If you have never cruised the Mekong, you may, like I did, entertain mistily romantic images of old Indochina, locals cultivating rice in emerald-green paddy fields, Buddhist temples along the banks and colourful markets in riverside towns.
You will certainly find all of this, but as I discovered on my maiden Mekong voyage, there is more to Cambodia and Vietnam than this rather dreamy vision.
Hipster cool and a diamond in the rough
I started my trip in Siem Reap, where most cruise lines offer a pre or post-cruise stay to see the magnificent temples of Angkor. Do not pass up this opportunity; the antiquities are just breath-taking and, however many pictures you have seen of Angkor, the reality is so much more beautiful.
You need at least two days to visit just the main sites. Siem Reap itself is a pretty, touristy town with some lovely old colonial architecture and a very cool vibe in its hipster cafes, stylish galleries, day spas and classy knickknack shops.
Siem Reap sits at the top end of the vast Tonle Sap Lake and most cruises start at Kampong Chhnam on the southern tip, from where ships sail all the way to Vietnam. Some lines offer trips on the lake, which is fascinating. The floating villages around the edge are populated by Vietnamese locals who build everything on the water, from schools to temples, cafes and shops. Though when our guide pointed out that there is no rubbish collection or sewage disposal, it put me right off eating the local freshwater fish!
Kampong Chhnam is a busy, scruffy, cheery town, the whole of the waterfront devoted to a fruit and vegetable market with cheeky macaque monkeys scampering along the roofs of the stalls. We visited a small compound out in the countryside where palm sugar and pottery are produced, watching an old lady shape a pot with incredible dexterity and a 67-year-old man shin 30 feet up a palm tree to extract the juice that makes the sugar – and the very potent palm wine.
Cambodia’s tragic past
Little is revealed of Cambodia’s traumatic past until you reach Phnom Penh, today a dynamic, bustling city where the Tonle Sap river flows into the Mekong. In the 1970s, Phnom Penh was the epicentre of Pol Pot’s murderous regime, during which more than two million Cambodians were killed. All cruise lines offer tours to Tuol Sleng, a high school used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture and detention centre. The visit is a profoundly disturbing experience but important in the context of modern history. On a more upbeat note, the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda are stunning – and the city is fun to explore if you hire a tuk-tuk and driver for a few dollars.
From Phnom Penh, the Mekong slowly twists its way south into Vietnam, where life on the water gets considerably busier thanks to a series of dazzling floating markets. Cruise lines organise tours by sampan, so you get really close to the action and the Kodak moments come thick and fast.
A spectacular ending
Cruises end just before Ho Chi Minh City, where you are plunged straight into the chaos of a massive, thriving, 21st century Asian metropolis. Like Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is, to an extent, defined by war and you will visit the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong hid out, and the harrowing War Remnants Museum.
Cruising the Mekong can be an emotional roller coaster and it was certainly grittier than I had imagined – but the whole voyage is intensely rewarding.
If you would like to embark on an unforgettable Mekong river cruise to some of the most unique destinations in the world, call our Cruise Concierge team on 0800 197 0854 to plan your perfect voyage.