Third in a series from the ruins and rivers of Southeast Asia.
After three days of exploring Cambodia’s temples and ruins, and passing by such roadside delicacies as sparrows and rats, grilled crickets, spiders and roaches, all of which were in plentiful supply, we were ready for the cool comforts and stocked kitchen of a fancy riverboat, Avalon Angkor.
We met our home for a week at Prek Dam, Cambodia, where the vessel was tied to a tree at the bottom of a sloping embankment on the Tonle Sap River. We walked down a series of crude steps, hollowed out of the dirt and lined by crew members, holding umbrellas to ward off the sun and ready to assist anyone needing a steady arm.
A note about Tonle Sap Lake: In its brochures, Avalon Waterways points out that the Avalon Anchor in unique in its ability to cross the lake, as most river vessels cannot, so passengers on other boats must take a long bus ride from Siem Reap to the Tonle Sap River at Prek Dam.
That’s all true for six months of the year — from the beginning of the cruise season in July through December — when the Avalon Angkor sails across Tonle Sap Lake. But during the driest season, from January through March, even the shallow-drafted Avalon Angkor — it needs 4 feet 7 inches of water — can’t get across the lake, so Avalon’s passengers, too, make the bus trip of 5-7 hours. The bus trip does have its advantages, including photo opps of sparrows and rats, grilled crickets, spiders and roaches for sale. BTW, guides say that fried tarantulas are healthy, containing protein that will help aching joints. Everyone on our bus said that their joints already felt fine.
Picture the vessel as “almost” African Queen
The 32-passenger Avalon Angkor is a comfortable, modern vessel with a classic, almost “African Queen” vibe created with the help of lots of teak.
It was purpose-built in Vietnam in 2012 for Avalon Waterways to cruise on the main and backwaters of the Mekong and Tonle Sap in Southeast Asia.
Avalon Angkor is an intimate vessel. The riverboat has just two passenger decks, each housing cabins.
The second deck also features two outdoor sitting areas. Forward is a well-windowed, enclosed, air-conditioned dining room that doubles as the location for the nightly movie and/or lectures.
Avalon Angkor is smaller than most other riverboats on the Mekong, so the captain can guide the boat close to rural sights along tributaries, such as temples, local land and floating markets, and villages.
Steps to the river and docks are temporary
At tour stops, the riverboat often is tied to a tree, and paths from villages up and down to the river are temporary, because more permanent steps and docks would be swept away with the next spring’s floods.
“Navigation is difficult,” said the captain, Van Truan, a veteran of the waters in and around the Mekong. “Tides change the depths, and sometimes sand builds up in the middle of the river. Most challenging is windy, rainy days when vision is limited.”
The river voyage is a bit of an adventure, but it’s made easier by Avalon Angkor’s accommodating staff. For instance, they stand ready with fresh fruit juice and cold, wet towels when passengers return from explorations.
The cruise director (an employee of Avalon Waterways) and the guides (who are not) are keys to the experience. The guides are all locals, and many have personal tales to tell of their lives and their family histories in this war-torn part of the world.
The cruise director stays with each group of passengers throughout the tour, starting and ending at top-class hotels in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. He participates in each shore excursion, all of which are included in the cruise tour rate, and he also provides guidance for free time in the cities.
Cooking and drinking require fresh water
Meals aboard the Avalon Angkor are plentiful and well prepared, with lots of fruits and vegetables. Traveling in a first-world bubble has its advantages: In an area where North American travelers are warned not to trust the cleanliness of such items on land — if you can’t peel it yourself, don’t eat it — passengers aboard the boat consume fruit and vegetables as if they are living at a luxury hotel.
The Avalon Angkor carries huge bottles of purified water, which is used for cleaning and cooking food, as well as for drinking and brushing teeth.
The chef, Aye Kyaw Than, from Myanmar (Burma), said he considers the nationalities and religions of passengers for each trip when he writes menus for the week, buying from local markets and aiming for plates that are healthy.
“I find that passengers are becoming more adventurous,” said the chef, “eating more Asian foods now than Western food. I highlight the Asian foods.
“Passengers can eat Western food at home,” he said (For the finicky, all meals aboard the boat include a Western choice.)
The river trip is nearly all-inclusive in price, though passengers are expected to leave a generous tip for crew and guides at the end. You don’t have to spend a dime on alcohol, as wine and beer are included at dinner and the daily happy hours provide free local spirits, as well as spirited attempts at fancy concoctions.
Next: Taking a breath, walking the Killing Fields of Cambodia
David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com.
Photos by David G. Molyneaux, TheTravelMavens.com