A Chat with AmaWaterways Kristin Karst
By Anne Kalosh.
Aboard AmaDara recently for a week cruising on the Mekong River, QuirkyCruise.com’s Anne Kalosh spoke with Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. Anne also interviewed tour leader Son, a nine-year company veteran and Mekong River expert.
QuirkyCruise: How do you ensure authenticity?
Kristin Karst: It’s very important to offer our guests the opportunity to get immersed in the region, not just being tourists getting bussed around. In Vietnam we use smaller boats to visit floating villages, and trishaws, where we also become the attraction for the villagers. It’s a very historical way of traveling. In Cambodia we use tuk-tuks. Using local transportation supports the economy as well.
The first year we were here, for some reason we couldn’t do a tour. Our local partner looked for alternatives. Oudong is the biggest Buddhist center in Cambodia, and it’s surrounded by villages that work with oxen. So we took everyone for a ride in the ox carts. It was such a success that we continued. We use 45 ox carts. There are enough available, and the farmers like to do it.
We built the ship in Saigon using all local materials including teak wood. We employ crew from Cambodia and Vietnam. Our crew like to go the extra mile. The guides share their personal stories.
We purchase vegetables and fruits from the local markets, while meat and fish come from certified suppliers.
QuirkyCruise: AmaWaterways is best known for its Europe cruises. How much experience do you have on the Mekong?
Kristin Karst: Cambodia has been open for tourism only since about 1999, and it started very slowly. When we started, only Pandaw from Scotland was here, and that’s not a luxury product. AmaWaterways put the Mekong on the map for luxury travelers by building this standard of ship and the service we offer.
We started in 2009 with La Marguerite with our partner, APT in Australia. In 2011, we introduced AmaLotus. AmaDara came in 2015. Since then AmaLotus has been fully committed to APT and La Marguerite to APT’s Travelmarvel.
Now there is more competition, but that’s good because it drives improvement.
QuirkyCruise: Why should people see Vietnam and Cambodia by riverboat?
Kristin Karst: The floating hotel is much better than going these distances by bus. There are not many good hotels along the way between Saigon and Phnom Penh.
The Mekong is fantastic and offers everything from good water conditions to different countries.
QuirkyCruise: Who is the typical Mekong cruiser?
Kristin Karst: They are well-educated, well-traveled, open, interested in seeing the world, interested in history and interested in food. People who come here are looking for more exotic adventures.
We have some very educated clients: doctors, teachers or jobs to do with education. It’s a good mix of people. If you look at how many people choose the history tour in Phnom Penh (to the Killing Fields and Security Prison 21) instead of the market, that’s very telling. Only seven people on this cruise went shopping instead.
The majority of our guests here are North Americans, including Canadians. Quite a few people from the U.K. heard about us on the “Cruising With Jane McDonald” TV show. A lot of people have sailed with us in Europe. In the end, it’s all about the trust [they have in AmaWaterways].
Others are just interested in the region; they are not experienced river cruisers. They know it’s hard to get around in Cambodia. There are no trains.
I always encourage families with children to come here. It’s such a transformational experience. Children take it all in. A child will have fun here. It’s so experiential.
The majority of the people choose pre- and post-cruise tours in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat because that’s such a highlight, along with Hanoi and Halong Bay.
Anne also asked tour leader Son about Mekong River cruising …
QuirkyCruise: Are there misperceptions about the Mekong?
Son: Some people think the Mekong is jungle, mosquitoes and crocodiles, or they expect to have a negative reaction because of the [Vietnam] war. But there’s a lot of cultural interaction, and everyone feels very comfortable.
QuirkyCruise: Any tips for travelers?
Son: Travel with an open mind. If you do so, you’ll have a great journey. There are some very interesting differences. Embrace the world the way it is.
There’s so much we can learn. It works both ways. There’s no pretense here. Everyone wants to grow and wants to know about the world.
Try to take the tours, because everything is so different.
Talk to the crew. Find out about them, their life history.
Try new things. You’re in safe hands here.
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