The Mekong River runs through the very heart of Asia. With its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau, it traverses six countries before meeting the sea in Vietnam.
Of the 60 million people who live in the lower Mekong Delta, over 80% rely directly on the river system for their food and livelihood. The Mekong supports the largest inland fishery in the world and this amazing region is home to around 20,000 species of plants, 1200 bird species, 800 species of reptiles and amphibians and 430 mammal species including Asian elephants and tigers.
My cruise experience was on board the luxury Scenic Spirit, which I joined in Saigon and enjoyed for seven nights until we arrived in Siem Reap.
A warm welcome
We were transferred by luxury coach to My Tho where we were greeted like family by the Captain and crew. My butler showed me to my cabin where my bag was waiting for me in my walk in wardrobe. A quick run through on how to operate the electric opening windows, the electrically adjustable bed and shower soon had me settling in to my spacious deluxe suite. Clever and intuitive design meant there was more than enough space and I loved the sensor lights in the bathroom and wardrobe so there would be light wherever I walked.
What better way to start the journey than with a sunset cocktail party on the sun deck! The sun deck was one of my favourite places to enjoy the magnificent Asian sunsets and to watch the locals busily go about life on the Mekong. After our evening port talk in the Scenic Spirit lounge, we enjoyed our evening a la carte dining in the Crystal Dining Room.
Drinking and dining onboard
All meals and drinks are included on the journey which makes for a totally relaxing experience. No need to sign for beverages, just free flowing drinks to enjoy with fellow cruise guests. The chef’s cuisine was fresh and innovative. Who would have thought of apple and wasabi sorbet or chocolate and blue cheese fondant? The meals were plentiful and creative.
Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style, with a huge choice so no one was ever in danger of hunger. And if that was not enough, you could choose from a room service menu to be enjoyed in your room, or delivered to your cosy spot near the pool or on the sun deck. All day tea and coffee and snacks were available in the Scenic Spirit lounge too.
Inspiring shore excursions
A Scenic River Cruise itinerary includes an average of two shore excursions per day. We explored local cities, villages, temples and enjoyed small boat journeys to the more narrow parts of the Mekong Delta area. We walked, rode in ox carts and tuk tuks and for the more distant sights, rode in comfortable air conditioned coaches.
Life on the river Mekong is busy and vibrant with an amazing variety of vessels to observe as locals busily go about their life on this important waterway of Asia. There are fishing boats, fish farms, dredges and barges moving the rich alluvial sediments, people transporting their goods from home to market, boats with pigs, ducks, tractors, barges taking people and bikes from one side of the river to the other, rice fields and farms and factories dealing with everything from fish processing to making bricks, building boats and repairing engines.
Walking through the local markets was one of my favourite experiences. There is so much colour and activity. Beautiful fruits and fabulously fresh vegetables are busily snapped up by the locals who go to the markets twice a day so they can secure the freshest ingredients. Walking through the wet market area of seafood and poultry is amazing, firstly because of the variety and secondly because there is no horrid smell, which proves how fresh everything is.
We visited a variety of temples, some Buddhist, some with Chinese influences and others that were both Hinduism and Buddhism. The Cao Dai temples are amazingly colourful and I liked the basic principle of the Cao Dai religion that all religions are one.
I loved watching the locals whizz by on their motor scooters and bikes. There were whole families on scooters; I’ve seen up to five people on a scooter, including a baby being carried in a bucket! All manner of items are transported; cases of beer, new motorbike tyres carried around the torso of the rider, live chickens in cages, fresh fruits and vegetables, plumbing pipes, live pigs, mattresses and bedding piled high and overhanging the sides. It is very entertaining and enlightening.
A sanctuary afloat
After each afternoon exploring in the sunshine, we were welcomed back aboard the Scenic Spirit with smiles and cold drinks. After a reviving dip in the pool I accept a g&t from a lovely waiter and sit back in the breeze while the ship gets underway to the next destination.
My private suite was a wonderfully comfortable sanctuary. The bed is probably the most comfortable ever. I browsed the pillow menu and wondered if I needed the anti ageing pillow with Vitamin E, or the comfortable neck support pillow. The shower was huge and had reliable temperature and water pressure. A powerful hair dryer was another bonus.
Meeting the local children in the villages we visited was always fun. Our guide Lovy managed to convince the kids to sing for us, so of course, in return we sang them a song! We met survivors of Pol Pot’s regime who had amazing stories to share. One of them is still teaching children at the age of 82 in the open air classroom next to his house, and the school kids clearly love him. We met a tiny nun in her 80s who couldn’t have been much taller than 4ft. She told us that all six of her children have passed away. I’ll never forget her answer to Lovy’s question; what is the secret to a happy life? She said, “Live from the heart. Do what you love and love what you do!”
Scenic aim to put you into contact with the locals, and in this spirit we visited a local silversmith village and an eco tourism weaving village so we could purchase their wares directly from them. We also had a traditional monk blessing in one of the temples which was a very special experience. We met lots of novice monks, practicing monks and nuns. The temple complex is a hive of community activity.
Cambodia is very much a developing country, and education is free so encouraging the kids with gifts of pens and school exercise books is better than giving them money.
While on board one of our guides showed us the amazing ways the Cambodian Krama Scarf is used. It is worn by many Cambodians and is used as a hat, a swimming costume for men, hammock for babies, baby carrier, making toys to entertain the kids, plus a myriad of other ways. We enjoyed the traditional performance of the Lion dance in Vietnam, and in Cambodia some local school kids performed Khmer songs and dances. One night under the stars at the Sun Deck cinema, we laughed at the antics of “Top Gear UK goes to Vietnam” movie.
Highlights of Cambodia
A highlight of the trip was visiting the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The architecture there is beautiful and quite stunning and the reasons behind the designs were explained to us by our knowledgeable guides. The current King of Cambodia is a monk as well, so he is not married. Succession will be through one of the other noble families of Cambodia.
Our cruise ended in Kampong Cham where it was roughly a four hour drive to Siem Reap. We stopped at a stone cutters’ village to marvel at their creative hard work, walked across an ancient Khmer Naga bridge, then arrived in mid afternoon in Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat is located just outside Siem Reap, but it is only one of the many temple complexes that have been discovered and are now visited by literally millions of guests each year. It is amazing to explore the temples and see the carvings on the walls of places such as Angkor Thom, indicating the rich and vibrant life that was lived by the population of that area in the 12th century.
I can’t recommend Scenic tours more highly. It was an excellent experience. The crew members were always happy and obliging and a joy to deal with. They really looked after us and made travelling in Asia both easy and unforgettable.