Cambodia and Vietnam have long held an orphic and mysterious allure for me: An untouchable remoteness shrouded with massive ancient kingdoms built of laterite and sandstone – erected to the Hindu triad of divinities encompassing Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu – now swallowed by vacuous time and the deathly grip of strangling roots of fig trees. Of Angkor Wat temple reliefs depicting bare-breasted supernatural female entities who inhabit the skies along with pretty young girls and women radiating their beauty in numerous two-dimensional stone carvings.
Of Buddhist monks wearing orange robes the color of mandarin, clasping empty bowls filled twice daily with rice by a hungry people seeking nothing but a blessing in exchange. And of a landscape boasting bright yellow-green sprigs of planted rice everywhere – evenly spaced in fields of water, waiting to grow into the life-giving grain that constitutes the bulk of the Asian diet.
Cambodia and Vietnam are lands so foreign to me that it is impossible to fathom the culture and the people of this far corner of the world without an actual visit to the region. So, when I had a chance to cruise on the inaugural voyage of the AmaDara, newest addition to AmaWaterways‘ Mekong River itinerary, I didn’t tarry a moment in catching a plane to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
This is the starting point for AmaWaterways itinerary, “Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong.” The pre- and post- land tours can vary depending on your available time and budget. My friend Alana and I signed up for a pre-cruise land package of 3 nights in Siem Reap to explore the marvels of the ancient Khmer empire and a 2 night post-cruise package in Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known as Saigon. At the heart of our itinerary was a 7 night luxuriant river cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City along the caramel-colored Mekong River – the “Rice Bowl” of Asia.
While in Siem Reap, we explore the Angkor Archaeological Park and Angkor Wat at sunrise as well as during the day. (Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world.) And though humidity hung heavy and temperatures are sweltering, they were but minor discomforts when compared to the elation of discovering first-hand the faded glories of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
AmaDara – A New Standard in Luxuriant River Cruising
The 124-passenger AmaDara sets new standards in luxury river cruising by offering the most spacious staterooms on the Mekong. Luxury Suites offer 452 sq. ft. while Suites come in at 334 sq. ft. Standard staterooms have a roomy 226 sq. ft. – one of the most spacious standards in the industry. All staterooms are outside accommodations featuring private twin balconies (French Balcony plus a full size step-out balcony with lounging chairs and table).
On ship we are delighted with gourmet meals, many featuring regionally-inspired cuisine. Free-flowing complimentary wine and beer is served during lunch and dinner. Two restaurants – one is an exclusive Chef’s Table – have open-seating to insure good conversation and budding friendships. This is where I meet 19 year-old Peter Lysogorsky, a student at Northeastern University along with a family friend. Both are traveling with their parents who are from St. Petersburg, Russia and all are Jewish. Peter talks about experiencing “culture shock” in this part of the world and about the high level of service onboard the AmaDara. “It’s such an eye-opener to experience such differences in culture,” he remarks.
Cooking demos explore local exotic fruits and aromatic ingredients, leaving us with recipes to re-create the dishes once back home. Spa treatments and massage rooms, a sun deck pool, a workout room, and a gift shop are all part of the AmaDara, designed for both ultimate comfort and utmost convenience.
The Mighty Mekong River
Once underway on the mighty Mekong River – a river basin harboring the world’s largest inland fishery and providing 25% of the global freshwater catch according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – we explore the exotic even as we luxuriate in elegant comfort onboard the newly minted AmaDara.
Our immersive land tours delve into the local culture and people, always led by expert local guides and choreographed by our charismatic cruise manager, Mr. Son. From our group blessing by Buddhist monks at a monastery to colorful floating markets brimming with exotic fruits, vegetables, and fresh seafood, we are delighted with a potpourri of foods, smells, and colors dissimilar to our Western lifestyle.
In Phnom Penh, we visit the emotionally-charged Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge’s grim S21 Detention Center. Both are places where some of the darkest days in Cambodian history took place – when the revolutionary Pol Pot took over the country and cleansed the country of professionals, poets, academics, and former government employees. Mothers, children, and babies were not spared. Even unfortunate foreigners were rounded up, tortured, and killed. Only agricultural workers were allowed to survive the widespread genocide. The country lost almost 25 percent of their population – over 2 million people. It is often called the “lost generation.” I felt it necessary to visit both places in order to understand the hellacious plight as well as the remarkable resilience of the Cambodian people.
We walk through villages that make rattan mats, silk, and even snake wine for the tasting, with curious smiling children leading the way. Oxcarts jostle us through a village that could have been straight out of a history book a hundred years ago. Cultural shows feature Cambodian and Vietnamese musical instruments, exotic dance and elaborate costumes with intriguing plots cloaked in mythical legends that severely challenge any analytical dissection.
Our journey terminates in Ho Chi Minh City – much too soon. Alana parts ways so she can visit a child living in the mountainous northern area of Vietnam, one she has been sponsoring the last four years. I join another friend on the post-cruise land tour. For the next two days, we explore the former Presidential Palace, make a photo stop at the Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, and end with a visit to the War Remnants Museum – an eerie foray into the horrors of the Vietnam War through Communist eyes. The final day we reserve for shopping at the Ben Thanh Market and then indulging in a variety of spa treatments so as to prepare for the long journey home. Our final meal in Saigon has us feasting on local Vietnamese delicacies at Restaurant Quan Bui, easily the best meal in Saigon.