A prelude: Your home away from home
Upon entering Avalon’s Panorama Suite on board the Avalon Siem Reap (of which there are only 18), you'll notice the suite is fit for a king. A pristine mix of burgundy, brown and cream, there’s a sliding door that reaches from the ceiling to the floor and allows for uninterrupted views across the water, and Vietnam’s glistening riverside. The bathroom is enormous, and it sparkles with tiles and stainless steel.
Day one: Ho Chi Minh embarkation
We embark at midday, enjoy our first buffet lunch at one (a fusion of western favourites and Asian specialities), and by four we are all contently sitting on the ship’s polished deck; sipping crisp G&Ts and admiring the views that glide past: children waving at us from silt embankments, scooters zipping past on river flanking roads and ships navigating the Saigon River (we haven’t yet met the Mekong). There are very few other commercial boats; due to the small design of the 18-suite ship, Avalon Waterways are one of only few companies that sail from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap and vice versa, so you really feel like you're with the locals.
Day two: Vinh Long & Cu Lao Gieng
The Vietnamese are busy by 6am, so your alarm is more likely to be the chug of a boat motor than the shrill of your mobile. After a hearty breakfast of fresh bread, croissants, French toast and a few noodles (well, when in Asia…) we board a sampan for a scenic cruise to Vinh Long. Here we meet various local traders who are making traditional Vietnamese products, including snake wine. We try a shot straight out of a glass vat which was packed to the brim with snake skin.
Later that afternoon, we take the sampan to Cu Lao Gieng and the home of a local sampan-making family, and then onto one of Vietnam’s oldest churches via a contraption best described as a cart attached to a motorbike. Four aboard and feeling flighty, it’s a fantastic way to zip through Vietnam’s hidden villages.
Day three: Chau Doc & border crossing
We’re officially on the Mekong and in the heart of Vietnam’s bustling interior. The morning is spent forging a route through a hot and steamy local market in Chau Doc before descending on a pilgrim temple in the heart of town. We’re back on board by 11.30am and after a long shower (it's sweltering outside the ship’s air conditioned walls), we pass the border from Vietnam into Cambodia.
Day four: Phnom Penh
Having dropped anchor in Phnom Penh, we are greeted by our cyclo drivers and treated to a lively tour through the city, skimming the riverside. At the Royal Palace we wander the extravagant temples that make up the king’s abode, including the Silver Pagoda, complete with five tons of polished silver flooring. Then the National Museum which is brimming with Khmer artefacts and an impressive collection of imposing Hindu statues crafted centuries prior. Come nightfall we’re visited on-board by children from the orphanage. Their traditional Cambodian dance performances make for a memorable evening.
Day five: Choeung Ek Killing Fields
For all its gleaming golden temples, you can’t visit Cambodia and ignore its turbulent past. Unfortunately, there’s no sugar coating the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Field memorial at Choeung Ek is harrowing and you will leave feeling hollow. The S-21 torture rooms will also put you face-to-face with the horrors of genocide. However, take respite in the Cambodian peoples’ unwavering resilience against atrocity. To lighten the day’s heavy mood, we spend the afternoon exploring a traditional Cambodian town. Docking on a mud bank, we visit a silk weaving home, where the business is still run by the family, daughter through to grandmother.
Day six: Wat Hanchey & Ankor Ban
Time for Wat Hanchey, a temple dating back to the 8th century where we partake in a traditional water blessing given by two local monks. The second highlight of today is the visit to a local English school in Angkor Ban. We partake in a lesson with the young Cambodian children. They’re very enthusiastic and can’t wait to tell us their names, ages and what they’d like to be when they grow up.
Day seven: Kampong Luong & Kampong Tralach
Day seven is a ‘lazy day’ of sorts. The hours before lunch are spent traversing a traditional silversmith village where we watch the local craftsmen pound and puncture huge sheets of smooth silver. Watching them work is borderline hypnotic, but we snap out of our trances in order to buy pretty treasures. To return to the ship we jump aboard a traditional wooden ox cart. Two to each cart, we jostle down the road with children chasing us all of the way.
Day eight: Homeward bound
Last night we said our farewells (and fond ones at that) to the Avalon crew. By 6pm, we were in the panoramic lounge watching the staff perform. Even the captain has left his post for a boogie on the makeshift dance floor. The following day our luggage is reeled off the ship and up the ramp to our airport-bound coach. And it’s with a heavy heart that we all follow suit.
*** The standard itinerary for Avalon's Mekong River route also includes excursions to the temples of Siem Reap: unmissable Cambodian relics such as Angkor Wat, that almost always top the charts for bucket-list must-dos.