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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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AmaWaterways Mekong River Boat Captain

AmaDara’s Mekong River Captain Boat Dang Tuc

By Anne Kalosh.

Inspired by the Australian miniseries “All Rivers Run” about a life of adventure on a paddle-steamer, a young Vietnamese set his heart on a ship career. And today, Dang Tuc, 52, commands AmaDara, one of the finest boats on the Mekong.

He often stands at the gangway to welcome passengers to a river he considers “smooth and romantic.”

Mekong River Cruise Adventure

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

Tuc first worked aboard fishing boats, then cargo ships, and by 1999 he was skilled enough to become a pilot, leading vessels into Ho Chi Minh City. Subsequently, working for the Vietnamese partner of AmaWaterways, he was appointed captain of AmaLotus in 2014 after a stint as staff captain.

In 2015, Tuc took command of the brand-new AmaDara, where he continues to serve, leading a deck and engine crew of 11. Besides ensuring safe operations at all times, a key duty is crew training. The Mekong has few docking sites for passenger boats, so sometimes AmaDara anchors in the river, while other times the captain nudges the boat to the shore, where it’s tied to trees.

Another challenge is the great difference in water levels between the rainy and dry seasons, which Tuc said can go from 45 meters to just 10 to 15 meters. This means, he said, that the top of the boat is lower than the ground level at one of the villages where AmaDara docks during the dry period. (Wow, that’s hard to imagine!)

Tuc’s kids are proud of what he does. Though the downside of the job is being away from his family for a couple weeks at a time. When he’s sailing, he phones his wife every night.

As the number of boats operating in the river is growing, Tuc sees a bright future for Mekong cruising. He thinks that’s due to the quality delivered and positive reports back from passengers.

That I can sure agree with!

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  Enjoy Anne’s full story about her AmaDara Mekong River cruise HERE.

 

 

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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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Scenic Spirit on the Mekong (Scenic).

Scenic Spirit on the Mekong (Scenic).

REVIEWER

Julia Steinmetz from the USA.

CRUISE LINE

Scenic.

SHIP

Scenic Spirit.

DESTINATION

Mekong River from central Cambodia to Vietnam.

# OF NIGHTS

10.

DEPARTURE DATE & PORTS

October 2018, from Kampong Cham, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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: 4

HAVE YOU BEEN ON A SMALL SHIP CRUISE BEFORE?

I’ve been on 1 small ship cruise.

REVIEW

It was the trip of a lIfetime with so much to do and see. The scenery and food were outstanding, I felt truly pampered. I’m not used to that and this was my first cruise ever. The ship was gorgeous, the rooms were especially well designed. I would give the itinerary a 5 if they increased the academic standard, with more history, more about buddhism, more food history and more political history. That was all there, but not in-depth.

 

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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!

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Aqua Expeditions

Aqua Expeditions

AQUA EXPEDITIONS began operating a high-end riverboat on the Peruvian Amazon in 2007. Cruises begin and end at Iquitos, Peru and sail to one source of the Amazon and in the vast the Pacaya Samira Reserve seeing wildlife and visiting riverside communities. In 2014, the firm established a second base in South East Asia with cruises along the Mekong aboard the AQUA MEKONG between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

In November 2019, the AQUA BLU was added to the fleet offering 7- and 12-day Indonesian island cruises from Komodo National Park to Ambon, Spice Islands and Raja Ampat. The 15-suite ship formerly operated as a British Naval Explorer and has been upgraded to yacht standards. A fourth vessel, AQUA NERA, is set to debut in October 2020 to do Peruvian Amazon cruises, replacing the AQUA AMAZON that was lost in July 2016.

Aqua Expeditions operates one of the top river experiences in the lap of luxury along the Amazon and Southeast Asia’s Mekong  and more recently eastern Indonesia. And seeing is believing: visibility through floor-to-ceiling glass is a huge plus.  

See it all through huge windows. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

See it all through huge windows. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers

ARIA AMAZON (built 2011 & 32 passengers); AQUA MEKONG (b. 2014 & 40 p); AQUA BLU (b. 1968, converted 2006, refurbished 2019 & 30 passengers); AQUA NERA (to debut Oct 2020 & 40 p).

Passenger Decks

3 Decks, No elevator. AQUA BLU 5 decks.

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Passenger Profile

Guides cater to English, French and German speakers. Children must be at least seven to travel. Interconnecting cabins for families.

Price

Expensive — $$$

Itineraries

Peruvian Amazon Cruises

ARIA AMAZON (and AQUA NERA as of October 2020) make 3- (partial), 4- (partial) and 7-night (combining the two) cruises year-round from Iquitos along several Upper Amazon river tributaries, including the Ucayali and Maranon rivers to the Pacaya Samira Reserve, a five-million-acre flooded rain forest punctuated by black lagoons that dramatically reflect the surrounding trees. Activities visit riverside villages and food markets, and offer hikes in the rain forest and skiffs for water exploration and fishing for piranhas.

Keen eyes look for freshwater pink dolphins, turtles, lizards, caiman, iguanas, and frogs (some poisonous), snakes, sloths, capuchins, squirrel and howler monkeys, terns, toucans, and macaws.

With the cruises of short duration, many travelers choose to add on some of the following: Machu Picchu, Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, Lima and/or Nazca Lines.

Excursions down a scenic Amazon tributary. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Excursions down a scenic Amazon tributary. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Included Features

All meals, soft drinks, premium wines and craft beers with meals; all excursions and entrance fees; use of bikes and kayaks; and transfers between the boat and airport on company recommended flights. Complimentary laundry service. Tipping is extra and recommended rates are $81-120 for 3 nights and $108-160 for 4 nights including crew and guides.

Why Go?

The outstanding varieties of mammals, birds, and aquatic species seen along the rivers and in the deep rain forests simply are staggering. The riverboats are more than comfortable and allow down time after a day exploring in small craft and on foot.

When to Go?

The cruises operate year-round and the weather is slightly wetter with higher water levels December to May and less rain and lower water levels June to November. The temperature variation is minimal, and the water levels affect how far the skiffs can penetrate the rain forest via narrow tributaries.

Cabins

ARIA AMAZON has 16 cabins with polished wooden floors that measure a generous 250 square feet with beds positioned to face the expansive floor-to-ceiling glass windows flanked by two chairs and a table. With windows like these, you’ll practically feel like you’re IN the river with the wild critters!

AQUA NERA has 20 suites on two decks that measure an even more generous 322 sq. ft., again with large windows.

Aria Amazon's gorgeous rooms. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Aria Amazon’s gorgeous rooms. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Public Rooms

ARIA AMAZON and AQUA NERA have an indoor lounge with large view windows, bar and library selection and a top deck lounge both open and under a canvas awning, especially enjoyable when the boat is underway. AQUA NERA has a screening room and pool table.

Dining

The floor-to-ceiling windows bring in lots of light during meals while passengers dine at tables for two, four or six. AQUA NERA offers indoor or outdoor dining. The stylish settings serve 70% locally sourced fish from the Amazon, fresh fruits and vegetables and premium South American and European wines.

Much effort is put into meal preparation that achieves the best in Peruvian-style cuisine for signature dishes such as Peruvian ceviche, combining a river fish, juicy onions and corn kernels spiced with cilantro and coriander, or plantain and yucca gnocchi, and palm soufflé. Cooking demonstrations reveal the techniques and ingredients.

Dining on Aqua Amazon. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Dining on the Amazon. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Activities & Entertainment

The ARIA AMAZON is equipped with a massage room, stationary bicycle and treadmill, and a Jacuzzi on the outdoor lounge deck. AQUA NERA has two spa treatment rooms, gym and plunge pool. Talks by the English-speaking guides take place in the lounge, and passengers go ashore with multiple guides in very small groups (6-8).

The vessel offers two or three excursions daily and aluminium skiffs take no more than eight passengers and are manned by a guide trained to spot animals and birds that might otherwise go unnoticed in murky water and rain forest settings. Kayaks are available.

AQUA NERA has four 10-person aluminum launch boats. Staffing and passenger ratio are one-to-one on both vessels.

Mekong River Cruises

AQUA MEKONG offers 7-night cruises between a docking point near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and My Tho, a Vietnamese port in the delta, with access by bus to and from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the temples of Angkor Wat (in Siem Reap, Cambodia).

The 3- and4-night cruises may start or finish at either end and embark or disembark part way along at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Because the river cruises are short, consider adding any of these destinations: Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue and Angkor Wat.

Aqua Mekong * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Aqua Mekong * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Included Features

All meals, and soft drinks, wines, and craft beers with meals, all excursions and entrance fees, use of bikes and kayaks, and group transfers.

Why Go?

Both Cambodia and Vietnam are culturally rich in architecture and the arts and crafts, and traveling the Mekong allows close up views of the passing scene with considerable trade plying the river, manufacturing, towns and cities lining the shores, and a chance to tie up and explore markets, watch Buddhist ceremonies, and enjoy a home visit.

Aqua Expeditions

Views from the sundeck. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

When to Go?

Cruises operate year-round with some itinerary adjustments depending on high or low water levels. Rainy season normally extends from November to May. Daytime temperature are cooler. During high water periods, the boat can sail to and from Tonle Sap Lake with easy access to Angkor Wat and into the emerald flooded forest in Vietnam.

Cabins

The accommodations measure a very spacious 320 square feet, and eight have balconies and all floor-to-ceiling windows. Four sets interconnect two suites, for families or for one giant suite for two, and all bathrooms feature twin sinks.

Public Rooms

Indoor spaces are a lounge with bar, a small indoor cinema, and boutique. Outdoors on the Sun Deck are two lounge areas with canopies and bar, sun loungers at one end and sit-up bar and table and chair seating at the other. Staff ratio on AQUA MEKONG is one-to-one.

Aqua Expeditions Mekong lounge

Aqua Mekong’s Indoor Lounge * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Dining

The setting is sophisticated with large windows giving clear views of the Mekong, where passengers may sit as a couple or at larger tables. Menus feature Vietnamese and Khmer traditions that may include Vietnamese catfish with shallots, chilies and basil; grilled prawns with peanut relish; vegetable dumplings; and chocolate fondant (a tip to French influence in Indochina).

Aqua Expeditions dining room on Mekong

The windowed dining room. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Activities & Entertainment

From the plunge pool on the Sun Deck, you can look forward; the spa has two treatment rooms, and there is a gym, foosball in the games room cum library, screenings for up to 10 people in the indoor cinema or attended by a larger group out on the covered deck. Four tenders take passengers on river outings and ashore when the boat cannot dock.

Visits are made to plantations, homes, artisan compounds, markets, Buddhist temples, markets with the boat’s chef, and the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for the Royal Palace, Silver Temple, National Museum and Museum of Genocide. Bicycles are available for guided trips into the countryside, stopping to see farming operations, markets and village life. Motorized tuks tuks venture further.

Indonesia Cruises

AQUA BLU entered service in November 2019 to cruise in Eastern Indonesia. The ship, converted from British Naval Exploration ship now operates as a high-end cruising yacht for 30 passengers in 15 suites.

Aqua Expeditions

AQUA BLU cruises the eastern Indonesian islands. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Included Features

All meals, and soft drinks, wines, and craft beers with meals, all excursions and entrance fees, use of kayaks, and group transfers.

Why Go?

The cruises in Eastern Indonesia are offered in three different 7-night itineraries, plus connecting voyages:

1) Bali to Komodo National Park, visiting a series of closely packed islands with disembarkation at western tip of Flores Island and in the opposite direction;

2) 7 nights to Ambon and the Spice Islands; and

3) 7 nights to Raja Ampat, a recently popular area of extreme tropical island beauty, rain forests and tropical birds, beaches and coral reefs with abundant marine life at and off the western tip of West Papua.

Komodo National Park

The Moyo Island Waterfall in the Komodo National Park. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

When to Go?

The program is year-round when combining all three repeating itineraries.

Cabins

15 suites are situated on four decks and fall into three categories with two pairs of suites interconnecting, for families or good friends. The accommodations have round, rectangular, and oval windows and portholes.

Aqua Expeditions cabin

Windowed suite on Bridge Deck 1. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Public Rooms

Lounge spaces offer choices between out in the open or beneath a covered deck seating, or totally within A/C room; small library collection and a TV room.

Aqua Expeditions lounge

The ship’s hub, the main lounge. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Dining

Meals are served in one of two locations, depending on the temperature and weather conditions: open air, including BBQ, or air-conditioned and at both venues open seating. As the ship operates in a tropical island climate, lots of local fish, fruits and vegetables are close at hand in  addition what is supplied to the ship as embarkation ports.

Aqua Expeditions dining

Lovely outdoor dining. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Activities and Entertainment

Enjoy lectures, videos, snorkeling, and swimming. There’s an exercise room, spa and a pair of outdoor hot tubs.

Aqua Expeditions hot tubs

A pair of dreamy outdoor hot tubs. * Photo: Aqua Expeditions

Special Note

In July 2016, AQUA AMAZON was lost in an explosion, with deaths and injuries to the crew, while no passengers were aboard.

Along the Same Lines

There is a wide choice of operators in both of Aqua Expeditions’ cruising regions, including Star Clippers, Pandaw, SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, Scenic & AmaWaterways.

Contacts

Go to www.aquaexpeditions.com; USA & Canada: 866-603-3687; UK: +0 808 189 0361; Australia: +1 800 243 152; New Zealand: +0 800 466 098.

 

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Short Laos Mekong River Cruises

By Anne Kalosh.

Gourmet meals, plush cabins and curated experiences beckon travelers to a new selection of Mekong River cruises by Minor Hotels, an international hotel group. Mekong Kingdoms cruises are replete with the colonial romance of river travel but with a modern twist.

Cruising the Mekong from Thailand’s Golden Triangle to the ancient Laos capital and now UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang conjures up images of old Indochina, of languorous days gone by, teeming with adventure, mystical temples and stunning scenery.

Laos Mekong River Cruises

The Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos & Myanmar converge.

2- & 3-Night Mekong River Cruises

Travelers can embark Mekong Kingdoms’ flagship BOHEME, a 42-meter/138-foot, 13-cabin luxury barge, at Luang Prabang or Chiang Rai/Chiang Khong in Thailand, located near Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. Decorated with intricate Indochinese-inspired artwork and fitted with sumptuously comfortable furnishings, BOHEME offers facilities like an expansive sun deck, a wine cellar and a spa.

Short Laos Mekong River Cruises

Boheme offers an expansive sun deck, a wine cellar and a spa. * Photo: Mekong Kingdoms

The journey from Chiang Rai/Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang lasts two nights, heading downstream, or three nights going upstream.

Excursions include guided jungle treks and a visit to the Pak Ou caves, with their dramatic karsts and thousands of Buddhas left by pilgrims over the centuries. Travelers can visit the Hmong Village at Pak Beng or learn traditional weaving at Ban Baw and further explore rural Laos by mountain biking in the village of Ban Houy Phalam.

Activities aboard BOHEME include sunrise yoga, Buddhist meditation, sunset cocktails, cooking demonstrations, jewelry-making classes and fishing for giant catfish.

For an even more intimate experience, Mekong Kingdoms offers GYPSY, a two-cabin cruiser ideal for one or more nights for up to four people, with the itinerary and program customized to suit the travelers.

Short Laos Mekong River Cruises

Gypsy is a two-cabin cruiser for up to four people. * Photo: Mekong Kingdoms

Day Tripping

For shorter day trips in complete privacy, NOMAD provides couples an exclusive romantic getaway for sunset cruises in Luang Prabang.

And for private events or family adventure, the floating lounge PLAY is ideal. Suitable for up to 15 passengers, it offers a sun deck, private room and a sound system. MONSOON, meanwhile, is a scheduled luxury touring shuttle to the Pak Ou caves that serves canapés, coffee, tea and soft drinks.

For info go to mekongkingdoms.com.

Short Laos Mekong River Cruises

Big river views from the bar aboard the day-cruiser Play. * Photo: Mekong Kingdoms

 

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Laos Mekong River

To meet demand for Pandaw’s popular Mekong River cruises between Laos and China’s Yunnan province, Pandaw just announced the addition of a third ship to the region beginning in Sept 2019.  The new two-deck 24-passenger SABEI PANDAW will sail between Vientiane, the Laos capital, and Jinghong in China, traversing Laos, Thailand, Burma and China.

Laos Mekong River

Pandaw is the only line offering this Laos-China Mekong RIver itinerary. * Map: Pandaw Cruises

SABEI PANDAW is being built in Thailand and outfitted in Pandaw’s classic teak and brass. It’s specially designed for sailing on the Upper Mekong with a low draft and extra powerful engines to shoot the rapids in the Laos gorges.

For the first time it is possible for travellers to sail on the Upper Mekong River from Laos to China or vice versa. The pioneering 14-night river expedition that no other line offers acquaints passengers with tribal villages, national parks, pristine jungle, the Golden Triangle (the intersection of Laos, Thailand and Burma), and the emerald green Mekong in China’s Yunnan province. Shore excursions include trekking and mountain biking (this cruise is not for those with mobility difficulties). There are overnight stops in Luang Prabang, Chiang Saen and Jinghong.

Pandaw founder Paul Strachan said: “It has been a long held dream to sail the length of the navigable sections of the Mekong River; now we can. There is much to explore in this undiscovered region; travellers need to be up for a real adventure as the daily itinerary might change, but with a flexible attitude will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

SABEI PANDAW will have just 12 classic Pandaw cabins — eight on the main deck and four on the upper deck as well as an open plan dining room with flexible indoor or outdoor dining.

Laos Mekong River

A roomy Pandaw Sabei cabin. Photo: Pandaw Cruises

Cuisine on board reflects a blending of dishes from Laos and Thailand, with continental options available upon request.

SABEI PANDAW will be Pandaw’s 17th vessel and part of a fleet that currently plies the waterways of six countries in Southeast Asia. The other two vessels on the Laos Mekong River run are the 28-passenger CHAMPA PANDAW (built in 2016 in Thailand) and the 20-passenger LAOS PANDAW (built in 2015 in Laos) doing 10-night Mekong cruises between Vientiane, Laos,and Chian Saen, Thailand. The Laos trio all have roomy 150-square-foot cabins with sliding glass doors.

Fares include all excursions; onboard talks, classes and cultural performances; and complimentary local beer and spirits, plus soft drinks. Wine is available for purchase.

Optional pre- and post-cruise extensions visit China’s Kunming, Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan Province;  and the Plain of Jars in Laos. Go to Pandaw.com to check out special offers.

Laos Mekong River

Like the rest of the Pandaw fleet, Sabei Pandaw is covered in lovely teak wood. * Photo: Pandaw Cruises

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CroisiEurope's Brand New Indochine II

By Anne Kalosh.

CroisiEurope’s brand-new INDOCHINE II for the Mekong River mingles colonial-era styling with contemporary details and the latest technologies.

Catering to the French market, as well as a growing  international clientele including North Americans, INDOCHINE II will sail 11-day cruises between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Hô-Chi-Minh, Vietnam, via Phnom Penh. The vessel’s shallow draft (1.6 meters/five feet) allows it to venture further into Tonlé Lake than many other boats.

Carrying 62 passengers served by 29 crew, INDOCHINE II has 31 cabins that are a roomy 22 square meters/237 square feet each, including a four-square-meter/43-square-foot balcony.

CroisiEurope's Brand New INDOCHINE II

An Indochine II cabin. * Photo: CroisiEurope

The panoramic viewing salon/bar with glazed-glass windows faces forward while the spacious restaurant is located in the stern. The top deck houses a swimming pool, bar and al fresco lounge. There’s a massage room on the main deck.

CroisiEurope's Brand New INDOCHINE II

The lounge aboard Indochine II. * Photo: CroisiEurope

Custom-Built

The custom-built INDOCHINE II is inspired by the style of the commercial craft sailing the Mekong. It has colonial-era decoration that echoes the past and modern details that create an elegant, current look.

The Vietnamese shipyard worked with Stirling Design International of Nantes, France. The noted yacht architecture firm’s projects have included CroisiEurope’s LOIRE PRINCESSE and ocean-going ships for Ponant.

INDOCHINE II employs modern technologies and the latest generation low-emission engines plus a bow thruster to help it navigate the narrow channels linking Hô-Chi-Minh with the Mekong. The air conditioning and ventilation systems employ the latest technologies, too.

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Pandaw Cruises

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QuirkyCruise ReviewQuirkyCruise Review of Pandaw River Cruises

Pandaw has been offering high-quality expedition-style river cruises in Asia aboard traditional-style boats for more than 20 years. The growing fleet comprises similar-looking colonial-style teakwood riverboats built in Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos in the spirit of the 19th-century Scottish-crafted paddle steamers that plied Burma’s rivers at the height of the British Empire. Each boat carries 10 to 60 passengers and has an ultra-shallow draft, two or three decks, and flat tops so they can slip under bridges and easily navigate small rivers, even when water levels are low. Wood-paneled nautical-style cabins are roomy and very comfortable and meals are tasty enough.

In every way, the Pandaw River Cruises experience is solid, authentic and eminently comfortable just like the boats, with the focus on the destination, not fussy décor or cloying service. Step on board and breathe in the refreshing scent of teak wood before wiping your sweaty brow with a chilled face towel handed out by crew at the gangway.

The company was founded in 1995 by Scotsman and Burma historian Paul Strachan with the re-building of an original Clyde-built steamer called PANDAW 1947, one of the last boats built for the original Irrawaddy Flotilla Company founded by Scots merchants in 1865. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was once the finest river fleet in the world with some 500 vessels that carried passengers and cargo, from bags of rice to blocks of jade, silk, tobacco and whisky, on Burma’s Irrawaddy and other rivers from the 1860s until the Japanese invasion in WWII when the British scuttled virtually the entire fleet to keep it out of enemy hands.

Family-run Pandaw was the first company to offer expeditions on both the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers and continues to stay true to its mission of building smaller ships, even as other companies build bigger ones, to offer river adventures in remote areas, especially in Myanmar and more recently in Laos. In 2015, Strachan published a book called The Pandaw Story about his adventures, Pandaw, and the history and culture of Myanmar. He’s also written guides to Bagan’s art and architecture.

Pandaw River Cruises on the Orient Pandaw

The embarkation adventure is half the fun! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ship, Year Delivered & Passenger Count

Divided into two classes, the river boats number 16:

The smaller two-deck “K” class river boats — ANGKOR PANDAW (built 2012, 32 passengers), KALAW PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), KALAY PANDAW (b. 2013, 10 p), KATHA PANDAW (b. 2011, 32 p), KHA BYOO PANDAW (b. 2014, 20 p), KINDAT PANDAW (b. 2014, 36 p), ZAWGYI (b. 2014, 20 p), LAOS PANDAW (b. 2015, 20 p), CHAMPA PANDAW (b. 2016, 28 p) and SABAIDEE PANDAW (b. 2018, 28 p). On November 7, 2019, the KANEE PANDAW (28 passengers) takes delivery of the latest “K” vessels for Irrawaddy cruises between Prome north of Rangoon and Mandalay.

The larger three-deck “P” class river boats — BASSAC PANDAW (b. 2012, 60 p), INDOCHINA PANDAW (b. 2009, 60 p), MEKONG PANDAW (b. 2003 & totally refitted in 2013, 48 p), ORIENT PANDAW (b. 2008, 60 p), PANDAW II (b. 2002, 48 p), and TONLE PANDAW (b. 2002 & totally refitted in 2013, 56 p).

In addition, Pandaw introduced the coastal cruiser ANDAMAN EXPLORER built for the Norwegian coast guard in 1963 and subsequently converted to a luxury yacht before passing to Pandaw. She carries 20 passengers in ten suites, nine of which have double beds and one twins).

Passenger Profile

Mostly couples, with some singles, in their 50s on up from the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe mostly. Not recommended for children under age 12 or for anyone with trouble walking, as getting on and off the ships usually involves walking across narrow gangways and up and down muddy embankments.

Pandaw River Cruises aboard the Orient Pandaw

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

Passenger Decks

2 or 3; no elevators

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

All excursions led by a local tour guide who travels with the boat, plus local beer and spirits (except on boats chartered in India, Thailand and Brazil), soft drinks, bottled water and tips, though many passengers do leave something extra in the communal tip box at the end of the cruise.

Itineraries

The majority of Pandaw’s river expeditions are on three of South-East Asia’s great rivers: the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar, and the Mekong River that flows from China through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. From time to time the line experiments with new itineraries, for instance in Borneo, offering Pandaw fans great reasons to keep coming back.

A few itineraries venture into northern Vietnam, to Halong Bay and on the Red River that flows past Hanoi into the Gulf of Tonkin. River itineraries in India now number three with three different riverboats. A brand new 10-night itinerary aboard 20-passenger Andaman Explorer sails from the mainland to India’s Andaman Islands, an archipelago rich in its ethnographic mix, biodiversity and marine life. Fly both ways to/from the Andaman’s for a 7-night cruise. Below is an outline of the additional itineraries offered along the coast and to the islands.

  • A wide variety of 1- to 20-night itineraries along the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers includes the popular week-long Bagan to Mandalay runs nearly year-round, with the highlight being Bagan’s stunning profusion of Buddhist pagodas. Shallow draft riverboats allow navigation to Katha, 1000 miles above Rangoon (Yangon) well above Mandalay and past the third and second defiles. N.B. These cruises are subject to sufficient depth of water, and the shallow draft of the riverboats deployed on this route is 32 inches or 80 cm.
  • The most popular of the 3- to 14-night Mekong River cruises are the classic week-long journeys between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, for visits to both rural villages and cities. Most people spend a few days before or after the cruise ogling the stunning monuments of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to take in Vietnam. Other itineraries traverse the more remote Mekong in China and Laos. The boats here have very shallow drafts and powerful engines 3 times the horsepower of the main fleet to “climb” the Laotian Mekong into China.
  • Every year in mid April, May and June, the fleet is taken out of service for maintenance coinciding with the extreme hot weather and very low water levels.
  • The upper Ganges itinerary operates from Kolkata well inland to Varanasi, the lower Ganges, not as far, to Farakka, and a third on the Brahmaputra.
  • The coastal ship ANDAMAN EXPLORER undertakes 7- to 18-day voyages in the Irrawaddy Delta, the length of Myanmar’s coast, amongst the Mergui Archipelago and to India’s Andaman Islands.
  • Note: For Indochina land travelers,, beginning in September 2019, Pandaw offers short, three-day river cruises between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, passing through the Mekong River Delta with stops at villages and a bird sanctuary. Includes hotel stays at both ends.
Mekong River Cruising

The gorgeous U Min Thone Se Pagoda outside of Mandalay. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Why Go?

To see remote parts of Asia with expert guides on charming period-vessels.

When to Go?

Pandaw cruises July through early April, with water levels the highest and landscape the lushest between about October and February. Even in dry season (March and April), though, the boats with their shallow drafts can navigate the rivers even when waters levels are getting low.

Cabins

Well laid-out with colonial decor, the wood-paneled cabins are roomy with comfy twin captain’s beds with ample storage beneath. There’s a closet, two bedside tables and a small desk. Large glass doors open onto the side promenade decks. Wood paneled bathrooms have very large showers, and shampoo and soap are provided; a few of the older boats, including ORIENT PANDAW, TONLE PANDAW and MEKONG PANDAW have recently refurbished bathrooms with natural stone-clad showers.

Other extras across the fleet include cotton robes, slippers, personal safe, individually controlled AC, and hair dryer. To avoid engine noise, choose a cabin as far forward as possible. There are no TVs and few PA announcements, assuring a peaceful journey.

These ships are not recommended for passengers using wheelchairs, as there are no elevators, only stairs between decks.

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Cabins are wood paneled and very comfortable. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Public Rooms

Each has one restaurant, a combination bar and lounge, and lots of covered outdoor space on the uppermost deck for hanging out and scenery viewing. The open design allows air to flow through the vessels providing not only a welcome breeze, but also a stabilizing affect for the boats. The larger “P” class boats have a third deck and amenities including a massage room, small boutique and art gallery, and a lecture and meeting room with a large flatscreen TV, projector and sound system to show movies about the region after dinner (like Indochine or The Quiet American). One of them, MEKONG PANDAW, has a small gym with cardio machines and weights.

Dining

On the larger ships the restaurant is inside, and depending on the temperature, with large French doors open to the river or closed with air-conditioning; on the smaller ships, they’re open-air on the covered top deck. Meals are served in one open seating at tables for four, six or eight, though different configurations can be made on request if there is space. Breakfast and lunch are semi-buffet and dinners are served.

Cuisine incorporates fruits and vegetables from the region into dishes such as chicken breast stuffed with tea leaves, roast pumpkin, prawn curry, fried rice, and various delicious Asian soups made to order with the ingredients laid out for diners to pick and choose from. There are also western staples, from scrambled eggs to salads, fish and chips, and pasta. All meals are prepared onboard and nearly 100% of supplies are sourced from local producers in keeping with Pandaw’s commitment to support the local economies.

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Meals incorporate local veggies, yum! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Activities & Entertainment

The boats make at least one stop a day, sometimes two or three. When sailing, most people are content to relax on a padded wooden deck chair or chaise lounge to watch the river traffic and scenery float by. An expert tour guide from the country visited sails along for the duration of the cruise, leads shore excursions and gives talks on board about various aspects of the destination and local culture, such as demonstrations about how to tie a sarong or make the tree-bark thanaka face paint popular in Myanmar. (On weeklong Mekong itineraries through Cambodia and Vietnam, there is a guide from each country for that half of the journey.)

Generally once or twice per cruise a local dance or singing group, or maybe a troupe of puppeteers, are brought on board to entertain guests after dinner. Otherwise, it’s drinks and chatting about the day’s adventures with new friends before heading off to sleep to rest up before another eventful day begins.

Along the Same Lines

In Myanmar, Paukan and Belmond offer the closest equivalent to Pandaw, and on the Mekong River, Heritage Line does.

Contact

Pandaw Cruises, www.pandaw.com; 001 844 3616281.

HMS

 

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Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.00.16 pmRiver cruise operator Pandaw is building a new ship, the Yunnan Pandaw, to put on the Upper Mekong starting in Sept 2016. Sister to the Laos Pandaw that debuted in late 2015 doing similar itineraries that have been very popular, the Yunnan will offer 14-night cruises on the Upper Mekong between Vientiane (Laos) and Jinghong (China). The new build will have 12 main deck cabins and two upper deck cabins, all with private bathrooms, air conditioning, safe and extras including kimonos and slippers. The Yunnan will be the line’s 16th ship and like all of the others, will be made of traditional teak wood and brass with an ultra-shallow draft and powerful engines to navigate the mighty Upper Mekong.

Pandaw’s founder Paul Strachan said: “The Upper Mekong is one of the most scenic rivers in Asia. Travel through lush jungle and friendly village communities where elephants can often be seen from the ship. In China, we visit the impressive Menglun Botanical Garden, discover Chinese tea plantations and meet some of China’s minority communities that live in Yunnan Province.”

Cruise-only prices start from $ 5,670 USD per person based on two people sharing a main deck twin cabin. For more information go to www.pandaw.com.

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