Photography by Yuri Krasov
Looking back at Riches of the Mekong cruise (Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City) with AmaWaterways I can’t help but marvel at the incredible amount of amazing places I’ve visited in a course of just one week. I vividly remember the lush jungle greenery, the grayish opaque body of water studded with boats in various degrees of picturesqueness, and countless encounters with people – working on their crafts, selling fruit, riding family motorcycles, praying in Buddhist temples, or lounging in hammocks in their front yards and backyards – often smiling, but mostly going about their daily lives, and rarely paying attention to a crowd of tourists equipped with cameras, water bottles, fans, hats, umbrellas, and assisted listening devices for guided tours. It was hot; it was humid and sweaty most of the time, and yet – it was wonderful!
AmaWaterways’ motto is, Leading the Way in River Cruising, and that’s exactly what the company does on all its routes known for enticing itineraries and outstanding service.
After my last year’s Danube adventure aboard AmaStella, I couldn’t wait to embark on a Saigon-built AmaDara (“Dara” means “star,” same as “Stella”). I knew that a few star-studded happenings were guaranteed on an AmaWaterways cruise – exemplary sightseeing excursions geared toward different types of travelers with various activity levels; quiet starry nights on Mekong River, mostly spent in a swanky lounge with friendly chats, cocktails, and live entertainment; and stellar international cuisine by the local chefs.
What I didn’t know was the extent of all the countless comforts and conveniences provided by the cruise company. Air-conditioned staterooms with double balconies, mini-fridges, snow-white bedding, and spacious shower cabins; icy water bottles in small shoulder bags for excursion groups, cold towels and drinks upon return; a swimming pool on Sun Deck, constantly cool despite the relentless heat outside; fresh tropical fruit displays at every meal, and the meals themselves, always with a choice of amazingly well-prepared Western and Asian dishes, iced coffees and ice cream – everything doubly precious in the tropical climate and trying sanitary circumstances of faraway lands.
Now I can assuredly say that I would’ve never ever been able to endure my chosen vacation destination I was so eager to explore if it weren’t for the cruise. Just a thought of leaving a hotel room in the morning and returning late at night as I usually do when traveling abroad, makes me shudder. I wouldn’t last a day in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia, fascinating as it was with all its floating villages, wet fish markets, palm and mango groves, pink lotus ponds, and entire families clinging to each other for dear life, zooming past me on nimble motor scooters.
With the wisely scheduled excursion times – early after breakfast, and later in the day before dinner – with lunch and some down time for a nap or a glass of cold beer in the pool in-between, the onshore trips became much more pleasant.
Walking through Koh Chen village where silversmiths create their delicately engraved wares by the roadside, watching silk weavers at work by the ancient looms in Oknha Tey, and visiting a local school, greeted by the children singing, “You are my sunshine,” became much easier to enjoy in small increments, with plenty of cool sheltering aboard AmaDara.
When I’m trying to name the most memorable moments of the enchanting cruise, many wonderful adventures come to mind. An ox cart ride in the countryside in Kampong Tralach, followed by a visit to a majestic Oudong Monastery in Cambodia’s ancient capital, currently a place of pilgrimage. A Buddhist blessing ceremony was performed for the guests by the ochre robes-clad monks who scattered jasmine flowers over the crowd attuned to their melodic chanting.
A bicycle-driven tuk-tuk taking us through the bustling streets of Phnom Penh to the wide tree-lined boulevards and giant lotus-shaped Independence Monument erected in 1958 to signify the end of the French rule. A tour of the opulent Royal Palace built in 1866 by the great-grandfather of the current Cambodian king on a site chosen by royal astrologists. Silver-floored Prasat Prak temple with a mind-bogglingly shiny solid gold standing Buddha statue with diamond eyes and more than 2000 diamonds in adornments.
And last, but not least of the Cambodian part of the cruise, a visit to the Phnom Penh Central Market, overflowing with shiny things, lavish tropical fruit and flowers, and lots and lots of… elephant pants.
I’ve seen these comfy flowing thin cotton pants, painted with elephants in different colors, worn by many of my fellow cruisers as well as by practically every single non-Asian person I’ve met on the streets approaching any tourist attraction; the ubiquitous fashionable item easily explained by the temple/palace rule: visitors’ knees must be covered, or there’s no access to a site.
Sold everywhere by countless vendors at a miniscule price, the long and wide elephant pants can be worn over short shorts, sundresses, and mini-skirts, and thanks to their airy lightness they don’t seem to increase the body’s heat index in the slightest.
At the Central Market, my one glance in the direction of those pants was enough. An energetic duo of fast-moving women created a makeshift dressing room around me in the middle of a busy market aisle, and quickly found a pair of pants wide enough for my waistline, ever so slightly expanded now, after quite a few delicious dishes prepared by the cruise chefs I wasn’t able to resist.
Finally, I rightfully joined the sisterhood of elephant pants, and signed up for a Chef’s Table dinner with my new friends that night.
Chef’s Table Restaurant on AmaDara is an upscale addition to the Mekong Restaurant where the guests are fed three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Saigon Lounge, where coffee, tea, snacks and fruit are available at any time, with fresh pastries as early as 6:30 a.m.; and Sun Deck bar that serves drinks and snacks.
Since Chef’s Table requires reservations and serves a set 5-course tasting menu with wine pairing every night of the cruise, all passengers are encouraged to pick one night for a dinner there. Dining at the Chef’s Table is like going out on your birthday or anniversary – it feels very special, and many people do indeed make reservations for their birthdays or anniversaries. After all, a cruise with AmaWaterways is a festive affair suitable for a special occasion, so there are always some folks on any cruise celebrating their big dates.
Not just food and wine, but first of all the service at the Chef’s Table is nothing short of amazing, even though it is hard to imagine when experiencing excellency day in and day out in every aspect of the cruise life. Treated like kings and queens, we rejoiced in consuming the wonderfully prepared dinner that consisted of a delicate seared scallop amuse bouche, salmon salad, sea bass with Asian turnips and quail eggs, sirloin steak with celery root puree, and a trio of desserts with chocolate ganache, caramel ice cream, and lemon tart.
Was I glad that I was wearing my new beautiful and very forgiving elephant pants!
That night, we had the most entertaining evening show of all. Every night, Saigon Lounge turned into a performance venue. We’ve seen Khmer and Vietnamese dancers and musicians, took part in karaoke nights, dancing rounds, and music sessions with the onboard pianist Vy. But the crew’s talent show contest, “AmaDara Has Got Talent” was an undisputable winner!
Chefs’ team, servers’ team, housekeeping team, and the entire crew demonstrated their singing, dancing, and comical talents to the utmost delight of the cruise guests, late into the night.
That night, we were entering the waters of Vietnam. In two unforgettable days we visited a village of Tan Chau surrounded by emerald rice paddies and shallow lotus ponds, a city of Sa Dec with an enormous and enormously busy wet market, teeming with fresh fish, shrimp, clams, and piles upon piles of fresh fruit; observed rattan, silk, rice paper, and coconut candy making at local open-air factories; rode local boats past floating markets, and walked to the tourist attraction that was my primary draw on this cruise – “The Lover’s” house.
How could I imagine years ago, while reading “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, winner of Prix Goncourt for “the best and most imaginative prose,” so poignantly constructed upon her own wild teenage love affair, and then watching the namesake film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, that one day I’ll be entering the elaborately decorated Sino-French design house described in the novel!
An intricate woodwork and tiles inside, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and portraits of the book author, her paramour, Huynh Thuy Le, and stills from the film round up the encounter with the real-life literary masterpiece.
A farewell cocktail reception with all the crew members introduced to the guests, and met with non-stop ovation, had a bitter-sweet feel. It seemed this one-week cruise on AmaDara left an indelible mark in everyone’s heart.
With disembarkation at Ho Chi Minh City, we arrived on Vietnam Independence Day, preceded by the May Day, well reflected in the city’s street décor.
Find more information at: www.AmaWaterways.com.