Scenic Spirit is an 85-metre-long deluxe river-ship that has been purpose-built and designed specifically for Mekong River conditions, with European safety and technical standards. This "space ship" – as its operator markets it – was commissioned in 2016 and can accommodate 68 passengers.
Scenic Spirit cruises along a relatively small section of the 4350-kilometre-long Mekong between the city of My Tho in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and Kampong Cham in Cambodia. Passengers are transferred by land from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it's more commonly known, and to Siem Reap, the closest city to the World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat ancient temple complex. A typical itinerary covers a 13-day period that includes a week aboard the ship, and nights before and after the cruise in five-star hotels such as the Park Hyatt in both Saigon and Siem Reap.
The boutique ship, with its refreshingly restrained and elegant Indochine-style interior design by Karen Moroney, wife of Scenic's founder Glen Moroney, consists of 34 luxurious one-bedroom balcony suites. Contemporary artwork by Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai artists decorates the dark timber-panelled walls of the public areas, is teamed with snazzy modern furnishings. On the penultimate upper deck is a small though decent-sized palm-shaded swimming pool, with surrounding bar. By night this convivial space becomes the key social and gathering point.
The reviewer's spacious onboard stateroom, or suite, complete with its own butler, has the feel of a five-star hotel room back on terra firma. Not only are the sizeable picture windows opened and closed via a remote control, the angle of the bed can also be altered for eating, reading or television viewing, or for comfort and ease of access. The good-sized bathroom is fitted with rather elaborate luxury shower fittings, and elsewhere there's a small lounge area and the convenience of a walk-in wardrobe. An optional balcony area with a table and seating can be created by opening concertina-style glass doors – perfect for idle time observing the meandering Mekong.
Unsurprisingly, considering Indochina's culinary reputation, all-inclusive food, and for that matter free-flowing booze, play an integral role on any Scenic Spirit journey. During dinner and lunch, the young and talented head chef and his team make an extraordinary effort to showcase the cuisines of Vietnam and Cambodia, even to the extent of allowing passengers the option of sampling some of the region's most exotic, if not confronting, dishes. Even the region's colonial heritage is not ignored with a "French influences" dinner held during the cruise. Khmer cuisine cooking classes, combined with a visit to a local market, are also offered.
When compared to ocean cruising, one of the most appealing aspects of the river-based equivalent is the fact there's a greater balance between life on board and life on shore. A selection of "Scenic Free Choice" shore excursions are offered each day of the cruise, including visits to bird sanctuaries, Buddhist temple complexes and an extended visit to Phnom Penh, the riverside capital of Cambodia. One of the true highlights of the journey between Saigon and Siem Reap is a spectacular dinner and cultural performance, exclusive to Scenic Spirit, held in the ruins of Angkor, which passengers can explore in more depth during daylight hours.
Scenic Spirit offers an opportunity to cruise the Mekong River in considerable style and comfort combined with faultless levels of service from a caring, friendly and highly motivated crew.
Scenic's all-inclusive 13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour from Saigon to Siem Reap, Cambodia starts from $7695 a person. See scenic.com.au
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
The attentiveness and efficiency of the south-east Asian crew leaves an indelibly positive impression.
It's a shame it's not possible for cruise ships to sail across Tonle Sap, south-east Asia's largest freshwater lake, to and from Siem Reap.