck 2. The two bartenders would soon become very popular – drinks are included in your fare (except wine, only complimentary at lunch and dinner).
The lounge is the hub of the ship. We heard about the next day’s activities as cocktails were imbibed. Entertainment onboard included a delightful dance performance by young orphans from Phnom Penh, movies and crew members proudly demonstrating local dances and traditional clothing.
The large dining room is open seating so passenger can moved around from meal to meal, making new friends. Meals focus on regional cuisine and the buffet-style lunches offer items such as pho or glass-noodle soup. The decor of Avalon Siem Reap features paintings of daily life in Vietnam and Cambodia and books and other art from the region.
The ship features a small spa, with services such as a one-hour full-body massage for about $52. The fitness center has a treadmill, recumbent bike and limited selection of light free weights, as well as an exercise ball and yoga mats. The observation deck is a good place for a morning stretch, yoga or workout session, and we joined a few others up there each day to get limbered up for our excursions.
Ashore, we were ferried around in various modes of transportation – tuk tuks, oxcarts, cyclos (powered by bicyclists) and motorcycle wagons.
Excursions were a mix of fun and reflection. We spent a day learning about Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. We visited a Killing Fields site and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh. A former prisoner, Chum Mey, spoke to our group about what he endured in the prison.
In Vietnam, it’s also impossible to get away from war and the relics that remain. Vietnam has emerged from its wartorn past, though, and we were delight to see how vibrant life is in the villages along the Mekong. We visited a community that specialises in weaving scarves (our group bought dozens) and one that builds traditional sampan boats. Another village produces tasty coconut candy.
I tried snake wine, endeavouring to ignore the massive cobra staring back at me – it had been fermenting in the bottle to make the booze more potent.
The cruise wrapped up in Ho Chi Minh City where we left the river for a bustling urban area filled with skyscrapers. Tours to the War Remnants Museum and the Viet Cong tunnels in Cu Chi helped us understand what it was like for the fighters on both sides of the horrific conflict.
We also dived into the food of Vietnam with an interactive cooking class where we made spring rolls and spicy pho. Then there was a farewell dinner at an upscale restaurant in a historic French colonial building downtown. The piano played classical tunes as we toasted our tablemates and new friends on our amazing Mekong River journey that flowed by far too quickly.
Highs: Avalon Waterways provides a top-notch experience from start to finish. The menu features plenty of healthy choices and nice regional fare. The staff, guides and cruise director made the trip great. They all have excellent energy and are determined to meet passenger needs.
Best suited to: Adventurous adults who are not afraid to leave their comfort zone.
CRUISE LINE: Avalon Waterways
VESSEL: Avalon Siem Reap
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 36
TOTAL CREW: 24
PASSENGER DECKS: 2
ENTERED SERVICE: 2015
FACILITIES: Air-conditioned Panorama Lounge, open-air observation lounge, open-seating dining room, bar, complimentary wi-fi access, spa treatment room, fitness room.
MORE INFO: avalonwaterways.com