"There's a man pole-vaulting onto our bow!" a fellow guest on the Cruiseco Adventurer exclaims as we settle in for a night afloat in Cambodia. And he's right: returning to a vessel for the night after securing a mooring line around a tree on the shore requires crew ingenuity and acrobatic skills.
River cruising is travelling at a very human scale, unlike voyages on the vast cruise ships of the ocean. And the Mekong is an excellent river cruise destination, partly because of the wealth of cultures it reveals. The world's 12th-longest river is the main artery of South East Asia, beginning on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before spilling into the South China Sea in Vietnam. The most popular segment is from Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
We are on board the Cruiseco Adventurer, on a route the Australian company travels regularly. Many keen cruisers know Cruiseco for the comprehensive search facility on its website, which points to itineraries provided by cruise lines around the globe, but this one is run by the company itself.
As we are heading upstream, we leave Saigon (as many locals still refer to their city) for a 90-minute coach ride to the dock on one of the strands of the Mekong delta.
Over the week, shipboard life soon settles down to a routine of an excursion in the morning, cruising in the afternoon and meals in between. On two occasions, folkloric troupes come on board to entertain us and while the Vietnamese fishermen with their one-stringed instruments are funny and creative, the Cambodian children steal our hearts by being both extremely cute and very well-trained.
The scenery along the lower stretches of the Mekong is rather flat and uninteresting however the wealth of water traffic is endlessly fascinating, particularly goods barges that are so laden that mere centimetres of the boat extend above the river. One more small bag of rice could spell doom.
On the third day we cross the Cambodian border – a painless task where we have to do no more than provide a passport photo and pay $US45 each on our account while the crew takes care of the process.
Throughout the voyage there are excursions to rudimentary silk works, rattan factories, floating villages and fish farms. A visit to a rustic lolly factory where popped rice is created in superheated black sand and noodles are candied in coconut is pure joy.
Perhaps the greatest surprise is the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. We are there for two nights and one and a half days. This is a modern Asian city with high-rise and all the international companies you'd expect. The riverfront is a mass of bars, cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. We find the Foreign Correspondents Club, which provides good open-air views along the promenade and is the stuff of legend – generations of journalists chasing stories and a cold drinks with equal enthusiasm.
The city's palace and the silver pagoda are a requisite stop and the National Museum has an excellent collection of sculpture, much of it relating to Hindu deities. The museum's gardens are beautiful.
A buffet lunch at the exquisite Raffles hotel is a welcome reminder of civility before an afternoon at the "Killing Fields". The horrors of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge attempts to take Cambodia, renamed Kampuchea, back to a simple agrarian state defy imagination. Two million people died and there are almost 400 killing fields. We are taken to Choeung Ek, a barren paddock with mass graves of men, women and children, and a memorial full of skulls. It's but a sliver of the vast atrocity.
We then visit Tuoi Sleng, a former school the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison camp. We meet Mr Chum Mey, one of the two remaining survivors of the camp, who still wonders how and why he survived. A simple graphic notice on the door to one of the cells indicates that this is not a place for laughter – it may be the most unnecessary sign in the world.
The following day we visit a Buddhist monastery to be blessed by the priests. This ceremony is a welcome cleansing after the horrors and the simple piety of the nuns and priests reveals the resilience of the Cambodian people.
Over the next few days we cruise further up the Mekong towards Tonle Sap Lake. In the four months of the year when the water runs high, it's possible to sail across this lake and disembark relatively close to Siem Reap. For the rest of the year, the cruise ends with a half-day bus ride into bustling Siem Reap to explore the wonders of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples hidden in the jungle.
Cruiseco Adventurer is a very comfortable craft with three passenger decks for a maximum of 60 passengers served by 28 staff and crew. It has a draft of just one metre so it's well-suited to shallow rivers.
The top deck consists of a large shaded sundeck with spa pool, an air-conditioned lounge and bar, a tiny gym plus two massage rooms and a beauty salon. The middle deck has the wheelhouse and passenger cabins towards the bow and the dining room at the stern. The lower deck houses more cabins and the front desk.
As all the cabins have balconies, many passengers spend considerable time in their rooms but even when everyone is in the public areas, the vessel doesn't feel crowded.
The cruise encompasses Vietnam's quite polished tourist offerings and much more rustic Cambodia, with bookend highlights in the form of booming Ho chi Minh City and grand Angkor Wat. It's a voyage into South East Asia as it was a decade or more ago and the Mekong's tranquil flow reflects the relaxed mood of an earlier age.
David McGonigal was a guest of Cruiseco.
Cruiseco's seven-night Vietnam and Cambodia Luxury River Cruise runs between March and September, and costs from $1999 per person. All excursions are included in the price. An 11-night package that includes airfares, two nights at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon and two nights at Raffles in Siem Reap starts from $4499.
A Viettel SIM card works for data, phone and text across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. While the internet on the Cruiseco Adventurer is quite good, having a back-up is great (and inexpensive).