Having experienced this epic voyage for myself (with fourteen other equally fortunate guests) I can safely say there is no better way to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.
And here’s why.
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), I have the sudden (slightly strange) urge to jump up and down on the bed. It’s a childish giddiness that possesses me, and it’s all because the suite is quite simply fit for a king (or a jumping princess like me). 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 fixtures. The bed is a big fluffy cloud of crisp white cotton and smells of fresh laundry, and there’s an orchid atop the teak wooden desk – you know you’re lapping up luxury when the flower ‘du jour’ is an orchid.
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 silently glide past: children waving at us from silt embankments, scooters zipping past on river flanking roads and all manner of ships navigating the Saigon River (we haven’t yet met the Mekong). There are sand dredgers and cargo ships, sampans loaded with fruit and families transporting their goods from one village to the next. Notably, 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 do feel like you're amidst only the locals.
Day two: Vinh Long & Cu Lao Gieng
There’s nothing better than waking up to the sound of lapping water, accompanied by the hoots and toots of a day’s trade on the Saigon River. 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 ricer paper, coconut toffee, rice corn and wine. Highlights include a thimble of snake wine – straight out of a big glass vat which was packed to the brim with snake skin.
And that’s just the morning. 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 that is 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; waving at school goers and weaving between the local traffic – moped, carts and oxen.
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. Between the people and the burning incense, we dodge the numerous pilgrim offerings of flowers, vegetables and notably, entire pig carcasses. We’re back on board by 11.30am and after a long shower (it really is sweltering outside the ship’s air conditioned walls), we pass the border from Vietnam into Cambodia; the perfect opportunity to sit on deck and sunbathe.
Day four: Phnom Penh
Having dropped anchor in Phnom Penh, we are greeted by a series of local men in natty green t-shirts. They’re our cyclo drivers. Once assigned with our personal cyclist, we’re treated to a lively tour through Phnom Penh; skimming the riverside and bopping along the road through shops and bazaars, bustling markets and golden pagodas. At the Royal Palace we observe the extravagant temples that make up the king’s abode (he’s not here today, work has called him to China) including the Silver Pagoda, complete with five tons of polished silver flooring. From here we visit the National Museum which is brimming with Khmer artefacts, notably, an impressive collection of imposing Hindu statues that were crafted centuries prior. The afternoon is spent at leisure and come nightfall we’re visited on-board by children from the orphanage. Their traditional Cambodian dance performances slide from just that, into a series of Michael Jackson moves and a bit of Gangnam Style. Coupled with a few heady cocktails (for us, not them) it made for a truly fun – and very memorable - evening.
Day five: Choeung Ek Killing Fields
For all its smiling inhabitants and 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 nothing short of harrowing and you will leave feeling totally 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. Today, they are a nation of extreme optimism and strength - refreshing human traits that will help you deal with the not so pleasant ones. To lighten the day’s heavy mood, we spend the afternoon exploring a traditional Cambodian town. Docking on a mud bank, we walk from the ship to a traditional silk weaving home, where the art is still practiced by the entire family. From silk worms to grand looms, we witness the entire process and go on to buy a fair few silk niceties to take home.
Day six: Wat Hanchey & Ankor Ban
Regardless of the pelting sun and relentless humidity, this morning a handful of us decide to climb hillside steps to Wat Hanchey, a temple dating back to the 8th century. Fortunately, upon our arrival we partake in a traditional water blessing given by two local monks. I am yet to understand why I was somewhat drenched, whereas most of my fellow Avalonians were merely sprinkled – I must’ve required a lot of blessing! And just when you think you’ve stepped into a land that time forgot, one of the older monks whips out his iPhone and requests a photo. Wonder what hashtag he’ll use? The second highlight of today is the visit to a local English school in Angkor Ban. We partake in a lesson and make friends with the young Cambodian children. They’re wonderfully enthusiastic and can’t wait to tell us their names, ages and what they’d like to be when they grow up. My friend, Sreyneang, tells me she’d like to me writer. That makes two of us.
Day seven: Kampong Luong & Kampong Tralach
It’s been a full on few days, so it’s with some relief that day seven is a ‘lazy day’ of sorts. The hours before midday are spent traversing a traditional silversmith village where we watch the local craftsmen pound and puncture huge sheets of smooth silver. Magnificent pots are forged from flat silver planks and then chipped away with utensils into beautiful patterns. Watching them work is borderline hypnotic, but we snap out of our trances in order to buy plenty of silver trinkets and 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 and an impending thunderstorm quivering in the sky above. We reach the ship just before a downfall and spend a leisurely afternoon soaking up the sun that follows the storm.
Day eight: Homeward bound
Last night we said our farewells (and fond ones at that) to the Avalon crew, who have been nothing short of phenomenal. Turns out, they can also put on quite the show. Come 6pm, we are all in the panoramic lounge singing, sashaying and throwing a few cocktail-induced dance moves. Even the captain has left his post for a boogie on the makeshift dance floor. Fear not, the ship was already docked. The following day, we enjoy one last breakfast while 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 week has been so good, and so unforgettable, I am filled with a sense of resentment towards the lucky guests who will be starting the return journey this afternoon. It’s been seven days of pure splendid.
NB. 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.