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Scenic Spirit Reader Review

Reader Review: Scenic Spirit.

REVIEWER

Walt Bruyns/Jan Hayes from Canada.

CRUISE LINE

Scenic.

SHIP

Scenic Spirit.

DESTINATION

Cambodia/Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

October 2018, from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 5

-Cabin Rating: 5

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 5

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 5 small ship cruises.

REVIEW

On board the Scenic Spirit, the staff was friendly, attending to all our needs. The cabin was well laid out with the bedroom separated from the sitting area; it had everything we needed and our cabin attendant was efficient.  The pace of the cruise as well as the itinerary was terrific…… Stopping along the way was well planned and thoroughly enjoyable.  The Mekong River is one of the most scenic rivers of the world and the scenery showed well from the Spirit; we saw some great sunsets. Having travelled with Scenic before, we expected a great trip…….and we got it!

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Mekong River Cruise with Scenic.

By Heidi Sarna.

My first Mekong River cruise a decade ago was with Pandaw, a pioneer of Southeast Asia river cruising and one of my favorite small-ship cruise lines.

They offer a casual old-world experience aboard traditionally-designed boats built with lots of teak and open decks to resemble classic Scottish-built Irrawaddy River paddle steamers from a century ago.

In recent years, more river boats — many of them quite luxurious — have entered the waters of Southeast Asia. One of the companies is Scenic.

Last October, I cruised the Mekong River from Cambodia into Vietnam with Scenic aboard the all-suite 68-passenger Scenic Spirit — by far my poshest Mekong River experience — complete with an onboard spa and mini swimming pool.

Scenic Spirit's outdoor pool with Mekong views

Hard to believe a 68-passenger river boat has a pool and a spa! Lov’in it! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

My friend Sheila and I thoroughly enjoyed our 10 days of pampering and adventure. Scenic smartly combines its 7-night Mekong cruises with a 3-night hotel/tour pre- or post-cruise package in Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat.

Tuk tuk ride in Cambodia

Heidi & Sheila’s Mekong River cruise adventure!

Thinking about taking a high-end Mekong River cruise?

Here are 15 reasons to choose Scenic!

The Immersive Excursions

The whole point of a Southeast Asia river cruise is to learn something, see something, and feel something. Scenic’s daily excursions, usually one in the morning and another after lunch (often with multiple choices), range from temple and monastery visits to walks through rural villages.

There are strolls through eye-opening, nostril-shocking open-air markets selling fresh everything; jaunts on motorized wooden sampans to soak up life on the river; and adventurous rides in tuk-tuk cycle rickshaws.

wet market in Cambodia

Wet markets in Cambodia and Vietnam are an experience! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Angkor Wat Temple Complex 

One of the world’s most coveted travel sites, parts of the world-famous temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, date back more than 1,000 years. With its intricate carvings, jungle setting and hauntingly beautiful ruinous visage, the temples of Angkor Wat inspire awe, wonder and gratitude for anyone fortunate enough to visit. Three days in Siem Reap, based in a luxury hotel, is part of the package.

Ankgor Wat is included in many Mekong River Cruises

The stunning Angkor Wat complex. * Photo: Sheila Healey

The Pagodas

A Mekong River cruise in Cambodia and Vietnam is a journey rich in gilded Buddhist sanctuaries, alternatively called temples, shrines and pagodas. Some are grand and topped with massive roofs and ornate glittering interiors covered with intricate murals. Others are humbler, with aging wood, faded paint and crumbling stupas; they’re part of the everyday village tableau, complete with sleeping dogs and playing children.

A gilded pagoda on a Mekong River Cruise

A grand gilded monastery in Cambodia near the Mekong River. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Sampan Rides

Most days, excursions involved transferring from the Scenic Spirit, whether anchored mid-river or tied up to a tree along the river banks, to a local motorized sampan. Some were wooden, and all had the requisite evil eye painted on the bow to ward off danger. Zipping up and down the river in these boats afforded us close up views of the river banks, to see women washing clothes at the water’s edge and children splashing and waving. We saw lone figures in conical hats fishing from small skiffs and families living aboard squat cargo barges, laundry flapping across the stern, motoring past with loads of sand, gravel, rice and watermelons.

sampan excursions on a Mekong River cruise

Most excursions involved traveling by sampan, which allowed us up close views of life and commerce on the river. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Sunsets

It seemed we were treated to soul-stirring sunsets nearly every day of the cruise, and some morning sunrises were equally as jaw-dropping. With our suite’s huge windows that could be opened with the touch of a button, we could take amazing photos and videos with very little effort! Or if we felt more ambitious, Scenic Spirit’s expansive top deck was an excellent perch to soak up a fiery sunset melting into the Mekong.

Great views of a sunset over the Mekong River.

The all-suite Scenic Spirit affords stunning views of sunrises and sunsets over the Mekong. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

AND, our days at Angkor Wat included a sunrise visit, which turned out to be a mind-blowing pinky-purply stunner. We stood in awe watching the morphing color, thanking our lucky stars for the opportunity to witness such a spectacular natural wonder.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise on a Mekong River cruise

Angkor Wat at sunrise blew us away! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The All-Inclusive Fares

An impressive repertoire of excursions, from walking, speedboat and motor-coach tours, to Scenic’s special “Enrich” happenings — experiential events such as high-tea at Raffles in Phnom Penh — are part of the fare. Also priced into the package are free-flow drinks, with an excellent complimentary wine list with multiple choices each day. Room service, transfers to and from airport, wifi (though spotty), and gratuities (however many leave additional tips) are also part of the fares.

Scenic River cruises are all inclusive

Fares on a Scenic Mekong River cruise include all wines and spirits. Cheers! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Suites

Southeast is Asia hot year-round, not to mention quite culture-shocky, so your cabin is an important retreat for relaxing and recharging. The Scenic Spirit’s 34 outside suites impress with floor-to-ceiling windows that open top to bottom with the touch of a button, for fresh air and photo taking. Most are 344-square-foot Deluxe Suites with walk-in wardrobes, mini-bars, sitting area, and flat-screen TVs for movies and music.

Scenic Spirit Deluxe Suite

Our Scenic Spirit Deluxe Suite was just lovely. * Photo: Scenic

The Spa

The Scenic Spirit’s lovely little spa, a dark-wood paneled retreat, was my happy place. Each excellent treatment begins with a ceremonial foot bath in a copper bowl. Making a great thing even better is the price — an hour-long massage is just $30 USD. I had two of them with the sweet and skilled therapist Rotana! There’s also a gym with three cardio machines, a sauna and steam room, and even a decent-sized outdoor pool up on deck.

Scenic Spirit spa

The Scenic Spirit spa can accommodate two guests at a time. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Guides

The group of excellent local Scenic guides that accompany passengers for the entire 10-day cruise-tour are the glue that keeps the itinerary running smoothly. They lead all excursions and share not only facts about the region’s rich culture and heritage, but fascinating personal anecdotes as well about about marriage, education and tragic stories of family members who perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Scenic Spirit guide tying a monk robe

The Scenic Spirit team of guides was excellent — explaining, enlightening and demonstrating monk robe tying!. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Service

Attentive, approachable, friendly and exceedingly professional, the service level is high-end on board, in Siem Reap and during excursions. From the multiple excellent local guides who travel with the cohort to the restaurant servers, massage therapists and front desk staff, it really is “your wish is my command.”

Excellent services in the restaurants of our Mekong River cruise

Courteous, efficient and friendly service was the order of the day! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Dining

As most passengers want to try the local fare, at least at some meals, and the Scenic Spirit did a great job offering both Asian and western dishes in its lovely windowed restaurant. Lunch was my favorite meal of the day — highlights included Cambodian and Vietnamese “street food” buffets. Festive stations offered prawn sugarcane skewers, Khmer crepes, dim sum, Vietnamese pho noodle soup, fried insects, and exotic fruits like hairy red rambutans. At all meals, there were always western favorites as well.

Lunch aboard a Mekong River Cruise

My favorite meal of the day was lunch — the buffets were awesome! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Entertainment

The entertainment in Siem Reap was excellent, from the dazzling Phare Cambodian Circus, a campy and skillful acrobatic extravaganza, to the magical dinner and Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple. Onboard the Scenic Spirit, entertainment revolved around after-dinner drinks with new friends, plus a few featured events — a colorful and clanging dragon dance by a local troupe, a lively trivia contest and a dance party on deck under the stars with the crew.

An Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple.

We enjoyed a magical dinner and Apsara dance performance in the shadows of a beautiful 10th-century temple. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Other Passengers

A big part of the fun is cruising with an intimate group of like-minded others, folks who are as inspired and eager to travel in Southeast Asia as you are. The majority of Scenic river cruise passengers are Australian, with a sprinkling of other nationalities, including North Americans, New Zealanders, Britishers, Europeans, and others. Mingling was easy and we enjoyed hanging out with new friends.

The well traveled passengers on a Scenic Spirit excursion

Fun loving and adventurous passengers on an excursion. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Convenience

Southeast Asia is an amazing travel destination, but it can be challenging at times for even the heartiest adventurer, thanks to the heat (it’s hot year-round, sticking to the 80s and 90s F) and crazy traffic. A luxurious river cruise mitigates much of the hassle and lets you focus on the cultural treasures. Unpack once; largely avoid road travel; enjoy plush air-conditioned suites, spa and dining; and soak up the fascinating life on the river and along its banks. 

The scenic spirit docked along the Mekong RIver

The plush 68-passenger Scenic Spirit is a wonderful home base for a week on the Mekong River! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The Family Vibe

I’ve noticed that family-run companies like Scenic seem to thrive on the pride and passion that come from building and owning a business. Scenic was started by Australian Glen Moroney in 1986 and has grown into the thriving high-quality luxury cruise and travel company it is today.

Scenic name in candles at an Apsara performance

Family-owned Scenic seems to take great pride in delivering a high-quality travel experience. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Fares start at $4,395 USD per person for the 10-night Luxury Mekong and Temple Discovery Cruise package (7-night Scenic Spirit cruise + 3-night Siem Reap hotel stay). Fares include drinks, meals, excursions and a handful of special enrichment experiences. Visit the Scenic site for booking info.

 

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Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

By Anne Kalosh.

I woke to a rooster crowing at 4:30 a.m. AmaDara was nudged against a bank of the Mekong River, tied to trees. Beneath my balcony, a man was up to his neck in the brown water, bathing his ox. As daylight broke, houses in the forest became visible.

While we ate breakfast on board, families ashore were doing the same, squatting beside their houses that stood on tall stilts. When we strolled through the village in small groups, we met a grandmother chewing betel nuts as she minded a baby, kids jumping rope who called “Helloooo!” and a sprightly 90-year-old man who invited some of us in to his house, climbing the steep staircase with ease.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Children jump rope alongside AmaDara. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Authentic Experiences

These kinds of intimate, authentic experiences marked my weeklong cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia with AmaWaterways. Fascinating cultures, incredible and sometimes tragic history, beautiful sights, wonderful food and unforgettable people made this Mekong River voyage one of my greatest adventures ever.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

A floating village on the Mekong. Photo: AmaWaterways

We roamed markets where we were the only Westerners, got blessed at a Buddhist ceremony in a fabulous temple and rode sampans, trishaws, tuk-tuks and even oxcarts. At a one-room school in Cambodia, we helped barefoot children practice speaking English and brought their teacher pencils and notebooks.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Oxcart Anne! (in blue hat) * Photo: Anne Kalosh

In Phnom Penh’s nightmarish Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, once a prison and torture center run by the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge, we met one of the few survivors. In Siem Reap, we joined hundreds of other pilgrims trekking through the dark to view sunrise at Angkor Wat, one of the world’s most magnificent temples.

The Mekong is home to many ancient cultures and a lifeline for trade, fishing and agriculture. But cruising is relatively new to the river, so we felt like we were experiencing something very special.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Ox cart driver in Kampong Tralach. Photo: Anne Kalosh

Beauty of a Boat

AmaWaterways’ 124-passenger AmaDara, built in Vietnam in 2015, is a beauty of glossy teak, French colonial styling and carved wood furniture.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

AmaDara has been plying the Mekong since 2015. * Photo: AmaWaterways

I loved my room’s dark woods, spaciousness and tall windows. It was elegant and comfortable, the big bed facing a walk-out balcony and the seating area beside a French step-out balcony.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Benli, one of the wonderful AmaDara crew, showed me to my room. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

The Saigon Lounge with its bar and floor-to-ceiling windows served as a central meeting point for daily briefings, lectures and entertainment. Local performers came aboard several nights to dance and sing. Other evenings we sang karaoke, competed in a rollicking group trivia game about the Mekong and were treated to a fabulous and fun crew talent show.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

The Saigon Lounge hosts briefings, lectures and entartainment. * Photo: AmaWaterways

Local Dishes

The food aboard AmaDara was extraordinary. With Vietnamese and Cambodian chefs preparing the dishes, we enjoyed authentic meals, with some U.S. and international options always available.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Vietnamese and Cambodian chefs prepare authentic meals in AmaDara’s Mekong Restaurant. * Photo: AmaWaterways

Breakfast included fresh fruits like mango, rambutan, dragon fruit, sapodilla, jack fruit and melon; juices, smoothies, made-to-order omelets, stir fries and pho (a Vietnamese broth with noodles, vegetables, lemongrass and chili); cereals, porridge, nuts, yogurt and pastries. There was always a bottle of Champagne for those who wished to start the day with a mimosa or, instead, addictively sweet and strong iced Vietnamese coffee.

Lunch included a salad bar, cold cuts, cheeses, seafood, fish, pasta, action-station items like steamed rice paper rolls with pork and vegetables and main courses like sweet and sour fish, potato dumplings with pumpkin sauce, pizza and burgers (meat or veggie).

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Fresh tropical fruits are in abundance aboard AmaDara. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Dinner choices included Khmer salmon and grilled watermelon, prawn with mango, cauliflower soup with chive oil, Oriental beef consommé, Vietnamese egg drop soup with bean curd and mushrooms, sirloin steak with green pepper corn sauce, roasted turkey with taro and yam, cobia fillet with tamarind sauce and coconut rice, sesame seed tofu and tempura bok choy.

I thought the food was terrific, and it satisfied palates ranging from sophisticated New York foodies to a vegan couple who told me they found plenty of variety. Beer and wine were included at meals.

Friendly Crew, Great Guides

AmaDara is a beauty, but the best thing about the vessel was the friendly Vietnamese and Cambodian crew and the wonderful Ama guides. Tour leader Son met my late-arriving flight to Ho Chi Minh City (which most everyone still calls Saigon). On our way to the plush Sofitel Saigon Plaza, where other Ama travelers spent two nights pre-cruise, I learned Son had been a refugee abroad for several years, and a university professor. He’s the kind of knowledgeable, witty and charming leader you’d follow anywhere. And we did.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Tour leader Son, Anne Kalosh and guide Fin at Angkor Wat. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho
A City Market Adventure

The lotus embryo tea in my hotel room was a preview of the kind of drinks and foods that seemed very exotic to this American. My first city market visit was an eye-opener. There were nets of live toads, baskets of live prawns and kettles of live fish, framed collections of bats and spiders, Vietnamese coffee with brand names like Weasel and Squirrel, wood carvings (one of the Titanic) and enormous bags of cashews. A woman sat skinning an eel.

And the pointers from our Ama guides about bargaining definitely came in handy. Counter the price with 30 percent, then buy at 40 percent, they said. No eels or spiders for me. I took home fresh-ground coffee and silk scarves.

After the market our small convoy of buses drove along the wide avenues of Ho Chi Minh City, buzzing with action and lined with cafés and stands selling all kinds of things. In the countryside we passed emerald-green rice paddies and giant lotus flowers. People along the road wheeled carts piled high with coconuts, watermelons and dragon fruit.

“We like to live on the highway because of the opportunity to do business,” our guide Duy said. Two hours later, we arrived at My Tho, where AmaDara was docked.

Captain Dang Tuc stood at the gangway, impressive with his seafarer’s beard. On board, we learned that “Ama” means “love” and “dara” means “star.” We were just 87 passengers—from the U.S., Canada, Germany, the U.K., Philippines and Australia—on this early-season sailing. (Riverboats run on the Mekong from August to April.)

I was surprised by the number of families, including those with young children and teens, as well as solo travelers like me.

Our first day’s sail, to Cai Be, was short. We anchored midstream overnight. After dinner, Vietnamese musicians played traditional instruments.

Capt. Tuc and a crew member greet embarking passengers at My Tho. Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 2: Cai Be and Sa Dec
Floating market, Temple and Romance

Cai Be is an important agricultural distribution center, especially for fruits. To visit the floating market, we rode in long, covered sampans past colorful boats with eyes painted on the bows (a tradition said to ward off sea monsters). Many of these were live-aboards, and families strung their laundry on lines, kids played on deck and food was cooked in the open air. Many of the larger boats transport live fish in an underwater well or tank with screens to allow river water to flow through.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Touring the Mekong by sampan. Photo: Anne Kalosh

I saw coconut candy, popped rice snacks and edible rice paper being made in a shop that also sold cobra and scorpion wine, these creatures visible in the glass bottles. Other products included “Fat of Pythons” ointment for burns and dry skin and “Cobratoxan” cream for muscle pain.

“We eat anything that moves,” guide Duk said, adding snake is considered particularly nutritious. “We don’t eat python,” he clarified. “It’s too fatty and tasteless. We do eat cobra. We eat rats in the rice field. We eat mice. We eat crickets. Roasted crickets in garlic and chili are tasty.”

Walking along a forest trail we arrived at Kiet House, a pre-colonial home of elaborately carved wood, filled with antiques, ceramics and an altar to the ancestors.

In the afternoon, at Sa Dec, an agricultural and industrial trading center, we visited a colorful temple to Caodaism, a syncretistic religion whose symbol is the Divine Eye of God. Strolling through a market, we saw pigs’ heads split open in puddles of blood, eels and snakes, live crabs and heaps of fresh vegetables, greens and herbs.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Butcher stall in Sa Dec market, Vietnam. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

The French writer Marguerite Duras lived in Sa Dec as a teenager where she had an affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese man. Her novel “The Lover” was made into an exceedingly atmospheric film. We had tea at the wealthy man’s house, now a museum.

Day 3: Tan Chau
Rural Life and Riding in a Trishaw. Whee!

The sampans took us to Tan Chau, famous for its black-dyed silk. We visited a silk factory and at a rattan factory, we scooped up items decorated with hand-dyed silk threads. We learned about rural life on a stroll through Evergreen Island, our guides engaging people to tell about their homes and families. Back in Tan Chau, we rode cycle trishaws, my adept driver chatting on his phone as he pedaled away. I loved the ride!

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Strolling around Emerald Island. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 4: Phnom Penh
Tragedy & Beauty

Arriving at Cambodia’s bustling capital, AmaDara docked right downtown, in the heart of the action. The most tragic period of Cambodian history, the 1975 to 1979 reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime, was a sobering start to our visit. Well more than a million people, perhaps nearly three million, were executed or died from starvation or disease. No family was spared. When our guide Fin was a baby, his father vanished and was never heard from again.

Seeing one of the Killing Fields—sites where large numbers of people were executed—was indescribably sad and horrifying. Back on the bus, we fell silent. The shock and revulsion continued back in the city at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, known as Security Prison 21, or S-21.

There we met Chum Mey, one of its few survivors, who wrote a book about his life and ordeal. “How do you have the strength to come here every day?” I asked.

Chum said he’s compelled to bear witness to what happened. His book sales help support victims of the Khmer Rouge.

On the bus, Fin summed it up: “That was heavy. Not an enjoyable morning, but an important one.”

The afternoon was quite different: A walk through the grounds of the Royal Palace, home to Cambodia’s king. In the Silver Pagoda thick silver tiles covered the floor and a Buddha of solid gold was encrusted with thousands of diamonds. For me, a high point was the National Museum with its incredible collection of Khmer art. The Khmer empire was a powerful state that once covered most of modern-day Cambodia, southern Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Great builders, artists and musicians, the Khmer created monumental temples like Angkor Wat, and the museum houses many sculptures, statues and other artifacts from there.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Phnom Penh’s gilded Royal Palace complex. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Day 5 Phnom Penh, Oudong and Kampong Tralach
Buddhist Blessing & Oxcart Parade

We journeyed by bus to Oudong, Cambodia’s royal capital from the 17th century until 1866, and a place of pilgrimage. AmaWaterways had arranged a special Buddhist blessing for our group at one of the country’s largest monasteries. We sat on the floor, gazing up at the incredible neon lights, statues and paintings while monks performed the blessing.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

A special Buddhist blessing for Ama passengers at Oudong. * Photo: AmaWaterways

Nearby, at Kampong Tralach, dozens of oxcarts awaited, each driven by a farmer. We climbed in, two apiece. Our slow-moving parade was a spectacle followed by skipping children and women waving from doorways.

Back in Phnom Penh, we tried another typical conveyance, tuk-tuks (motorcyle-driven carts). It was fun surging en masse with all the other tuk-tuks, occasionally seeing familiar faces from AmaDara.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Buddha at Oudong Monastery, Cambodia. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 6: Oknhatey
Chatting with Schoolchildren

Sailing from Phnom Penh at 7 a.m., we arrived at Koh Dach, known as Silk Island, and rode tuk-tuks through the countryside of rice paddies and orchards to see silk artisans at work and buy beautiful hand-loomed scarves.

The trip’s most heartwarming experience was visiting a school, where we paired off with the children so they could practice speaking English. I can’t forget the little boy who told me he wants to be an author.

That night AmaDara pulled alongside Angkor Ban.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

School visit on Oknatey Island, Cambodia. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 7: Angkor Ban & Kampong Cham
Village Visit

This was the morning I woke to the rooster’s crow. In small groups, we strolled through the village with our Ama guides. Huge oxen, “like money in the bank” for Cambodian families, according to Fin, lazed in the shade. Some walls had drawings intended to ward off evil spirits.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Oxen are highly valued and considered money in the bank in Cambodia. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

AmaDara cast off for Kampong Cham, our final port. We docked beside an outdoor cafe with umbrella tables.  The third largest city in Cambodia, Kampong Cham appeared prosperous and busy.

Traveling by bus to Wat Nokor, we discovered an interesting temple dating from the mid-11th century. Roadside stands served duck eggs with 20-day-old embryos. Fin explained this is “Something one person eats that makes two persons happy. Get it?” I didn’t, until he winked.  We saw the Twin Mountains (Man Hill and Woman Hill), the topic of a legend in which the women outwitted the men in a mountain-building contest.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

This Cambodian man invited us into his home. At right is AmaWaterways guide Fin. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 8: Kampong Cham to Siem Reap
Goodbye, AmaDara. Hello, Angkor!

Capt. Tuc and all the crew lined up on shore to wish us farewell. It was sad to say goodbye to so many kind and charming people who’d cared for us with such wonderful hospitality.

We were handed box lunches for the four-hour drive to Siem Reap. Cornfields were juxtaposed with rubber trees, and motorcycles buzzed by with four or even five riders. As we arrived at Siem Reap, Fin’s home, he pointed out where, as a boy, he herded the family’s cows, walking carefully to avoid trip wires set by the Khmer Rouge. It was a chilling reminder of Cambodia’s not-so-distant holocaust.

Once a sleepy town, Siem Reap is now the bustling gateway to Angkor Wat, with an international airport and many fine hotels as well affordable and cheaper digs for budget travelers. Ours was the lavish Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort.

On an afternoon tour to Ta Prohm Temple, where giant trees grow from the walls, parrots and macaque monkeys broke the eerie silence. Angelina Jolie filmed “Tomb Raider” there.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Trees grow from the walls at eerie Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor, Cambodia, which featured in Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

Day 9: Siem Reap
Sunrise at World’s Largest Temple Complex

Most AmaWaterways travelers spent two nights in Siem Reap. I had a noon flight so I opted for a sunrise visit to the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex. No rooster crowed at the posh Sofitel, but croissants awaited the 4 a.m. early risers in the Ama group. We joined the flow of pilgrims, walking with flashlights, over the causeway atop a wide moat. A light mist made things even more atmospheric.

There was no brilliant sunburst but the gradual unveiling of this incredible sight at daybreak was still profound. Besides its monumental scale and alluring shapes, Angkor Wat is fascinating for its dynamic bas-reliefs of scenes from Hindu epics and hundreds of dancers, each pair said to have different headdresses.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

Angkor Wat is rich with thousands of well-preserved carvings. * Photo: Anne Kalosh

It was a climatic finish to a fascinating trip, from the vigor of Vietnam to the calm (decades after the Khmer Rouge storm!) of Cambodia. I learned and experienced a lot, and much of that was thanks to our excellent Ama guides.

When we’d first arrived in Cambodia, Fin taught us the sampeah, the traditional way of saying hello, goodbye, sorry and thank you by pressing the palms together and slightly bowing the head. The level of the hands is important, signifying different relationships. For example, friends of the same age place both palms together at chest level. When greeting bosses, older people or high-ranking people, the hands are raised to mouth level. Saying goodbye to Fin, I put my palms at nose level, appropriate for saluting a teacher.

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

If you’re lucky, this is Angkor Wat at sunrise. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

For booking info, contact AmaWaterways.

And here’s Anne’s interview with AmaWaterways Co-Owner Kristin Karst.

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Star Clippers Adding New Ports

Star Clippers Adding New Ports

By Anne Kalosh.

Tall ship fleet Star Clippers will explore unusual new destinations in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia on departures beginning in April 2020.

In the Mediterranean, new ports for the 227-passenger Royal Clipper include Stintino (Sardinia), Propriano (Corsica), and Vis, Korcula and Zadar (Croatia).

Brand-new Itineraries in Southeast Asia

Star Clippers will make its first visit to Cambodia and varied port calls on the Thai, Malay and Indonesian archipelagos.

The 170-passenger Star Clipper will stop at Cambodia during a newly launched 11-night round-trip from Ko Samui, Thailand. Cambodian ports include the island of Koh Rong, a wildlife paradise with dense forests and white sandy beaches, and Sihanoukville, a trendy coastal city known for uninterrupted beaches and fresh seafood. An optional, overnight excursion will be available for passengers wishing to visit the incredible ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.

Many other new port calls in Southeast Asia will see Star Clipper dropping anchor alongside pristine beaches and idyllic islands throughout Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Star Clippers Adding New Ports

The twin Star Clipper & Star Flyer. * Photo: Star Clippers

Corsica & Sardinian Ports Added to the Med Mix

The flagship Royal Clipper will again be sailing in the Western Mediterranean during summer 2020, with cruises departing from Venice, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Cannes, calling at an array of new ports. The seven-night “Corsica, Sardinia & the Riviera” sailing, round-trip Cannes, will visit the charming town of Propriana, Corsica, with its vibrant harbor and luxury shopping, and Stintino, a small, traditional village with some of the best beaches in Sardinia.

Star Clippers Adding New Ports

Royal Clipper will explore new ports in the Western Mediterranean. * Photo: Star Clippers

In Croatia, the seven-night “Croatia & Montenegro” sailing from Venice will visit Zadar, where travelers can explore Roman ruins and Venetian architecture before experiencing the famed Sea Organ, which captures the movement of the waves and transforms it into music. Also on the list is Korcula, with its red tile roofed Old Town and surrounding cypress and pine forest.

For those wishing to take a deeper dive into Croatia, the 11-night “Italy, Montenegro & Croatia” cruise will now call at Vis island, known for its many stunning beaches as well as fascinating history. Vis was founded in 397 B.C. as a base for the Greek colonization of the Adriatic.

“Due to our ships’ relatively shallow drafts, we are able to drop anchor in ports and harbors inaccessible to large cruise ships, enabling us to continually vary our itineraries,” Star Clippers Owner and President Mikael Krafft said. He predicted the new destinations will sell out first.

The line’s newest vessel, Flying Clipper, is set to debut in summer 2019. It’s a replica of 1911’s France II, the largest square-rigged tall ship ever built.

 

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Monastery visit on a Scenic Cruise

QuirkyCruise Reader Review

Scenic Spirit on Mekong River

REVIEWER

Sheila Healey from the US.

CRUISE LINE

Scenic.

SHIP

Scenic Spirit.

DESTINATION

Mekong River in Cambodia & Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

7.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

October 2018, from Siem Reap, Cambodia downstream into Vietnam.

OVERALL RATING

5 out of 5 stars (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=poor, 1=terrible)

-Food Rating: 4

-Cabin Rating: 4

-Service/Crew Rating: 5

-Itinerary Rating: 4

HOW MANY SMALL-SHIP CRUISES HAVE YOU BEEN ON?

6.

REVIEW

If you want an escape in comfort, with a good balance of UNESCO World Heritage sites and small village and temples excursions while river touring, then the Scenic Spirit is the ticket.  This over-worked New Yorker was in love from the get go. As Australian-owned you get a well appointed Modern-designed vessel along with a realistic view of the region.

This 10-day trip transported me to 9th-century Angkor Wat with a knowledgable guide and then back to Siem Reap for total comfort at the lovely Hyatt Regency for two days before we began the river segment of the trip. The guide team was exceptional in their knowledge throughout Cambodia and Vietnam and happy to assist in any need. The staff on the Scenic Spirit was just lovely and aimed to please. One of the highlights on board was the spa and pricing — a plus while traveling in Asia. With 45-minute foot massages for $20, I happily booked three times while on board. It’s the little things in life!

As many will ask about our food and wine selections while on board — overall decent choices and the kitchen did its best with a lovely fresh juice selection daily at  breakfast. I absolutely took advantage of the watermelon juice offerings!  Local cuisine was always a staple as well as western ala carte selections for the less adventurous traveler. Yes, we had the option of beetles and scorpions for one of our lunch selections. If you are a hard core foodie you may be let down at times, but you will have plenty of time to explore Saigon and Phnom Penh for that special food experience, which of course we did!

Our Cabin was super comfortable and the beds beyond inviting.  The size of the cabin is much larger than most river cruise ships and one feels the need to linger at times to enjoy the river views. A real plus was that the windows open with the touch of a button. perfect for your own private sunset photo opportunity while sipping champagne.

The excursions were  quite good overall. To me, the Cambodian side of the trip was more interesting (given excursions like Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields) than the Vietnam side of the trip, which was much more in the vein of local markets and small temple visits. We opted one afternoon to stay on the boat and enjoy the small pool and bar, which was quite enjoyable. WIFI is available, but at times non-existent, which assists in getting one off the grid and much appreciated.

If you are looking to get off the merry-go-round of western life, but don’t want to let go of your creature comforts this may be your kind of holiday. For me Cambodia invaded my soul and touched my heart in a way I wasn’t expecting. The Mekong awaits!

➢➢Peruse more Reader Reviews HERE  …. and …. REVIEW your latest small ship-cruise ✍🏽 HERE  ✍🏽

 

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Mekong River Cruising

Pandaw River Boat

By Heidi Sarna.

When an old high school friend decided to visit me in Singapore to catch up and travel together somewhere in the region, I put on my thinking cap to come up with something really special and interesting.  I surfed around and came up with Pandaw Cruises, a company I am now very familiar with, but at the time had never heard of before. The company operates a fleet of 10-to 66-passenger boats all built since 2002 as replicas of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers that plied Burma’s Irrawaddy River a century ago.

Mekong River Cruising

Watching the world go by from the bow of the Orient Pandaw. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

After just a few minutes on the Pandaw website, I knew I hit the jackpot. I signed us up for a 7-night cruise down the Mekong River and its tributaries through Cambodia and Vietnam, with an extra hotel night on either end in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. We stayed at the beautifully rustic Angkor Village Hotel in Siem Reap and spent a day and a half exploring the amazing Hindu and Buddhist temples built during Angkor’s golden era from the 9th to 13th centuries.

Our guide, Mao So Kheim (with www.indochinapartnertravel.com), was excellent and we trekked with him over the gnarled roots of ancient banyan trees and up super steep stone steps to get close-up views of giant temples carved with Hindu deities, scenes from the Ramayana, and the 216 giant and serene faces of the god-king Jayavarman VII. With so much to see, we barely noticed it was 90 degrees in the shade.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

The famous Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat.

All Aboard a Pandaw River Boat

The next day we were to embark the 60-passenger Orient Pandaw. Because we were traveling in March, during the relatively dry, low-water season (seasonal fluctuations in the water level of the Mekong river system vary between 6 and 10 meters), we couldn’t board the ship in Siem Reap. The four-hour bus ride south to a village along the southern edge of Tonle Sap lake, where we boarded the boat, was a great opportunity to see the countryside and small towns of Cambodia.

The guide, who would be sailing with us for the Cambodia half of the cruise (another excellent guide joined us for the Vietnam portion), narrated. Highlights included a bathroom break at a roadside restaurant where our group was met by a bevy of local women selling snacks. They tempted us with heaping trays of fried tarantulas, crickets and frogs. In a country as poor as Cambodia, practically everything is considered food, poisonous spiders not withstanding.

When we reached the port, we walked to the riverbank and peered down at the Orient Pandaw, its stubby bow nudged up against the muddy banks of the Mekong River. A smile spread across my face at the thought of our impending adventure on this Pandaw river boat. The gangway was a wooden plank connecting the boat to the bank, where it was moored not to a concrete pylon or pier, but to the sturdy trunk of a tree. Our home for the next week resembled an old-time steamboat, minus the paddle wheel, with three main open-sided decks and an air of utility.

Pandaw Mek Crew putting out gangway copy

Quirky & Comfortable

While the year-old Orient Pandaw has a retro look, teak wood and brass fittings, the beauty of a replica is the marriage of old and new. Modern creature comforts include roomy air-conditioned cabins that open directly to the outside promenade deck. Cabins have plenty of storage space and attractive bathrooms with large showers.

The windowed open-seating restaurant is configured with tables for eight and serves a combination of buffet-style and ala carte meals, from delicious nasi goring to Khmer fish curry, glass noodles with pork and spicy beef salad, as well salads, pastas, cold cuts, cheese, fresh bread and other continental staples for the mostly European and North American guests. Considering the mix of passengers, the food wasn’t heavily spiced (not enough for my palate at least), but nothing some chili sauce or a dash of pepper couldn’t remedy.

 

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

The lone piece of exercise equipment. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

When we weren’t eating or sleeping, the place to be was a padded teak chaise lounge on the open-air observation deck to watch the landscape float by. While sailing we were close enough to shore to wave to children, admire sampans piled high with coconuts, and watch a solitary figure in a conical hat paddling a skiff along the ubiquitous groves of water hyacinths. The guides mingled and answered our questions, guests enjoyed cold beers and drinks from the bar, and a dedicated few watched the scenery unfold from the seat of the stationery bike, the ship’s lone piece of exercise equipment.

Massages were offered on deck, and also below decks in a dedicated massage room (some Pandaw boats have a masseuse and some don’t), as well as port lectures and occasional activities such as a spring roll-making demo. Evenings, local folk dancers and singers performed for us or better yet, we enjoyed several culturally-relevant movies in an indoor lounge. Watching The Killing Fields, The Quiet American and Indochine in the places in which they were set made them all the more poignant.

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Climbing out of a local sampan to explore on shore • Photo: Heidi Sarna

Exploring Ashore

Each day we made one or two excursions from the ship, often via local sampans that pulled up alongside our anchored boat. On the Cambodian side of the river in Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham, we traveled by sampan past floating wet markets and walked through rural villages to see the 12th century Angkorian temple of Wat Nokor as well as ancient Cham shrines (the Cham are one of the region’s ethnic minorities).

We visited an orphanage supported by Pandaw and distributed paper, pencils and candy to the children. It was both a sad place — dusty and forlorn with a pair of net-less metal soccer goal frames in a field surrounded by drab concrete — and a hopeful one too, with smiling children greeting us as we stepped off the bus. I felt both joy and sadness. Who knows the horrors the children have endured in a country of extreme poverty, and where healthcare is poor and widespread corruption by the political elites is commonplace.

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

Children in a Cambodia village. * Photo: Sue Piergallini

A Day in Phnom Penh

On our third day we docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, where structures like the grand Buddhist Silver Pagoda temple (one of the few places Khmer artifacts weren’t destroyed by the Khmer Rouge) and charming French colonial architecture co-exist with grim reminders of the dreaded Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. We visited the notorious Killing Fields on the edge of the city where thousands of innocent people were murdered and buried as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a prison known as the S21 Detention Centre, where more than 10,000 Cambodians of all ages were interrogated, processed and killed by the evil Khmer Rouge regime. In preparing for my trip I read a chilling but page-turning memoir of the horrible Pol Pot years by Loung Ung called First They Killed My Father. Her parents and two of her siblings didn’t survive the regime’s brutality.

The boat stayed in Phnom Penh late and that evening we traveled by bicycle rickshaw to a local spa for a great $9USD massage at the Amret Spa (#3, Street 57), followed by dinner at an atmospheric little restaurant nearby before heading back to the boat.

Crossing Into Vietnam

The next day we sailed across the border into Vietnam and noticed an immediate shift. Cambodia’s primitive wet markets and thatched huts were supplanted by the vigorous commerce of the Vietnam side. Sand barges carried their cargo to Saigon for export to Singapore and emerald green irrigated fields of rice carpeted the river banks.

From Chau Doc and Cai Be, we traveled again by sampan through the canals and backwaters of the main Mekong channel, wandering through local markets, checking out the action at a floating fish farm, snapping photos of a French Gothic cathedral in Cai Be and stopping for tea at the former Imperial residence, the An Kiet House. The group enjoyed visits to two factories, one that produced rice paper and coconut candy, and another, tiles and pottery.

Hello Ho Chi Minh City

Our weeklong river adventure ended in My Tho, near bustling Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed a night in Vietnam’s largest city at Le Duy, a non-descript but centrally located hotel on Nguyen Thi Nghia Street, visiting the War Museum, with its graphic photo collection, Chinatown, Reunification Palace (the site of the official fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the war) and the sprawling Ben Thanh market.

We also toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels an hour outside of the city, an impressive underground complex built by the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. We spent our last evening of the trip at the open-air Rooftop Garden bar of the Rex Hotel, where journalists hung out during the Vietnam War. Though the singer crooning Italian ballads seemed out of place, all that mattered were the magical views of Ho Chi Minh City. It was the perfect place to reflect upon our Pandaw adventure.

Note: Sometimes other boats in the fleet, like the 48-passenger Mekong Pandaw, do the 7-night route described in this feature, and they all offer a very similar experience to the Orient Pandaw.

Fares include all shore excursions, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, and entrance fees to museums and other sites.

For booking info, go to the Pandaw site.

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

A visit to a floating fish farm • Photo: Heidi Sarna

 

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