River cruises in Cambodia, Vietnam reach ruins, rural villages

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).

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, and to visit people who live 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 lacked stamina or could not 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.

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; the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam 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 itinerary 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 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 cruises on the Mekong and tributaries between the two cities and are adding new, modern riverboats to their fleets.

Siem Reap is not on a waterway, so 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 ready to assist 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.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of