Riverboat journeys in Southeast Asia are neither ordinary nor leisurely cruises, at least not in the sense of anything you might do on a ship in the Caribbean or even a lazy voyage on the rivers of Europe, watching the sophisticated world roll by.
New riverboats are cruising in Cambodia and Vietnam, offering voyages that are an eye-opener, not only to the famed stone Angkor ruins, but also to the lives of rural villagers who are emerging from decades of warfare and deprivation.
Among the experiences on my recent Avalon Waterways trip along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers:
• The 28 passengers on our riverboat, Avalon Angkor, volunteered to shop at a local market in Cambodia to buy pencils, paper and elementary books to bring to a small village class of 6- to 8-year-olds who were learning English in a rural area where supplies are lacking and trained teachers are nearly nonexistent.
• With teary eyes, we listened as our Cambodian tour guide told his difficult life story that included three little brothers whom he lost to disease in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Then, we walked through a memorial mass burial ground where, with each new rain, human bone fragments and scraps of clothing are revealed along the paths.
• Fellow passenger Fran Golden and I sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" (all verses) with three exuberant young girls who ran alongside an ox cart that was delivering us to their tiny river village.
The new 16-cabin Avalon Angkor, built in and for Southeast Asia, provided all the joys and comforts of traveling with worldly passengers and an affably capable staff -- fine meals, lively conversation, fresh fruit juices for parched throats and cold wet towels to wipe away the swirling dust on return from excursions ashore.
Still, we slept on the riverboat only seven nights of the 13-night trip, which also included hotel stays in Cambodia's city of Siem Reap and modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Even on the river, the Avalon Angkor was our home only from late afternoon through breakfast. Most days, we were busy with guided tours, exploring the land far more than relaxing on the water.
Cruise director crucial on land
Rural roving in this part of the world can be a challenge, as there are few highways, little organized transportation, spotty access to electricity (or cellphones) and other urban conveniences -- a reminder that an experienced tour operator makes a big difference in one's comfort level.
Avalon's cruise director, who was with us the entire trip (including excursions), and local guides orchestrated our visits with residents, to ruins and temples, explained the culture and etiquette of market buying, and led us on walks, climbs and rides in tuk-tuks, cyclos (a bike with a forward basket for a human), buses of various sizes, sampans and the ox cart.
The cruise director knew who should be tipped for services, why we never should buy from nor give money to young children (because their parents would keep them from school for their income), and when it was OK to buy a round of flavored shaved ice for every child hanging around a playground outside a Buddhist temple (at about 12 cents each).
Potential travelers should be aware of the energy level and mobility required to see Angkor Wat and its associated ruins, to venture into local religious sites and markets (on land and floating), and to visit with people who live along pathways near the rivers.
You don't need to be an athlete -- short strenuous hikes were few and Avalon provided transportation for those who did not feel up to them -- but if you lack stamina or don't get around relatively well, you would miss part of this trip. Perhaps that's why the passenger list was young for a river voyage, ages from early 30s to 70s.
Tourists take part in the culture
Cambodia and Vietnam have become a hot river cruise destination because of such Bucket List destinations as Angkor, which was home 1,000 years ago to a great Hindu empire that left behind some 19 square miles of stone temples and tombs, now in various states of ruin and restoration; the bustling cities of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh; Vietnam's Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong hid during the war that lasted deep into the 1970s; and the majestic Mekong River.
The wide Mekong begins in Tibet and flows through China, Laos and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam's delta, providing power, food, irrigation and transportation for millions.
The most popular vacation trip is between Siem Reap, which is a short bus ride from the Angkor sites, and Ho Chi Minh City, a motorbike-mad metropolis that almost makes you forget that you are in a communist country -- until you run across a picture or statue or sign with the name Ho Chi Minh (a frequent occurrence).
River cruise lines -- including AmaWaterways, Viking River Cruises, Vantage and Aqua Expeditions beginning in 2014 -- also operate on the Mekong and tributaries between the two cities. New, modern riverboats are being added to their fleets.
On most tours, the first day out of Siem Reap is a long bus ride around Tonle Sap lake to reach the Tonle Sap river, where riverboats await for a cruise to the Mekong and then on to Ho Chi Minh City.
Avalon Waterways' new Avalon Angkor is designed with a shallower draft -- the vessel needs only about 4 feet 7 inches of water -- so it can cross Tonle Sap lake in the wet season on cruises from July through early January. That's when the lake and river are awash in water, backed up from a flooding Mekong downstream. From mid-January to June, passengers will spend at least several hours on a bus getting around the lake.
My February river cruise included the bus ride. We met the Avalon Angkor at Prek Dam, Cambodia, where it was tied to a tree at the bottom of a sloping embankment. We climbed down a series of crude steps hollowed out of the dirt (and lined by crew members for anyone needing a steady arm).
In the next seven days, passengers from the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom visited temples, villages, outdoor markets and museums.
Highlights were making spring rolls in a cooking class; perusing American-made pictures at the Vietnam War Remnants Museum; a contest of bargaining in Vietnamese for specific treasure hunt items at an outdoor food market; and getting down on our knees to crawl through one of the Cu Chi tunnels.
By David G. Molyneaux