Opening up worlds of Asian adventure, the AmaLotus cruises from Cambodia to Vietnam down the mighty Mekong River.
It’s my first day on the Mekong, and I am touring a village – but it is unlike any settlement that I’ve ever seen. Sitting aboard a narrow tender, we sweep up and down its streets. Kids swim and splash by us in the water, gondola-like taxis paddle on either side, their drivers waving to us happily, while women flag down one of the many market boats that also ply these aquatic alleys and streets, selling everything from salt to rice to gasoline. This is one of the many “floating villages” that line this great river, a stilted community of some 8,000 souls that depends on the Mekong’s muddy waters for every facet of its life. As we take in our surroundings, our cheery Cambodian guide drives home the point with unbridled enthusiasm. When we pass a stilted school, he tells us: “The children learn – on the river!” When we steer close to a floating church, he explains: “They gather to worship – on the river!” And when an unpainted wooden boat, heavy-laden with bananas, slows to sell its wares, he almost cheers: “The families shop for groceries – on the river!”
Long off-limits to travelers due to years of regional war and political unrest, the Mekong – one of Asia’s greatest rivers – is now safe and open for cruising. Flowing some 4,300 kilometers from its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau down to the famous Delta in Vietnam– sustaining the lives of the some 60 million people that line its banks – the Mekong provides equal parts natural beauty and human drama. Sitting on the balcony of a river ship for a week, you can take in a lifetime of experiences, but the best adventures can be had by taking advantage of the daily excursions that are a staple of any river cruise, which delve deep into the day-to-day life that pulsates around this mighty waterway.
I was cruising from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, aboard the RV AmaLotus, which was launched in 2011 and is currently the most luxurious vessel cruising the Mekong. The 302-foot ship, owned and operated by AmaWaterways, is outfitted to match its exotic surroundings, with dark teak interiors infused with distinctive Khmer touches. Standard staterooms are roomy, with 226 square feet of space, and range up to the grand, 624-square-foot Indochina suites. Fully 90 percent of the 62 staterooms boast outside balconies.
While the look of the ship certainly suits its far-flung location, the AmaLotus nonetheless maintains many modern, and even luxurious amenities – all staterooms include individually controlled air conditioning, and each features a flat-screen television and DVD player, mini bar, sitting area, writing desk, and even plush robes and slippers. The ship also offers a sundeck with a swimming pool and three massage rooms, and in the galley, the ship employs both an executive chef and an Asian chef. You can enjoy the gourmet tastes of the region without having to leave behind the comfort foods of home.
With just a two-meter draft, the AmaLotus is able to navigate even relatively small channels and inlets, transporting guests into worlds of wonder that are often off limits to those bound to the land. The larger centers along the way certainly provided great fascination, as well as some sobering doses of history. We experienced the ancient pleasures of the 800-year-old temples around Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap. We heard stories of the Killing Fields in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, illustrated by a visit to the museum at Tuol Sleng, a former high school in the city centre that was transformed into a prison camp during the terrifying 1970s reign of Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge. And we visited vestiges of the “American War,” touring a former Viet Cong military camp at Xeo Quyt as well as the bustling streets of old Saigon – now the modern Ho Chi Minh City, a hopeful place surging fast into the future.
Perhaps the most memorable adventures came about in the smallest villages along the way, places that have remained relatively untouched by the passage of time. We took oxcart rides down bumpy roads and entered grand, ornate temples to receive Buddhist blessings from the resident monks. We visited tiny textile villages with no proper roads and were invited into people’s homes, walking around the small, stilted wooden structures, being treated to demonstrations of the time-honored technique of weaving textiles by hand on wooden, foot-operated looms.
The most enduring memory of my time on the Mekong came on one of the last days of the journey, just over the Cambodian border, near Tan Chau, Vietnam. In the 1970s, this part of the borderlands became a refuge for hundreds of Cambodians, who fled to a long, low island in the middle of the river to escape the murderous Khmer Rouge. Their descendants now pooled in small groups, gathering at the river to greet us, the children waving excitedly, even jumping up and down to welcome our ship’s arrival. We offloaded into the tenders and buzzed along the Mekong’s murky, chocolate-covered water, passing the boats of families who live on the river in rugged vessels packed to the gunnels and moving low in the water with frightening-looking eyes painted on each side of their bows to scare off the monsters that swim below. Our Vietnamese guide, Thinh, explained that, like those in the floating village back in Cambodia, the people here who live near the Mekong depend wholly on it for their existence, calling it their Mother (its name is derived from the Khmer word “Mae,” which means “mother”). They fish, transport goods, and ply its waters in floating homes, which also serve as places of business for thousands.
We landed near a small village, and a pack of young children engulfed us as we disembarked the tender, doling out cheerful high fives, swarming those in our group who were thoughtful enough to bring along bags of candies, and using their limited English to tell us their names and ask us where we were from. They welcomed us to their village, sometimes holding our hands as we were escorted down its tiny main street. This is a place that the landlocked never get to see – there are no bridges to the mainland, and ferry service is provided in local boats, if at all. Women sat under coned hats and busily husked corn, while men swung in hammocks and waved to us as we passed by. Time moves slowly in places like this, and we marveled at the openness of the people – in some cases, a literal thing. The homes in the village have no front walls – every place is an open book, with the gaping fronts revealing all, from beds to bags of rice for cooking, to photos of grandkids hanging on the wall.
We proceeded from there to Tan Chau, a larger city on the mainland, and, after visiting a busy little silk factory we were chauffeured through town on rickshaw-like bicycle taxis left over from the days of French Indochina – an experience made all the more memorable when what seemed like the entire population of the community emerged from their homes and shops to wave and smile as we passed, the children smiling and yelling “Hello! Hello! Hello!”
Soon, the journey was over, and as we offloaded the ship and boarded a coach, passing over the many canals and tributaries of the Mekong Delta enroute to Saigon, I reflected on the journey just completed. The previous day, on the way to the island village, Thinh had shared with us a 4,000-year-old Vietnamese legend. Those living along the river, he said, see the dragon as their father. Every dragon needs water and that water is provided by the river. No longer would I think of the Mekong as a place of strife, or a famous site of 20th century war. Rather, it is the mother…it is lifeblood…it is water for dragons.
If You Go
Air Canada and its Star Alliance partners service both cities, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam see www.aircanada.com In Siem Reap, AmaLotus guests stay at the Hotel Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort . In Ho Chi Minh City, guests stay at the Hotel Sofitel. For more information on the AmaLotus, visit: www.amawaterways.com
Written by Tim Johnson
First published in Cruise and Travel Lifestyles Fall 2013