Enchanted by a mystic river

Louise Goldsbury embraces the magic of the Mekong on an unforgettable cruise.

Our cruise is off to an unusual start - we have no ship. The AmaLotus is stuck downstream, unable to pass under a bridge because the water level is a whopping 12 metres higher than usual. Cambodia's worst flood in a decade has coincided with the Mekong's biggest cruising season.

To join the vessel, the 100 Australian passengers have to travel by bus for four hours from Siem Reap. But the detour provides a closer glimpse into the local street life. Waves of beige break along the banks of the brimming river as we watch people push through on spluttering scooters and tuk-tuks. Shops and restaurants remain open for business, despite the knee-high water, and staff are still smiling.

When we reach the dock at Kampong Cham, the shiny ship has never looked so good. First stop is the top deck, for the swimming pool (above ground - can't remember the last time I saw one of those!) and an open-air bar. Local alcohol is included in the fare, so we celebrate our arrival with cold Angkor beers.

Yesterday we visited Angkor Wat, the world's largest temple complex, as part of a pre-cruise option. For many, the extraordinary site was a "bucket list" achievement; for others, it was surpassed by a visit to an orphanage run by an Australian woman.

But most have come for the eight-day voyage and, as we set sail, the magic of the Mekong unfolds. A glowing sunset illuminates the river and silhouettes the wooden ferries crammed with workers heading home. Smiling families in fishing boats look up to wave at the curious Aussies peering down at them.

We are keeping an eye out for the famous giant catfish and the round-headed Irrawaddy dolphin, but this is not the best place to spot them. Instead we marvel at the ramshackle houses on the river's edge, defiantly standing amid the floods. After a welcome dinner, it's off to bed for an early night while the ship carries on towards the capital, Phnom Penh.

By morning, the rickety huts have given way to the opulence of the city's centrepieces: the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and the National Museum. AmaLotus docks nearby and local guides lead us through these impressive attractions.

But overshadowing everything is the next stage of the excursion to the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields and the S21 detention centre. These two emotionally charged sites recall the dark days of former dictator Pol Pot in the 1970s. Our guides tell us about the execution of their own parents, aunts and uncles during the violent regime. The horrific stories and graphic exhibits are almost too much to bear. To share it so personally with these young Cambodians, walking in the areas where their relatives were killed, is a deeply moving experience.

With our ship docked overnight, I take the opportunity for an evening stroll along Phnom Penh's promenade to clear my head. Hundreds of locals are eating and chatting with friends beside the river, playing sports or joining in outdoor aerobics classes. The atmosphere is almost festive.

It is hard to believe that little more than 30 years ago, this lively city was like a ghost town, its residents under a decade-long dawn-to-dusk curfew, with nightly sirens and police checkpoints.

On a mission to sample a few local delicacies, I find a man selling fried insects. Unsurprisingly, nothing appears appetising. The crickets look too crunchy and the tarantula seems overcooked, but it turns out to be tasty - like chicken jerky.

Some passengers opt for the night markets, returning with bags full of clothes, shoes and jewellery. A few couples try a foot massage, immersing their feet in a tank of nibbling fish. The price includes a beer if you are worried they might be piranhas (they're not, apparently).

Others stay out late at the city's rooftop bars, long after the port gate has closed. One man tells me he gave the security guard the equivalent of $2 to be allowed back on the ship.

The next day, crossing the border to Vietnam is marked with an on-board ice-cream party, before arriving at Tan Chau, a small town untainted by tourism. We are the only foreigners in a convoy of rickshaws, visiting silk-weaving and rattan-mat factories. The real joy of the afternoon is found walking around a tiny island village where Vietnamese children greet us with giggles, cheerfully posing for photos.

Over the next couple of days, we are treated to an ox-cart ride through the countryside and a boat trip to a floating market selling everything from rats to 50 types of rice.

Disembarking at Ho Chi Minh City, our adventures in transportation continue as passengers choose from a cyclo (pedicab) ride or an anxiety attack on wheels - perched on the back of a motorbike, often on the wrong side of the road, hurtling into oncoming traffic while it pours with rain. Certainly the most exhilarating tour of my life, it relegates the peaceful river cruise to a distant memory.

On the last day, the journey wraps up at Tay Ninh Holy See, a temple of the Cao Dai faith, which incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Catholicism. We are allowed to watch the service, an intriguing ritual of chanting, kneeling and bowing. At another outing to a monastery, we receive a Buddhist blessing.

The final expedition is to the Cu Chi tunnels, constructed by Vietcong resistance fighters during the Vietnam War. Only three of us venture underground into this claustrophobic world, while the remaining travellers declare a fondness for fresh air, open skies and flowing rivers. After two weeks along the Mekong, their preference is perfectly understandable.

The writer was a guest of APT.


Decked out in style

The 62-cabin AmaLotus was built as a joint project between Australia's APT, Europe's AmaWaterways and Vietnam's Indochina Sails. When it launched in 2011, AmaLotus set a new standard of luxury for river cruising in the region.

It's worth noting, however, that Mekong cruises are not as five-star as river cruises in Europe.

Vietnamese and Cambodian crew speak fluent English, with excellent service provided by the tour guides, cruise manager, hotel manager, reception staff and bartenders. Less experienced staff in the restaurant seemed to be learning on the job, but their friendly charm was disarming.

The ship's interior is an appealing mix of colonial design, Khmer artefacts and modern touches such as a swimming pool, gym, massage room and free wi-fi. AmaLotus has some of the largest suites on the Mekong, most of which have private twin balconies.

Trip notes

Cruising there

AmaLotus sails between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City, from September to April. All-inclusive fares for an eight-day cruise start at $2295, which includes $500 air credit for bookings made through APT before March 31, 2013, as well as shore excursions, on-board meals, drinks, internet and tips for the crew. International wine, local beer, local spirits and soft drinks are available on board all day throughout the cruise at no extra charge.

A 12-day Vietnam and Cambodia Highlights tour, including return economy airfares and hotel accommodation before and after the cruise, is priced from $4095 for bookings made before March 31, 2013.

More information

1300 278 278, aptouring.com.au.