There’s a worldwide river cruise boom is in full swing—and while European waterways wind through the industry’s traditional epicenter, we’ve been seeing some exciting spillover into Southeast Asia. The fabled Mekong River is the region’s river cruising powerhouse, a lush and exotic entryway into little-visited pockets of Asia, with a riverfront rife with wonders. After searching tons of Mekong River cruise itineraries (the waterway stretches between China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam), I recently embarked on a particularly intriguing option aboard AmaWaterways, an upscale California-based river cruise line operating regular Mekong runs between Cambodia and Vietnam.
On their 7-night "Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong" itinerary, we were led on a well-crafted, culturally-immersive itinerary between the ancient, jungle-fringed Khmer temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia (with its crowning jewel at Angkor Wat) and bustling old French colonial capitals at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and, ultimately, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Perhaps most rewarding for travelers looking to get off the tourist path was the stretch we sailed along the rice paddy-fringed banks of the Mekgon’s agrarian heartland, which afforded a colorful patchwork of views of local life.
The itinerary kicked off from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake (via a one- to five-hour transfer from Siem Reap, depending on the seasonal water level), before connecting through to the Mekong. Shore excursions were included in the rates, and led by excellent English-speaking local guides who were well-versed in both Cambodian and Vietnamese history and culture. We were particularly keen on our charming Cambodian monk-cum-tour guide who accompanied us throughout Cambodia, entertaining us with tales of his life in the monastery—and his fall from religious life in the name of romantic love.
Excursions were seamlessly coordinated by the quirky onboard Vietnamese cruise director, and typically ran in the mornings and afternoons, with a break for lunch back onboard the ship. Means of in-port exploration rotated between standard options like motor coach or our own two feet, and more flavorful traditional methods like local boat, oxcart, or trishaw rides.
Excursion highlights in Cambodia included a blessing ceremony delivered by Buddhist monks at the monastery in Oudong, followed by an overnight port call in Phnom Penh which allowed cruisers to explore the Cambodian capital, known for its French colonial architecture and vibrant café life. By day, we explored its Royal Palace and National Museum, and delved into the country’s profoundly sobering history at the Killing Fields and notorious S21 detention center. After crossing the border to Vietnam, Cai Be’s floating market and Se Dec’s colorful marketplace proved for fascinating diversions.
Back onboard, we enjoyed the comforts of the 124-passenger AmaLotus, which in 2011 joined its fleet-mate, the smaller 92-passenger La Marguerite. The elegant ship exuded colonial-era charm with plenty of dark wood paneling offset by Khmer-inspired decor. Guestrooms—90 percent of which came with balconies—started at a comfortable 226 square feet and featured plush bedding, a sitting area and workspace, and regularly fresh bottled water (onboard tap water wasn’t potable).
An expansive plant-fringed sundeck with lounge chairs, bar, and small pool and a garden deck at the ship’s aft offered welcoming outdoor perches to observe the passing Mekong landscapes. A full-service spa with Asian-inspired treatments, small fitness center, and gift shop rounded out the diversions, along with the indoor lounge (offering complimentary Wi-Fi), which was the hub for port talks and light evening entertainment. Memorable nights included near-nightly piano tunes, a fun crew talent show, and an exceptional Khmer folkloric dance performance by children from a local Cambodian orphanage.
Breakfast and lunches were served buffet style, while dinners were multicourse affairs.
The open-seating Mekong Restaurant served a mix of Asian and Western dishes, though the chefs fared better at preparing local Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine. AmaLotus’s staff hailed largely from Cambodia and Vietnam, and though they lacked some polish and, in some cases, command of the English language, they were exceptionally friendly and eager to please.
AmaWaterways has rapidly expanded since its 2002 launch to a fleet of a dozen modern river ships (and a trio of chartered ships), purpose-built for river navigation on waterways in Europe, Russia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The 7-night Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong itineraries run from July through April on the AmaLotus or La Marguerite; rates start from $1,699/person. Extended 15-night cruise tours, running between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, tack on two nights’ hotel in Hanoi, an overnight cruise aboard a traditional wooden junk in Ha Long By, three nights’ in Siem Reap, and two nights’ in HCMC; rates from $3,598/person.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard has set out circumnavigating the globe on an ambitious 14-month adventure. Tag along on her travels through Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America—and on the high seas in between—as she reports back to Fodors.com on captivating cruises, hot hotels, and timely travel trends.
Photo Credits: AmaLotus and AmaLotus Cabin courtesy of AmaWaterways; Floating Market, Market, and Silver Pagoda courtesy of John Garay