Expert Review: Aqua Mekong River Cruise
| Mekong River
Just before Aqua Mekong took her well deserved break at the end of the season, I was lucky to get onboard for a short 3 night trip from Phnom Penh, up the Tonle Sap River to Kampong Chhnang and back. It might have been just a four days cruise, but it left me in absolute admiration of the boat and its operation, as well as simply in awe with the lives of the people along the river. I guess this is what makes the river cruises so magical – being able to get so close to real local living, to find yourself in places too remote to visit by road, to witness the unspoiled cultures and nature in the amazing destinations.
Aqua Mekong Expert Review
Cambodia is still very rural and life goes on in its own pace, dictated by sunrises and sunsets, rains and floods, harvests and festivals. I was lucky to catch the cruise during the Khmer New Year and that was indeed a fabulous bonus – to be around the Khmer people as they were celebrating, dancing and singing, spending time with their families. But let’s go back to the beginning of the cruise and my arrival to Aqua. The boat is exceptional and you can notice it from afar – she looks like none other boat on the river. As you approach the port, you know you are up for a special treat!
Welcomed by the Cruise Director, the Captain and some overwhelming amount of the crew, I was offered a cold towel and a drink right at the gangway. My luggage was taken care of and I was escorted to my beautiful suite. Spacious, calm, contemporary design, a coffee maker, big bathroom and big big windows with sliding doors that let you simply relax on the sofa and observe the river as you cruise were my favorite.
I had just enough time to look around the ship before it was time for the official crew and ship introduction. First thing you notice as you walk around Aqua Mekong is how spacious it feels, being at the same so relaxing and intimate. The quiet library with nice selection of books, a beautiful lounge and the bar, the spa. Quite unusual for the river boats is a private cinema room, with big screen, comfy armchairs and a vast selection of movies. The little pool outside the bar seems just perfect to relax, after a day in the heat, but I was told that the water can be heated up upon request. A great touch, I think, especially for a heat lover, like myself! I found the little sun deck at the very bow of the boat really charming – perfect for an sunset cocktail, as we found out later in the cruise…
I embarked the Aqua late in the afternoon and as I was walking around, we undocked and started our trip towards Tonle Sap lake. Very soon it was time to gather up in the lounge where the Cruise Director introduced some team members and we were briefed about the the ship facilities as well as safety, which Aqua Expeditions take very seriously. We were informed about the bicycles and kayaks we were soon to use, about the skiffs that are used for everyday transportation and in the emergency. (In theory, because there has never been an incident on Aqua. Nevertheless the team goes through mandatory drills frequently and it was great to see how they are safety and environment cautious.) The environment awareness caught my very special attention. In fight against single use plastic Aqua does not provide bottled drinking water, handing out the reusable bottles, that become your great and very useful souvenir days and months after your cruise! The bottles are filled up with drinking water before every excursion plus there is a fresh water in a glass bottle in your suite. Great touch and an important one!
Soon after the introduction we were offered a short lecture on Cambodia and a briefing on the next day excursions. This would become an every day routine – an interesting insights on Khmer culture or Cambodian history and a chat about the tour options for the following day. There was always a choice of activities for the morning and afternoon, but I could tell that staying onboard for a massage and relax would be as popular as sightseeing. Plus those who are a very early birds were welcomed to join a sunrise meditation every day.
Just before dinner we welcomed to the stage the local dancers. The young people from a culture centre that helps young girls and boys preserve their ancestors’ traditions as well as pay for their education. We time traveled to the times of magnificent Khmer empire, watching the Apsaras, the story of Hanuman and the fish or the villagers fish trap dance.
Dinner that evening, just as for the rest of the cruise, was mouthwatering. Being vegan, I was fully taken care of and had no shortage of delicious options, all inspired by local cuisine. My co-travelers were looking very happy with their meat and seafood options so I am guessing it’s not just vegans who are so well taken care of by the chef of Aqua.
Each day of the cruise we would go on the morning and afternoon tours. With Aqua anchored in the middle of the river, we took the speed boats to the river banks and then embarked on the tours of our choice.
Day one excursion started with visiting the local silver workers at a silversmith village of Koh Chen. Watching how the detailed engravings are all made by hand, how the copper can be silver-plated and how to recognize the difference between fully silver item and a plated one was quite educational. Looking at the hands of the head artists, holding firmly the bowl and covering it with the beautiful, detailed pattern was impressive. Even closer look at her hands, deformed by daily hard work, said more than words about the life conditions of the villagers who make their living of traditional Khmer crafts.
Taking a van to the former capital of Khmer empire – Udong we found ourselves in the Buddhist world. Impressive modern pagoda in the vipassana meditation centre tells the story of the importance of religion in Cambodian lives. We had a chance to witness the beautiful ritual of food offering to the monks who live in the complex. The villagers gather during lunch time, bringing food as an offering to those who pray for them and help solve daily problems. Whole families come to get their blessing and to offer their thanks. Food is evenly distributed on the tables and then the monks procession appears – all orange clothed, shaved heads, calm and smiling – they enter the hall and take their seats. After a prayer and chanting the monks started their lunch and we went on, to climb the 300 steps to light our own incense and offer flowers to Buddha at the pagoda on a top of the hill. As we walked down towards our van, we found ourselves at a very lively local market, with all sorts of food options available for the curious travelers. After a stroll and giving a taste to some of the snacks, we departed towards Aqua, just in time for our own lunch.
In the afternoon I chose a bicycle ride along the Tonle Sap River and kayaking through the floating village. The floating villages on the Tonle Sap and Mekong river are smaller and smaller, as the government offers the resettlement to many of the boat families. Still, the life in the floating houses that remain along the banks, goes by with morning fishing and evening karaoke in most parts of the country.
This evening the Aqua staff welcomed us back onboard with the invitation to the sunset cocktails on the sun deck and some local snacks, among which the crickets were the easiest to think of in terms of food.
The next day excursions took us even closer to the every day living of the villages in the area – we observed the pottery making and palm sugar production, learned about the struggles of the villagers who try to support themselves with traditional activities in the modernizing world. To make pottery bowl without the spinning wheel takes a lot of skill and as much walking in circles. To extract the juice from the palm trees, requires quite amount of jumping up the high trees. Mister Lee, late in his sixties, doesn’t mind at all, probably because the juice he brings down will be very useful in rice wine production, that is his daily fuel.
Just before lunch onboard there was a cooking presentation at the dining room. Phalla, the Cambodian chef, prepared a papaya salad and local seafood. Somehow we all manage to eat the lunch after those delicious samples, but we all wondered, if we were able to have dinner that night.
Afternoon bike ride through villages brought us right into the world of New Years celebrations. Each village is equipped with some impressive sound system, including 2 meters high walls of speakers, that blast dance music for all who want to dance. And that means everyone – kids, teens and old ladies, who are happily welcoming the tourists, both at the table and at the dance floor.
For those who didn’t choose the bicycles, there were the traditional oxen-carts to enjoy just the same ride through a happy neighborhood. At the end of the ride there was a lovely surprise prepared by the Aqua team. Another sunset cocktails, this time somewhere in the fields. As we chatted, sipping our drinks, the goat and cuttle herders were taking the animals to the shelter for the night. We got back onboard for the crew farewell presentation, that ended in singing and dancing.
The next morning there were another tour options for the passengers who didn’t have to rush to catch their flights – Phnom Penh highlights or some more biking in the Silk Island.
With the free laundry service onboard and shoes cleaning after each excursion, packing the suitcase was unlike after every other holiday. Again – all the crew was at the gangway, making sure the passengers were taken care of to the last minute of the cruise.
I have been trying to find some downsides of cruising the Mekong and Tonle with Aqua Mekong, just to give my review some credibility, but still can’t think of anything. If there was one thing I would complain about, is that there weren’t really spaces for working onboard and even though the internet, available in public spaces, was doing quite a good job, it seems that Aqua was not designed for people who need to work during their holidays and had only spaces to enjoy the time and relax. For more information about booking an Aqua Mekong River cruise, please contact us or call 1-888-215-3555.
This Review was written by our Asia Travel Specialist, Eva.