A great way to view the rural life in Cambodia and Vietnamese is to cruise down the Mekong River. The Mekong River is one of the worlds longest rivers flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand , Cambodia and Vietnam. Throughout history the river served as a major trading route between these countries. As a result many interesting villages sprouted up along the banks of the river. Life is very simple for these inhabitants, work is hard and the day is long. In the past I have embarked on short journeys down the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia. I recall in 1996 or 1997 chartering a small boat in Cambodia with a crew of 4 for the day to sail down part of the Mekong. The cost to me was $20 plus a generous tip for the crew.
I love river cruising and the idea of a 7 day river cruise down the Mekong River held great appeal to me. It was my wife’s first trip to Asia and the idea of river cruise luxury and local culture ashore would be a good mix for an enjoyable experience. I selected the 124 passenger AMA Waterway’s Amalotus sailing from Siem Reap Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam. The Lotus built in 2011, is about 300 feet long with a crew of 50. The luxurious ship offered a spa, lounge, gift shop, small fitness center , pool bar and swimming pool. The design inside was a mixture of colonial elegance and Cambodian accents.
The service on board was warm and courteous. The food was a mixture of western and Asian cuisine in an open seating for lunch and dinner. Wine, beer, spirits and soft drinks are included with your meals. Breakfast and Lunch are served buffet style, while dinner was ala carte off the menu.
Over 90% of the ship’s staterooms have balconies, most of them have twin balconies. Stateroom size is over 225 sq feet and offer in room safes, hair dryer, mini bar, bathrobes and many other amenities.
My on board report card- (and I am a harsh critic)….the service was excellent, staterooms very good and the food ranged from ok to very good. Since I have traveled to Asia over 25 times I am used to the real Asian cuisine, the Asian cuisine on board I think is “westernized” a little to appeal to most of the passengers from North America and Australia who would prefer to avoid spicier foods.
The experience of the cruise and stops along the way is excellent. As we boarded the Lotus we were welcomed with cold towels and a wonderful lemon grass tea. Our luggage was already waiting in our room. As we sailed away with the sun going down we enjoyed cocktails outside by the pool bar prior to dinner. Everyday at port at least 1 excursion is included, most of the days we had 2 excursions included. The beauty of this river cruise is just about everything is included for one price.
Our First Stop
Our first stop in Cambodia was Wat Hanchey, located at the top of a hill with breathtaking views of the Mekong. The ship docks near a series of stairs to climb to the top. Children are waiting to greet their new visitors as we walked toward the hill top Pagoda built in the 8th century. It was a great way to start our river cruise. After a few hours we returned to the ship for a wonderful buffet lunch while the Lotus slowly cruised down the Mekong while we admired its magnificent scenery.
In the afternoon we stopped at the town of Kampong Cham. As the ship docked we could see the local townspeople participating in what looked like to me a “Zumba” class outside. Everyone seemed like they were having a good time. We received lots of waves and smiles. During our Kampong excursion our visits included a very poor village school. The children were so happy to see foreigners visiting them. I bought 16 students that befriended me snow cones. The total cost was around $2USD for 16 snow cones. Before returning to the ship we saw the first evidence of the brutal Pol Pot Khmer Rouge regime. As we walked into a memorial building the interior was filled with skulls in a glass case, murdered victims of the Khmer Rouge. That evening on board the ship we had an informative talk and documentary movie on Pol Pot and his reign of terror over Cambodia.
The following morning we visited a temple known as Angkor Ban and each passenger was blessed in a ceremony performed by the local monks. It was a very unique experience, I have participated in this ritual in the past but it was another new experience for my wife and most of the passengers. After the blessing our guide walked us around the local village to see how the residents lived . We had another excursion in the afternoon that included another village school and a silk factory. In the evening a local dance troupe of children performed five different cultural dances for us. The passengers loved the dancing and music performed by these talented youngsters. After dinner we set sail for Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
I have been to Phnom Penh 3-4 times over the years but I was really impressed with the change . Its becoming a blend of Modern buildings and older French Colonial architecture. Its is still a very poor city overall and very inexpensive for Americans to travel to. Todays excursions included a morning trip to the Killing Fields and the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Prison and Museum. I have been in the past and was not looking forward to visiting again. Its is similar to visiting a concentration camp in Europe. You know inside your heart it is important to see it, but it is very depressing and you wonder how mankind can do this to each other. As I mentioned in a previous post the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-1978 and killed over 20% of the population. Many died from executions the others died of starvation or disease. Our afternoon excursion in Phnom Penh included the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum.
The following day was a full day cruising down the river heading towards Vietnam. As we relaxed on our private balcony we spotted local fisherman, water buffaloes, villages with houses on stilts and scenic jungle flora. A nice relaxing day that also included a 1 hour massage in the spa for $45. At the time I thought it was very pricey since we were paying $4-6 for a 90 minute massage in Siem Reap Cambodia the week before.
We arrived in Tan Chau Vietnam and started the tour with a private Rickshaw ride through the small city. It was an exhilarating experience to hear the sounds of the street and the smells of local foods cooking while your driver pedaled quickly down the road. Afterwards we bought many beautiful gifts at very inexpensive prices at a local silk factory.
Our final day included stops in Sa Dec, Xeo Quyyt and Cai Be. In Sa Dec we walked along a very large local food market. Lots of fresh produce,seafood, meats and spices. Even saw rats in cages for sale (I hope I don’t eat in that restaurant). We continued on a 75 minute bus ride to the old Viet Cong stronghold of Xeo Quyt. We walked along the paths and bamboo bridge for around an hour. It was informative and interesting excursion, especially if you are familiar with the Vietnam war. Our final stop in the afternoon was to visit an old church and candy factory in Cai Be. Our final night on board the Lotus was had a wonderful farewell dinner. The next morning after disembarkation passengers were transferred to Ho Chi Minh city.
I would definitely recommend this river cruise for most of my clients. Gives you a great insight to life along the Mekong. You visit a lot of interesting sights, participate in a lot of very unique experiences and get to interact with a lot of locals ashore. The cruise is wonderful, but I would also add a private tour before and after the cruise to include destinations such as Hanoi, Halong Bay, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
Call me for your next River Cruise or custom luxury package at 781 471 2310.