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750km Mekong voyage - Slow boat to Siem Reap

Author: John M.
Email: johnm@adam.com.au (More Trip Reviews by John M.)
Date of Trip: April 2006

I have always avoided cruises. My memory of my younger days, when I was on the hippy trail from London to Istanbul and suffered seasickness on five to nine hour ferry trips to the Greek islands has always been hard to dismiss.

So when I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday by becoming a geriatric back packer in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was astonished to find, while surfing the internet, a luxury 750-kilometre river cruise over seven nights from the Mekong River delta in Vietnam to Cambodia's Siem Reap, location of the magnificent and ancient 1,000-year-old Angkor temples.

The temptation was too great. I booked, knowing that seasickness would be only a remote possibility! And the end result was one of the most pampered yet exciting holidays I have had in some 35 countries over a period spanning more than 30 years.

The cruise is operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which early last century was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his poem "Road to Mandalay." The company, established by a Scotsman in 1865, operated more than 600 vessels along the Burmese river systems, with some of ships being as large as 120-metres in length and licensed to carry up to 4,000 passengers-- often including royalty and viceroys. Sadly, the entire fleet was scuppered in 1942 after the Japanese invaded Burma and the allies feared the enemy might use the vessels for transporting troops and equipment.

However, in 1995 the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was revived by Paul Strachan, a modern day Scot with a strong sense of history and tradition. He constructed replica vessels to recreate the halcyon days of the original fleet-- but with facilities unheard of on South Asian passenger river vessels of more than 50 years. Today, the fleet of four old world-style yet exceptionally modern and well equipped ships offer a high degree of understated luxury that would have astonished those who journeyed aboard any of the original Irrawaddy fleet in the 1800's.

Initially, Strachan limited the cruises to the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar (previously known as Burma), but in 2002 he added the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers in Vietnam and Cambodia. This has provided a memorable 7-night voyage along two of South East Asia's most important rivers and the region's largest freshwater lake, giving passengers to get off the beaten track, yet to do so in luxury and safety, often visiting remote villages rarely visited by tourists.

The route is sailed by the RV Mekong Pandaw and the RV Tonle Pandaw, and carry up to 68 passengers each. Cruises range in price per stateroom from $3,480AUS to $2,760AUS for two people sharing, and $2,450AUS to $1,380AUS for single use of a twin cabin, depending on which deck you are. The lower the deck the lower price-- yet even lower deck staterooms are exceptional in their fit-outs, and are actually more specious and cooler than the more expensive main and upper deck staterooms.

The voyage is great value when you look at the inclusions: Accommodation in plush staterooms, three gourmet-style meals a day, soft drink and locally made beer and bottled water, and tea, coffee and tisanes. Also included are professionally guided on-shore excursions (generally two a day) and port dues.

The only additional costs are laundry, imported alcohol and onboard souvenirs, plus visas. Passengers also pay their own pre and post cruise hotel fees, and international and domestic flights.

The cruises are a blend soft adventure and a generous taste of Indo China culture as the vessels pass through scenery that changes hourly from riverside villages through to rice paddies, floating and land-based markets, fish farms, cities and large towns, temples, boat building yards and an endless examples of river lifestyle from men washing their herds of water buffalo through to children bathing, people irrigating crops and families doing their laundry.

The RV Mekong Pandaw's 34 large twin staterooms are lined in teak decorated with brass fittings, and ooze style and class. They include extremely comfortable twin bunks, private ensuite bathroom and toilet, wardrobes and cupboards, writing bureau, air conditioning, hair dryer, toiletries and power points for recharging items such as digital cameras.

The upper and main deck staterooms each have large windows and comfortable twin whicker armchairs on the external companionway outside each cabin. The lower deck staterooms are a little larger, and have brass-framed portholes-- initially somewhat eerie when you realise that from the chest down, you are below the river level.

Meals are served in a bright and airy dining room featuring panoramic windows, and food is exceptional. There is no set seating, so passengers tend to mix easily, with the option of meeting new people at each meal sitting.

Breakfast is a hot American buffet, but with additional Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes, plus fresh fruit, cereals and juices.

Lunch is also buffet-style of salads and cold meats, but always with an additional hot dish such as baked whole sea bass, phat Thai, beef lok lak or soup.

The evening meal is more formal, and people dress more elegantly than the shorts and T-shirts that are perfectly acceptable by day, although there is no need for a jacket and tie. Dinners are three or four course mouth-watering gourmet meals and generally reflect the local region through which the vessel is cruising. Typical is a Vietnamese appetizer followed by sweet and sour fish soup, stuffed squid, fried beef with five spices, sautéed spinach with crispy shallots and pineapple fried rice, pumpkin custard, coffee and a selection of cheeses.

We also had Cambodian and Myanmar gourmet meals and some western-style meals. With advance notification several days before embarking, the crew will cater for special diets (once the voyage starts, no local food is purchased along the way, as the chefs only use hygienic raw products from reputable outlets in Saigon and Siem Reap).

Wines, served with lunch and dinner, are French, American and Australian, and very reasonably priced-- generally less than what one would pay in an up market Australian restaurant. There is also an excellent range of imported beers.

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