Sailing the Mighty Mekong: From Cambodia to Vietnam

Sailing the Mighty Mekong: From Cambodia to Vietnam

This article appears in Volume 26:
The Nostalgia Issue

something incredibly dreamy about drifting lazily down a
river on a
. The fresh, earthy scent of the breeze that softly tickles
your skin is intoxicating as you meander past quotidian scenes,
lulled by the low hum of the engine and the gentle lapping of the

It’s mid-morning and I am sitting on the sundeck of Aqua Mekong,
a 20-cabin riverboat that journeys along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap
rivers between Siem Reap in Cambodia and Ho
Chi Minh City
in southern Vietnam. We
have just returned from an early morning excursion to Prek Toal
Core Reserve, a 42,000-hectare bird sanctuary in a freshwater swamp
forest that is alive with flocks of exotic birds, many of which are
endangered. Our guide Smiley, a cheerful man from Phnom Penh, tells
me that because former egg poachers have been employed as nest
guardians the numbers have recovered in recent years. “This is the
largest water bird colony in Southeast
,” he says enthusiastically. “There are over 150,000
species – from stalks to pelicans – that have been recorded here,
including a number of very rare, endangered birds like the Bengal

We are, in fact, sailing on Tonlé Sap, a massive 75-mile long
freshwater lake and the largest in Southeast Asia, which Smiley
says regularly quadruples in size during the rainy season. “The
lake is connected to the Mekong by the Tonlé Sap River,” he
explains precisely. “For most of the year, the lake flows into the
Mekong, but from mid-June to late October during the rainy season
the Mekong rises, causing the Tonlé Sap River to reverse its flow
into the lake and expand.”

As a result the surrounding wetlands are a lush Eden for all
sorts of plants and animal life, prompting Unesco to designate it a
Biosphere Reserve in 1997. As we gently chug along the lake,
alternately eating and napping while passing picturesque scenes of
traditional straw-hatted fishermen in solitary long-tail boats,
backed by a serene shore and a haphazard swathe of bright- green
rice paddies that stretch to the horizon, I am struck by the
magnitude of the mighty Mekong. The world’s 12th-longest river at
around 4,350 kilometres, it flows through six countries starting in
Plateau and sweeping through China’s Yunnan Province,
Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before spilling into
the China Sea.

The lifeblood of the region, it is said that over 60 million
people depend on the river for their primary source of income and
sustenance. This becomes evident later that afternoon when we
reboard the boat’s skiffs and zip off to Moat Khla, a remote
floating village on the eastern edge of the lake. We pass a lively
primary school, the children in their smart white and blue uniforms
waving happily from their platform, and disembark briefly at the
temple for a Buddhist blessing with the monks before hopping on
kayaks. As we paddle leisurely along the canals and past the jumble
of corrugated iron shacks, the water lapping gently against them,
we pass homes where women and children are diligently preparing
their caught fish either for their own needs, to sell or to barter
with on the banks in exchange for rice. Later Smiley tells me that
the lake is a breeding ground for fish and that about half of the
three or so million people – many of them of Vietnamese origin who
left their country after the war – who live around the area make a
living as fishermen, with the lake said to provide half of the fish
consumed in Cambodia.

Back on the boat evenings are a convivial affair, with most of
us congregating in the living room bar for a pre-prandial drink
before heading to the dining room where food is served family-style
to groups that form as guests become better acquainted. Overseen by
consulting Michelin-star chef David Thompson, the daily-changing
menu takes its cues from the Mekong and its diverse cultures, and
only uses what the river and the market provide. While a Western
menu is also on offer, the more interesting options are the local
dishes like smoked fish, tapioca and vegetable dumplings;
Vietnamese catfish minced with shallots, chilies and Thai basil; or
grilled river prawns with peanut relish.

The boat is the sister to Aria Amazon, which traverses the
Peruvian Amazon and set the bar for parent company Aqua
Expeditions’ reputation for design, excellent dining and
well-considered excursions. The boat’s slick, contemporary look is
the work of the company’s founder and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro,
while the minimal timber-based interiors are by Saigon architects
Noor Design. Each of the capacious cabins – some with balconies –
have floor-to-ceiling windows and en-suite bathrooms with double
basins and a sizeable shower. The public spaces include a small
indoor dining room, a front and back deck – one dotted with daybeds
and loungers, the other a small bar and plunge pool – a gym, spa,
library, private screening room filled with Eames lounge chairs,
and a massive living room and bar on the top deck that stretches
nearly the length of the boat. It is the four specially-designed
aluminium tenders though, that set the Aqua Mekong apart. With
capacity for only ten passengers each, not only is the intimate
guide-to-guest ratio favourable, but they also provide access to
offshore destinations and to shallower parts of the river that many
other luxury cruisers can’t reach. Consequently the excursions on
offer are intimate, diverse and immersive, taking full advantage of
the region’s rich biodiversity and strong cultural heritage.

Over the next few days we explore a series of rural villages
where we learn about remote riverside life and chat to the locals
about their traditional crafts. At Kampong Chhnang and Koh Chen,
those who don’t buzz off on tuk-tuks hop on mountain bikes for a
ride into the countryside to visit palm-sugar producers, potters,
silversmiths and silk weavers. As we pedal out of the lively town
and onto the wide, dusty dirt tracks, the gleeful cries of children
running out to greet us alternates with the sound of cocks crowing
as the golden glow from the late afternoon sun washes over emerald
rice paddies punctuated by the silhouettes of
and palm trees.

On my last day we approach the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and
Mekong, and sail into a steaming Phnom Penh, its
traffic-choked streets
and towering skyscrapers so
overwhelmingly different to the city I first experienced 15 years
ago. I know I am going to miss the tranquillity of the days spent
quietly meandering along the waters, past ramshackle villages and
rice paddies.

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