New riverboats are cruising in Cambodia and Vietnam. These vacation voyages 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.
River cruises, which have proven hugely popular in Europe, are expanding to more exotic locales, drawing vacationers primarily from North America, Europe and Australia.
Yet, riverboat journeys in Southeast Asia are neither an ordinary nor leisurely cruise, at least not in the sense of anything you might do on a lazy voyage on the rivers of Europe, watching the sophisticated world roll by.
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 non-existent.
• 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.
• With teary eyes, we listened as our Cambodian tour guide told his difficult life story that included losing three little brothers 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.
The new 16-cabin Avalon Angkor, built in and for Southeast Asia, was complete with a well-trained chef from Myanmar and modern accommodations, decked and trimmed in teak. The vessel 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 dust on return from excursions ashore.
Still, we slept on the riverboat only seven nights of the 13-night trip that also included hotel stays in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and modern Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Even on the river, the Avalon Angkor was our home primarily from late afternoon through breakfast. Most days, we were busy with guided tours, exploring the land far more than relaxing on the water.
Rural roving in this part of the world can be a challenge, as there are few highways, little organized transportation, and spotty access to electricity, cell phones and other urban conveniences — a reminder that an experienced tour operator makes a big difference in one’s comfort level.
Avalon’s cruise director 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, who accompanied us on excursions, 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 okay to buy a round of flavored shaved ice for every child hanging around a playground outside a Buddhist temple (at about 12 cents each).