I’m standing on my private balcony aboard Cruiseco Adventurer, waving at the local Vietnamese kids running and laughing with delight along the shores of the Mekong Delta.
As we chug along and they fall out of view, a new scene slides into view: an elderly woman up to her knees in water in a rice field, a palm tree swaying beside her.
We wave and yell a “xin chao” to one another before she too passes out of sight.
It occurs to me that by slipping quietly by on this custom-built ship, my cruise companions and I are not intruding on these people or interrupting their lives. We simply smile at one another and move on.
I hadn’t considered this aspect of cruising. To be fair, I hadn’t considered a lot about cruising because, well, I’m a cruise neophyte.
Cruiseco Adventurer has 26 staterooms and four suites. It is a three-level ship with palms, bougainvillea and decorative antiques scattered throughout; a small pool on the expansive timber deck; and a spa centre, modest gym and Internet kiosk.
Five course meals are served in the elegant dining room, and there is always an “action station” where local chefs serve up fresh pho and the odd crunchy stir-fry. Shore excursions allow access to remote villages.
After breakfast on the first morning aboard we transfer to a junk and putter around Cai Be (a river-land town) to the floating markets. Passing stilted houses and traditional wooden boats laden with fresh tropical fruits, vegetables and flowers, we watch sellers clad in mismatched pyjama suits and straw hats exchange goods between boats.
Once ashore we visit a local rice paper manufacturer and candy workshop. We watch the products being made from scratch, sip snake wine and visit a 1930s French gothic cathedral. All of this before lunch.
Day three brings a visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and home to the golden-hued 1860s Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the floor of which is laid with 5000 silver tiles. It also brings a sobering afternoon at the S21 detention centre and Killing Fields where we are told about Pol Pot’s horrific four-year reign during which an estimated two million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Being on the ship allows us to experience local villages on the floodplains along the Mekong, which would most likely have otherwise been too remote to get to. There’s Ouknhatey Village, where we visit a local primary school and silk weaving village where silkworm cocoons are woven into delicate threads.
At Angkor Ban we see white Brahman cattle pulling painted wooden carts and visit rural Khmer stilted houses, some of which are over a century old. Wat Hanchey is a hilltop temple village surrounded by jungle dating back to the 7th century where we meet saffron-robed novice monks taking a break from their studies.
Along the way we chat and laugh with locals, and learn about the country’s often tragic and melancholy history thanks to knowledgeable, English-speaking local guides who accompany us everywhere.
In the afternoon heat refuge is taken in the ship’s air-conditioned bar and lounge. There are historical talks, traditional dances and fruit carving and napkin folding demonstrations.
On day seven we wind our way up the Mekong to the shores of the Tonle Sap River in Siem Reap. Two nights are spent at the elegant Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor; it’s steeped in colonial grandeur and is the ideal base to explore the temples of Angkor. The largest religious monument in the world spread over 400sq km, it was the political, religious and social centre of the ancient Khmer empire.
In the twilight hours we roam the buzzing laneways of Siem Reap, indulging in A$7 massages, A$5 meals, A$2 tuk tuk rides and A$1 beers.
The writer was a guest of Cruiseco.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED HERE
SEE MY PHOTO JOURNAL OF THE TRIP HERE
ELEVEN-night trips start at $4499 and include return economy airfares from Brisbane, seven nights cruising along the Mekong River on the Cruiseco Adventurer between Saigon and Siem Reap, two nights at the 5-star Caravelle Hotel in Saigon and two nights at the 5-star Raffles Hotel D’Angkor in Siem Reap, sightseeing with guides, all transfers, breakfast daily, and most lunches, dinners and drinks.