Jamie Loizou of AmaWaterways takes us on a journey along the Mekong River as it snakes through the heart of Southeast Asia. Fresh off the teak-decked AmaDara, his first-hand tales of local life in lands so unique will seal the deal if you have long toyed with the idea of an AmaWaterways river cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia.
Jamie, river cruising in Vietnam and Cambodia has never been more popular. Why does it work so well in this part of the world?
The beauty of river cruising is that it takes you through the heart of the destination. We always say that while oceans take you to countries, rivers take you through them and this is never truer than on the Mekong. Cruising the Mekong enables exploration of places a little more off the beaten track, so smaller towns and villages can be discovered which wouldn’t normally be on a Vietnam and Cambodia itinerary using another type of transport. The infrastructure in some of these areas also means that travel by road isn’t always straightforward, which gives river cruising a huge advantage as you can move location without the hassle of traffic and bumpy roads. This benefit is combined with the fact that the scenery you see whilst cruising is a highlight in itself and you can watch the world drift by whilst relaxing on the sundeck, your balcony or in the cool, air-conditioned comfort of the lounge or stateroom.
Why do you think it has become such a desired destination?
Increasingly people are looking for unique travel experiences and Vietnam and Cambodia deliver this. The Mekong is such a rich and varied destination offering culture, natural beauty and an insight into a part of the world which is so very different from what we experience in Europe and it is these contrasts that I think hold so much appeal.
Have you seen a shift in the average age range of guests on Mekong itineraries, compared to other river cruise destinations such as Europe?
We do find that our Mekong guests are a little younger than our average, however I think age is a little misleading as a gauge. Our guests in both Asia and in Europe share a spirit of adventure and desire to explore the destinations visited. This is why our selection of included shore excursions in the majority of the ports of call that we visit is so attractive to them.
What was the highlight of your own cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia with AmaWaterways?
Getting to know the local people was the highlight for me. Our onboard guides who travel from port to port not only accompanied me on the shore excursions to destinations that they came from and knew incredibly well, but they also give you an insight into their own history, their families and how they live. The same is the case with the ship’s crew, who I came to know really well over the course of the cruise. It’s this which elevates the entire experience and gives a far better understanding of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Can you give us some examples of the excursions guests can expect on AmaWaterways’ Mekong itineraries?
From oxcart rides and whizzing around a floating village in a local motorboat to discovering how silk is made and exploring the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, we have a host of exciting and varied experiences. My personal favourite was Oudong where we visited one of the largest monasteries in Cambodia and were blessed by the local monks.
Cambodia has a fraught recent history. How do AmaWaterways acknowledge and honour this in the way they visit both its towns and historical sites?
It’s incredibly important to recognise what occurred in Cambodia and we do ensure our guests have the option to learn more about its troubled history. In Phnom Penh, we visit The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng S21 detention centre (also known as the Genocide Museum). Our local guides have family who were affected by the acts of the Khmer Rouge so both sites are visited with the utmost respect. Although it is difficult, I personally feel it’s a very worthwhile experience and would encourage people to learn more by seeing these places.
What is the most common misconception about cruising the Mekong?
I’m not sure there is a common misconception, but I know that people are often deterred from travelling to Vietnam and Cambodia because they are worried about travelling to more off the beaten track and underdeveloped areas and being generally out of their comfort zone. Cruising enables you to take the infrastructure with you, giving you a homely, friendly atmosphere, so helps to provide all of the comforts a first-time explorer of Asia needs.
What would you say to anyone who is considering a Mekong river cruise without a post-cruise stay in Siem Reap?
Reconsider! Angkor is a truly remarkable place with some amazing sites. It’s also not just about Angkor Wat which tends to be the first temple that people consider. There are hundreds of individual sites around the ancient city, many of which are even more spectacular. Siem Reap (the base for exploring Angkor) is also a great city with excellent hotels, restaurants and bustling night markets.
AmaDara is a beautiful, luxurious ship that takes inspiration from its oriental surroundings. How important is it to have a relaxing retreat after days ashore here?
Very important. Our guests travel with us to see the destination so we need to ensure they can use the ship as their floating sanctuary. Part of the charm of Vietnam and Cambodia is the hustle and bustle of the towns visited. The hot weather is also of great appeal. However, it’s nice to be able to escape and relax both the heat and the hustle, be it in the swimming pool on the sun deck or reading a book in the comfort of the lounge.
How does the dining onboard reflect the locations visited?
We have a choice of both western and eastern cuisine onboard. Those who are adventurous can eat a wonderful selection of local dishes. We have our “Action Station” set up at lunch which has a different speciality cooked to order each day by our fantastic local chefs. We also have western classics always available, for our guests who prefer more traditional fare. For the gourmands, our Chef’s Table speciality restaurant offers a six-course tasting menu of West and East fusion food which is a real experience in itself. The food is excellent, as is the theatre of watching the chefs prepare each course.
Finally, what sets AmaWaterways apart?
The choice that AmaWaterways offer both on and off the ship is unique. For dining, we have the choice of our Main Restaurant and The Chef’s Table. We offer a choice of shore excursions in many of our ports of call. Due to the ship being purpose-built for the Mekong we have been able to offer a vessel that can deliver a truly luxurious experience; with our choice of accommodation, every stateroom offering a twin balcony. Finally, our onboard team are wonderful; they really do make the AmaWaterways experience unique.