Cruising the Mekong

The Mekong River, the 12th longest waterway in the world, is the main artery of South East Asia — beginning on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Such a wealth of cultures makes the Mekong an excellent river cruise destination. The most popular cruise sails from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The voyage
We were on board the Cruiceso Adventurer, one of many cruises that Australian company Cruiseco operates along this route. We observed several other boats plying the waters and running seemingly similar itineraries. Cruiseco is best known as the one-stop shop for any cruise around the world, boasting a comprehensive cruise search facility. It was fascinating to see how Cruiseco ran its own cruises.

As we were heading upstream, we left Saigon (as many locals still refer to their city) for a 90-minute coach ride to the dock on one of the strands of the Mekong delta.

Over the course of the week, shipboard life soon settled down to a routine of an excursion in the morning, cruising in the afternoon, and meals in-between. On a couple of occasions, folkloric troupes came on board to entertain us and while the Vietnamese fishermen with their one-stringed instruments were funny, the Cambodian children were both cute and well-trained.

In the lower stretches of the Mekong, the scenery is rather flat and uninteresting but there’s enough water traffic to always have something to observe. On the third day, we crossed the Cambodian border — a painless task — where we had to do no more than provide a passport photo and pay $US45 each on our account while the crew took care of the process.

There were excursions to rudimentary silk works, rattan factories, floating villages, and fish farms but most spectacular was a rustic lolly factory where popped rice was created in superheated black sand and noodles were candied in coconut.

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Phnom Penh's royal palace is definitely a must see

Perhaps the greatest surprise was the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. We were there for two nights, and one and a half days. This is a modern Asian metropolis with high-rise buildings and all the international companies you’d expect. The riverfront is a mass of bars, cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs. We found time for an obligatory beer at the FCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club that provides good open-air views along the promenade.

The palace and the silver pagoda is a requisite stop, and looks very much like what you’d find in nearby Bangkok. The National Museum has an excellent collection of sculptures, much of it relating to Hindu deities. The museum’s gardens are beautiful.

All the Cruiseco excursions were included — and we were very grateful for that when lunch was a buffet in the exquisite Raffles Hotel. We needed some fortification before an afternoon at the Killing Fields.

The horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge's attempts to take Cambodia, renamed Kampuchea, back to a simple agrarian state cannot be imagined. Two million died. While there were almost 400 killing fields, we were taken to Choeung Ek, a barren paddock with the mass graves of men, women, and children, and a memorial full of skulls to capture the atrocity.

That was followed by a visit to Tuoi Sleng, a former school converted into a prison camp. We met Mr Chum Mey, one of two remaining survivors of the camp, who still wonders how and why he survived. A sign on the door to one of the cells indicated that this was not a place for laughter — perhaps the most unnecessary sign in the world.

The following day, we visited a Buddhist monastery and were blessed by the priests. It was a welcome cleansing ceremony, and the simple piety of the nuns and priests we met showed the resilience of the Cambodian people.

Over the next few days, we cruised further up the Mekong towards Tonle Sap Lake. During the four months of high water, it is possible to cruise up to the lake, sail across it, and disembark relatively close to Siem Reap. The rest of the year, you must take a half-day bus ride there to explore the wonders of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples — many hidden in the jungle.

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Visiting a Buddhist monastery can provide a welcome perspective on our own lives

Cruiseco Adventurer
A very comfortable craft with three passenger decks for a maximum of 60 passengers, served by 28 staff and crew, the Cruiseco Adventurer has a draft of just one metre so it’s well suited for river use. It’s 68 metres in length and is pushed along by twin 650 HP engines.

The top deck consists of a large, shaded outdoor sundeck with spa pool, an air conditioned lounge and bar, a tiny gym, two massage rooms, and a beauty salon. The middle deck features the wheelhouse, and passenger cabins towards the bow and the dining room at the stern. The lower deck has more cabins and the front desk.

As all the cabins have balconies, many passengers spent time in their rooms, however — even when everyone was in the public areas — it didn’t feel crowded at all. In fact, friendships formed and travel plans were shared.

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The top deck of the Adventurer is an easy place to relax as the river passes by

One of the joys of the cruise was when the vessel tied up alongside the riverbank in the evening. The captain would nose the bow in, and a crewman would place a pole in the water and pole-vault ashore.

With bookended highlights like Saigon and Angkor Wat, it’s a cruise with a lot of appeal. It’s interesting to move from Vietnam’s quite polished tourist offering to the more rustic Cambodian side. For those looking for Asia as it was a decade or more ago, the Mekong reveals the relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of an earlier age.

Hot tip: A Viettel SIM card works for data, phone, and text across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. While the internet on the Cruiseco Adventurer is quite good, having a backup is great — and cheap.

Have you done a river cruise in South-East Asia before? How was your experience?

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