The Slow Boat to Siem Reap

  • Chau Doc, a Vietnamese town on the Mekong.

    Chau Doc, a Vietnamese town on the Mekong.

  • River fish at a local market.

    River fish at a local market.

  • A cabin key.

    A cabin key.

  • The Jayavarman at Kampong Chhnang, a floating village on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River

    The Jayavarman at Kampong Chhnang, a floating village on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap River

  • Early morning on the Mekong.

    Early morning on the Mekong.

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Above: The Jayavarman nearing Phnom Penh.

Lush riverbanks and waterfront markets in southern Vietnam; floating villages and forgotten temples in Cambodia—such are the sights on a luxuriously unhurried riverboat cruise up the legendary Mekong

By Aaron Gulley
Photographs by Jen Judge

It was cool for Vietnam—a balmy 26°C—as I tried to forge my way across Le Loi, a boulevard flowing so thick with scooters and motorcycles that it could have been a coursing waterway. At least, that’s how it looked to me: I had rivers on the brain. What had lured me to these parts was the promise of a weeklong cruise up the Mekong aboard a French colonial–style riverboat; a tranquil, languid escape from the helter-skelter of life back home. Yet here I was, navigating Ho Chi Minh City, a conurbation so frenetic that even its name—locals still call it Saigon—is bewildering. This was not the charming old Indochine that I was craving.

Leaving the city’s commercial crush behind, I eagerly made my way to My Tho, a port town 70 kilometers to the south on the upper reaches of the Mekong Delta. The Jayavarman wasn’t scheduled to raise its gangplank for another several hours, but the manager welcomed me aboard with a smile and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, installing me in a damask settee in the boat’s elegant, awninged lounge. Silky curtains flittered in the wind, and someone in the back put on an Edith Piaf CD. Out on the Mekong, overladen barges rode low in the water past sampans scarcely big enough for more than a couple of fishermen. Piaf burbled in the background, and each time my wineglass was close to empty, a fine-featured waitress floated over from the teakwood bar and topped it off with a demure little giggle.

By the time the other passengers arrived, a huge, early rainy season squall had blustered up. As the boat staff ensconced the newcomers in the lounge, I was escorted to my cabin, a spacious stateroom hung with archival black-and-white photos that looked like they’d been plucked from an explorer’s trunk, circa 1850. I eased into a rattan-backed planter’s chair on my balcony to watch the rain dissolve the riverscape to a slate of gray. Just looking at it soothed me. “I’ll bring another cocktail,” the bellman said.

Say what you will about the tyranny of colonialism, but the French in Indochina certainly knew a thing or two about living well. Amid the bygone luxuries of the 58-meter-long Jayavarman, I found myself conjuring visions of linen suits, airy villas, and indolent afternoons filled with fine food and genteel company.

The folks at Heritage Lines, the company that launched the boat a year ago, crafted the Jayavarman in thespirit of the SS Normandie, the 1935 French steamer still considered by many to be the greatest ocean liner ever built. The result is a marriage between the romance of the golden age of travel and the comfort and amenities of a 27-room floating boutique hotel. On the upriver itinerary from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, the trip offers a leisurely approach to Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex, taking in snippets of life and culture along one of Asia’s most storied waterways before culminating in a tour of the ancient Khmer monuments. But I’d been to Angkor many times before, so for me the journey was the destination. The dozy villages and out-of-the-way wats where I could engage with locals were the sights that interested me. And most importantly, not only did the seven-night cruise facilitate access to bits of the region that haven’t succumbed to tourism, it also offered day after long day to soak them in.

To make the most of the extravagances stuffed into the Jayavarman’s four decks, I’d need all the time I could get. There is a cold plunge pool on the top deck, and the alfresco lounge at the stern, tailor-made for sipping gin and tonics. Breakfast (complete with fresh croissants, bien sûr) is served before picture windows that open like great flat-panel screens to the passing panorama of the river, whose serene banks and patchwork of rice paddies would shimmer golden with every sunset. You could be forgiven for missing the views, however, as it would be all too easy to hole up in the lavish staterooms—decked out with antiques and local relics, rich mahogany finishes, and cobalt-and-gold silks and brocades that recall a historic opulence—or in the subdued spa for a blissful treatment. There’s even a cozy library, stocked with histories and tales from the region, though the plump, overstuffed chairs seemed more conducive to snoozing than study.

I realized immediately that I’d have to pace myself. Once I’d succumbed to all the luxuries—to the dainty Khmer canapés served hours before the nightly multicourse feast, or the coconut facials and daily foot-scrubs in the spa—I’d never want to walk down that gangplank again. “The Mekong is a good place to start in understanding the region,” Khim Rithy, one of the Cambodian guides aboard the Jayavarman, would tell me. “On the river, you can get a real feeling for the people and their lives.” Such insight would be tough to find through a bay window from the comfort of a massage table.

Vietnam’s stretch of the Mekong, which we navigated on the first few days of the trip, didn’t immediately inspire me. The river here was broad and flat as a superhighway; barges filled the shipping lanes, belching smoke and lumbering under the weight of heavy cargo. In humble houses perched over the water on gangly stilts, villagers sorted vegetables and wove palm leaves into roofing. The countryside echoed Ho Chi Minh City’s stodgy industriousness, with traders’ brassy voices ringing through the waterfront markets and fish farms. Brick factories crowded the foreshores. It was about as quaint as an economics lecture, so I settled into life on the boat.

I quickly discovered that most of the other 42 passengers relished slow mornings lazing in bed. So in the dawn hours, I had the Jayavarman virtually to myself. I’d rise before the sun and creep (Continued on page 122) (Continued from page 95) quietly around the decks, watching fishermen poling their skiffs out for a day’s work and groggy-looking farmers splashing themselves with river water on the dusky shores. The early-shift barista, Salet, quickly caught on to my schedule, and after just a day, she was waiting each morning with a double espresso, followed by a second demitasse if she noticed I dispensed with my first one too quickly.

Such attentiveness was a hallmark of the cruise. When I mentioned my interest in yoga to one of the staff, he immediately suggested I join the daybreak tai chi class on the top deck, where the few other early risers struck their poses in the cool morning air. After catching me in my room on the first evening when most other passengers had already gone to dinner, the turndown service crew instinctually modified their schedule for the rest of the trip so as not to disturb me. And as soon as my favorite waitress, Chantrea, picked up on my preference for breakfasting alone, she made sure to hold an empty table for me. With service like this, I thought, why would I ever leave the boat?

The answer came a few sticky afternoons into the journey. After the morning outing, we boarded a pair of freshly painted sampans for a quick hop to shore, where we were shown over an ornate metal footbridge and down a leafy corridor. Quite unexpectedly, we came upon Le Longanier, a French-Vietnamese restaurant set in a whitewashed villa with red-tile roofs and sprawling verandas. Graceful hostesses in flowing black ao dais ushered us inside.

If so far I’d found the Vietnamese phlegmatic, I discovered the atmosphere and passion I’d been looking for over that drawn-out, late-afternoon lunch. Crispy spring rolls arrived on skewers protruding whimsically from a halved pineapple. The vegetable soup, aromatic with mint and cilantro, was so tasty that I had to ask for a refill. And the Mekong elephant-ear fish, fried whole, was served upright on a wooden rack like a piece of artwork. The staff plied me with course after course, and on the breezy balcony overlooking manicured gardens and an orchard, I happily devoured every bite.

Back on the boat, the sybaritic binge continued as the staff met me with a cold towel to cut the afternoon heat, little sweets to counter the pungent flavors of lunch, and a tinkling glass of minty iced tea. I downed it fast, and Salet was quick with a response. “Another drink? Perhaps a vodka tonic?” she asked, clearly aware of my afternoon predilection. But I was caught up in the afternoon’s ambience. I ordered an Armagnac.

I don’t consider myself a cruise person. Ordinarily I find boat travel too confining and the open water dull. But chugging up the Mekong was different, particularly after we entered Cambodia. Nothing marked the border crossing except a dilapidated little office filled with lethargic customs agents. But the riverscape slowly shifted. A trickle of humble sampans, barely more than dugout canoes, replaced the stream of barges and elaborate wooden houseboats that had earlier crowded the river. And the thick, sylvan canopy and emerald rice paddies that swathed the Mekong’s banks in Vietnam faded to a drier, umber landscape of prickly trees and gangly palms.

I found the new terrain fascinating and took to sitting quietly on my stateroom’s balcony watching the scenery unfold. From the prows of wobbly little boats, fishermen heaved circular nets that traced spiderweb patterns on the river’s surface. Monks in pumpkin-orange robes sprawled on the steps of red-and-gold wats. Troops of wiry children raced out from stilted wooden shacks and waved and shouted as the Jayavarman eased by.

The shore excursions were more interesting on this side of the border, too. Rural Cambodia is an impoverished place; it’s also largely overlooked as a destination. Of course, travelers visit Angkor Wat in droves, but few of those temple-tourists venture beyond Siem Reap. That’s always surprised me, because not only is the Cambodian countryside beautiful—broad, open plains crosshatched with gleaming rice paddies and low, rolling mountains swathed in greenery—but the people here are as warm and genuine as any I’ve encountered. This proved particularly true in the riverside villages.

When the Jayavarman anchored for a few hours off Chong Koh, a scruffy spit of an island known for its silk production, I slipped away from the organized tour to the local temple and market. After chasing a pack of kids till they giggled, then talking to a silk weaver about his treadle-operated loom, I bumped into an elderly lady. She was laboring to push her bike—the bundle of silk goods in her basket made more cumbersome by a flat tire. I offered to help. She laughed uncertainly then handed over the bike and motioned for me to follow.

We walked to a riverside repair shop that, by the looks of it, was better suited to motorcycles than to bikes. When the owner, a young lady in a floral tracksuit, began fumbling with the flat tire, I gestured for her tools and took over. Thus commenced the chortling. These women were more accustomed to hustling after tourists with their silk wares than to having one as their manservant. Before long, I was dripping with sweat. Primped and unfazed by the mugginess, the ladies only laughed harder. I eventually got the tire inflated, and the old woman sauntered off, but not before we’d shared a few laughs. When I caught up with her at the Jayavarman’s mooring, she was closing a sale to a German couple. She winked at me as I passed.

From our high point at kampong Cham, 125 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh, where we docked at a little settlement populated by more friendly villagers and lots of leggy cows, the Jayavarman swiveled back to the south. After steaming through Phnom Penh, the boat left the Mekong and eased into the Tonle Sap River, which links the capital to the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia by way of a narrow, 100-kilometer-long watercourse. During the summer monsoon, the Mekong becomes so bloated that it actually reverses the flow of this tributary, pouring water into the shallow Tonle Sap Lake. By the height of the wet season, the lake quadruples in size, replenishing the fish stocks and flooding the surrounding plains with nutrient-rich silt. The annual floods were just beginning when we made the journey, and a tangle of greenery carpeted the shores, with curls of ivy nearly touching the Jayavarman’s bow and islands of water hyacinth clogging the water. Eventually, the banks widened and we anchored off Kampong Chhnang, a floating market town where whole neighborhoods drift with the seasonal ebb and swell.

I chartered a sampan and motored around Kampong Chhnang. It looked like any other Cambodian village, except that all the houses were on pontoons and instead of streets was a grid of waterways. Vendors in small boats trawled the canals hawking produce, bags of chips, and auto parts.

I caught the eye of one woman, and she waved me onto the deck of her home. As the household of 16 looked on, Soriya Sundaneth showed me her two-room dwelling. They had a TV and what looked like an Internet hookup. She told me that they had moved to the river almost a decade ago to farm catfish. The fishing pen was their front yard. I asked her if she’d ever consider moving back to land. “We like it here. It’s cooler than in town and quieter, and we can feel the seasons,” she said. “Giving up the river would be like giving up our life.” After a week on the water, I had a pretty good idea of what she meant.

We left the Jayavarman at Prek K’dam, the cruise’s upstream terminus during low-water season, some four-plus hours by bus from Siem Reap. Like everyone else from the boat, I would spend another few days touring the temples at Angkor. Seeing them again cast the great monuments in a new light for me. Where Angkor’s magnificence is stolid and timeless, on the Mekong the beauty is alive, constantly changing with the weather, the seasons, and the people who call the shallows their home. On my second day in Siem Reap, when my guide, Pheach “Bros” Davuth, suggested a sunset boat trip on the Tonle Sap after a hot day of clambering through jungle-shrouded ruins, I immediately agreed. I was missing the water.

We took a small river cruiser out onto the lake, and, after the captain cut the engine, Bros poured two glasses of champagne. “The Khmer became great because they knew the importance of all of this,” he said, gesturing to the lake. “There would have been no temples without this water.” It struck me as a shame that so many visitors pour into Angkor and traipse through viny ruins, yet so few experience the absolute grandeur of a quiet moment on the water.

Bros and I sipped our wine, and the late afternoon sun became gray and murky as storm clouds gathered in great black peaks on the southern horizon. The captain moved to turn the boat for shore, but I coaxed him to wait. We sat in silence as the water slapped gently at the hull, and the rains that would shore up this vast, liquid monument rumbled slowly toward us.

 

The Details:
Cruising to Siem Reap

The Itinerary
Heritage Line’s seven-night “Lost Civilization” cruise aboard the Jayavarman (heritage-line.com; doubles from US$3,384, full board) departs every other Saturday from My Tho, 70 kms south of Ho Chi Minh City, on the northbound journey, and from Siem Reap’s lakeside port or Prek K’dam on the downstream run. For passengers wanting to fly back to their city of embarkation post-cruise, Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) offers multiple daily flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.

When to Go
The Jayavarman operates year- round except for May. From October to mid-December, when water levels are at their highest, the cruise begins or ends on Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s “great lake”; otherwise, the farthest upriver the boat can go is Prek K’dam, where passengers proceed by bus to Siem Reap.

Where to Stay
Should accommodation be required before or after the cruise, lodgings in Siem Reap range from the urbane Hôtel de la Paix (Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/966-000; hoteldelapaix angkor.com; doubles from US$330) to the leafy, 24-suite Amansara (262 Krom 8,  Phum Beong Don Pa; 855-63/760-333; amanresorts.com; doubles from US$800), a former royal-family guesthouse on the road to Angkor. In Ho Chi Minh City, the InterContinental Asiana Saigon (39 Le Duan Blvd.; 84-8/3520-9999; ichotelsgroup.com; doubles from US$222) is the town’s newest five-star address.

Originally appeared in the December/January 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Slow Boat to Siem Reap”)

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