The Spirit of Southeast Asia
Discover ancient civilizations and modern metropolises
on a Mekong River cruise with AmaWaterways
By Kathryn E. Worrall
Kathryn E. Worrall
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)Buddhists believe happiness is a state of mind and a form of enlightenment. A choice rather than a circumstance. Happiness doesn't come from one's surroundings or material things, but rather from compassion and good deeds. Buddha himself almost always is depicted with a smile.
On the way to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, our guide, Sean, explained this philosophy. "Cambodians are always smiling, because they choose to be happy," he said.
It was a sobering day as we learned about the country's dark Khmer Rouge past and the devastating genocide that wiped out an estimated third of the population. Sean himself became an orphan at age 8 and was forced to serve as a child soldier, each day fearing one mistake would get him killed.
Many Cambodians live simply. Modern medicine isn't widespread. The United Nations categorizes Cambodia as a Least Developed Country, and 16 percent of the population is undernourished. But Sean was right -- every Cambodian we met was warm and welcoming.
Earlier this year, I spent two weeks traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam with my sister Lizzie. After exploring Siem Reap, Cambodia's gateway to ancient Angkor, we boarded the AmaDara for AmaWaterways' eight-day "Riches of the Mekong" sailing. The river cruise stops in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and several small villages before wrapping up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The cruise-only "Riches of the Mekong" itineraries run from August through April, with prices beginning at $2,299. An 11-day option spends time in Siem Reap, and 16-day itineraries also stay in Vietnam's Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Ho Chi Minh City. To sail the mighty Mekong, contact the river cruise counselors at Vacations To Go.
Siem Reap and Angkor, Cambodia
From 802 to 1431 B.C., the Khmer Empire reigned over most of present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and southern Vietnam. Angkor served as the capital, as kings built temples, burial sites and palaces on its grounds.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Archaeological Park is Cambodia's top attraction. On our first full day in Siem Reap, we rose at 4 a.m. (jet lag worked in our favor here) to meet our guide, Lekh. We entered behind Angkor Wat, the main attraction. It was pitch-black and eerily quiet for our walk, with only the sound of Lekh's voice narrating the complex's history.
Built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious structure. Sculptures of Hindu motifs mask the walls, and five lofty towers symbolize the gods' dwelling place. A moat protects the entrance and, at sunrise, the complex reflects onto the water.
After we snapped some photos, Lekh whisked us around. Angkor has temples in every state of decay, and a few are more well-known than others. Buddhist temple Bayon is carved with giant faces that depict its creator, Jayavarman VII, according to some scholars. Massive tree roots envelop Ta Prohm, noted for its appearance in 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Others, like Banteay Kdei, are off the beaten path, allowing a more private exploration of the ruins. Monks roam the grounds and tourists clamber onto elephants for a ride, but the most captivating sights are these archaeological wonders in all their grandeur.
Siem Reap grants plenty to do besides Angkor. At Kandal Village, an artsy neighborhood, grab a pick-me-up at The Little Red Fox Espresso before shopping at Trunkh, an eclectic boutique with Mekong catfish pillows and lotus balm, and Louise Loubatieres, where we bought handwoven silk necklaces. The Made in Cambodia Market supports local artisans.
Cambodian cuisine is rich with fish paste, lemongrass and wok cookery. At upscale Malis, we dined on royal mak mee, coconut-milk simmered pork over crisped noodles. Asana offers Khmer cocktails in an old wooden house tucked down an alley off Siem Reap's rambunctious Pub Street.
Our most adventurous eating came through Siem Reap Food Tours. Led by Scottish chef Steven Halcrow, we began in the morning at a hole-in-the-wall shop for bai sach chrouk, barbecued pork over sticky rice. We explored traditional food markets, sampling ants and duck fetus along the way. A tuk-tuk (motorbike-pulled cart) ride into the countryside led to bites of pork-stuffed frogs and rice noodles made on-site. The most unusual thing we tried? Surprisingly not ants, but a cucumber dipped into 6-month-old fermented fish paste.
The Mighty Mekong
The Mekong River is the world's 12th-longest river, snaking through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Mekong loosely means "mother water," and about 65 million people live along its banks. Aquatic residents include Mekong giant catfish, the largest freshwater fish in existence; huge freshwater stingrays, weighing up to 1,300 pounds; and rare Irrawaddy dolphins.
After breakfast, our AmaWaterways adventure began. We met the rest of our group at the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort and loaded onto buses. The five-hour drive to the Prek Kdam port was alleviated with stops for lunch and in Skuon, aka "Tarantula Town," where locals hawk tubs of fried spiders. A few kids even sported creatures (sans fangs) on their shoulders for a photo op or simply to scare a tourist.
When we arrived at the AmaDara, the crew greeted us with a light lunch while luggage was delivered to cabins. The 124-passenger ship highlights French colonial decor and staterooms boast both French and full balconies. Each room is climate-controlled, a necessity with the heat, and suites up the luxury with large sitting areas and bathrooms with a separate shower and tub.
The ship is outfitted with Wi-Fi, a spa, workout facility and two eateries, the Main Restaurant and The Chef's Table, an intimate venue. The sundeck has a pool, plenty of lounge chairs in the shade and sun and a bar stocked with Angkor beer.
After we settled in, the captain held a Champagne toast before dinner. Aboard the AmaDara, dinner is a sit-down meal with full wait service, while breakfast and lunch feature buffets, with a few made-to-order options and a hot station serving up regional cuisine like crisped pork belly over banh hoi, rice noodles with chopped scallions. The crew is quick to assist and remember your name and preferences, and our cruise manager, Son, was affable and always smiling.
Kampong Chhnang and Koh Chen, Cambodia
After donning sunscreen, bug spray and an orange life vest, we stepped onto small boats to visit a floating village in the Kampong Chhnang province. An estimated 1 million Cambodians live in villages like this due to the wet season's rising water levels. Rows of buoyed houses and businesses are connected by ropes, ensuring nothing drifts off. Most are outfitted with gardens and power lines for the satellite dishes on their tin roofs, and children on the way to school cruised by in rafts.
Koh Chen is a village famed for copper and silver artisans who expertly engrave delicate patterns onto metal. AmaWaterways supports a primary school here and encourages cruisers to bring school supplies. We visited a classroom of 8- and 9-year-olds eager to greet us and practice their English. The young boy and girl I sat with broke into their ABCs, counted as high as they could and mainly giggled as I tried to converse. One gaggle of kids pulled at a man's long white beard. The entire class sang "If You're Happy and You Know It" and their pride was infectious. When we reluctantly left, the kids lingered in the classroom's windows and waved farewell.
Oudong, Kampong Tralach and Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Oudong hosts hilltop temples and royal stupas, as well as Cambodia's largest Buddhist monastery, the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Center. Monks and nuns reside at the center; Cambodians can elect to be a monk for a week, month or longer before easily transitioning back.
After slipping off our shoes, we entered the main building for a blessing by two resident monks clad in the traditional saffron robes. We knelt on the ground, ensuring not to point our feet toward the monks or Buddha statue (a sign of disrespect), and bowed our heads. The monks chanted for five minutes, tossing jasmine flowers, a symbol of love and good luck.
Some of the group elected to return to the ship, but the majority headed to nearby Kampong Tralach for an ox cart ride. Farmers use these small, two-person carts pulled by pairs of oxen to harvest crops and transport hay and family members.
Next up was Phnom Penh, the country's capital and largest city. AmaWaterways' passengers hopped onto tuk-tuks for an orientation of the bustling metropolis, whizzing past skyscrapers and historical sites like the prime minister's residence and Independence Monument. Evenings in Phnom Penh were free, so Lizzie and I took in the sunset at the riverfront Foreign Correspondents Club, a historic rooftop haunt for international journalists. Cambodia means "Golden Land" in Khmer, and a panorama of the sun sinking into the Mekong illustrates why.
For dinner, we headed to Pan-Asian Pacific restaurant Chinese House. We gorged on slow-roasted pork belly, heirloom tomatoes and glazed duck for around $25 a person -- such meals in Southeast Asia often are inexpensive. You can find an Angkor beer and bowl of noodles for less than $5.
The fourth day of the cruise was the most emotionally wrenching, yet most memorable. The morning tour gave two options -- shopping at the massive bazaar called Central Market or, our choice, visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, seized and transformed Cambodia. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Families were split up for decades, and religion and currency were banned. Intellectuals specifically were targeted, so adults under questioning claimed to be taxi drivers and farmers. Children were separated from parents, placed in camps and brainwashed. It's estimated that 1.5 to 2 million people died during this short period.
At the Killing Fields, at least 20,000 prisoners were bused in from nearby camps and executed. They suffered horrific deaths. Of 186 mass graves, only 129 have been uncovered. In the Memorial Stupa, 8,000 skulls represent Cambodian men, women and children -- and foreigners, including a few Americans -- who were murdered by blunt force or piercing object. Guns were never used, lest unaware neighbors hear the shots. Monk-blessed bracelets don the "Killing Tree," honoring the children that were beaten to death against its trunk.
Razor wire still surrounds the S-21 detention center, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. At this former high school, some 14,000 prisoners were executed or died of the poor conditions here; only seven made it out alive. We entered the tiny cells where beds, shackles and instruments of torture still remain. One room has black-and-white photographs of prisoners -- some are booking photos, others show deceased victims, taken for proof that officers completed their tasks.
We met Chum Mey, one of two remaining survivors, who told his story with a gentle smile. Arrested in 1978, he was interrogated, beaten and electrocuted for 12 days. His life was spared only because he was a mechanic and could fix the guards' typewriter. When the Vietnamese liberated S-21 two months later, Chum Mey reconnected with his wife and 2-month-old son, only to lose both shortly after when they were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Chum Mey doesn't blame his torturers. Many of them were young, just teenagers, and he even called them victims for they too lost loved ones. In his biography, "Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide," Chum Mey writes, "There's a saying in the Khmer language: If a mad dog bites you, don't bite it back.' If you do, it means you are mad, too."
The afternoon was much lighter, with a stop at the Royal Palace, home of King Norodom Sihamoni, and the Silver Pagoda, named for the 5,000 silver tiles covering the floor. It also houses a sparkling Buddha with 2,000-plus diamonds, the largest weighing 25 carats. My sister and I later did some jewelry shopping of our own, picking up jade earrings at Central Market before cocktails at Eclipse Sky Bar, located on the 23rd floor of Phnom Penh Tower.
We dined at BattBong Bar and Restaurant, a speakeasy hidden behind a faux Coca-Cola vending machine, and grabbed post-dinner drinks at Le Boutier in the trendy Bassac Lane area. Le Boutier's cocktail list honors Khmer culture with drinks named after famed musicians, like "Sieng Along With Me," named for 1970s entertainer Sieng Vanthy.
Cruising the Mekong
Passengers spent a full day on board the ship as it crossed from Cambodia into Vietnam. We lounged on the sundeck, reading and waving to kids along the banks. An afternoon cooking class demonstrated how to make pho and spring rolls, but I opted for a massage in the Saigon Spa. At night, the staff dressed in traditional clothing (silk tunics called ao dai) for a Vietnamese meal. They later competed in "AmaDara's Got Talent," performing everything from Cambodian dances to Jon Bon Jovi songs.
Tan Chau and Evergreen Island, Vietnam
After greeting new Vietnamese guides who came on board, we headed to Tan Chau for a rickshaw ride; the bicycle-pulled, single-person buggy is a traditional (and bumpy) way to get around here. Tan Chau is famous for its black dyed silk, made with Diospyros mollis fruit, and we toured the looms and gift shop, bargaining for silk scarves, paintings and our own ao dai.
Evergreen Island is a lush pocket of Vietnam with fields of fruits, vegetables and chilies. Houses are built on square concrete stilts to keep them above the high waters of monsoon season (and they prevent snakes from coiling up into the homes). Owners came to their balconies as we passed, chatting and showing us their crops and livestock.
During our afternoon cruising, a guide explained Vietnamese superstitions and astrology. To avoid bad luck, you should never buy a house on an intersection and a bed shouldn't face a mirror or door. Never call a newborn baby beautiful -- that draws spirits to steal it -- so instead say it's ugly. And dogless homes should place statues of pups outside to ward off evil.
Sa Dec, Xeo Quyt and Cai Be, Vietnam
Laid-back Sa Dec is a quaint riverfront town lined with palm trees. Walking around the markets, you see buckets of squirming eels, bins overflowing with passion fruit and local delicacies like dried stingrays. French writer Marguerite Duras grew up here and documented her affair with an older wealthy Chinese man in her novel "The Lover." We entered his opulent former estate, sipping lotus tea while listening to the tale.
About an hour outside Sa Dec is Xeo Quyt, a swampy forest with fields of waterlilies. It was the site of a Viet Cong army base. Less than 2 miles from an American base, it remained hidden during the Vietnam War due to the dense vegetation. We peeked into underground bunkers and the thatched-roof homes of the soldiers.
At Cai Be's floating markets, vendors on boats swapped melons, durians and bananas for cash from shoppers on rafts. We docked and dropped by a rice paper and coconut candy workshop, sampling the sweets and sipping snake wine. The "Mekong whiskey" is made from large vats of rice wine fermented by dead, coiled-up venomous snakes like cobras.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
After we made our farewells and thanked the staff, buses transported us to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as most locals still call it). The buzzing metropolis offers plenty to see, like the opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral and Ben Thanh market (in case your spare suitcase for souvenirs isn't full yet).
Cruises of the Mekong River are growing in popularity among U.S. travelers. Traveling to the region requires a few vaccinations, visas and almost two days of flying each way. But when you experience the mysticism of Angkor, the easy way of life along the Mekong and the rich spirit of the people, it's all worth it.
Visiting Cambodia and Vietnam
* U.S. citizens need a visa for each country. Visas can be obtained through a U.S. consulate or upon airport arrival.
* Cambodia is warm year-round, but the dry season, October to April, is optimal. In Vietnam, varying monsoon seasons mean the prime time to travel depends on the area -- March to May and September to November in the north and November to late April in the south.
* In Cambodia, U.S. dollars widely are accepted in lieu of Cambodian riel. Don't try to use ripped bills, though -- local banks won't receive them, so neither will businesses. U.S. dollars often are welcomed in Vietnam, but expect change in Vietnamese dong.
* A general bargaining rule of thumb is to offer 30 to 40 percent off the stated price. Tuk-tuks average around $2.
* Avoid drinking tap water in either country; bottled water is easy to find.
* Cambodians greet each other by placing the hands, palms pressed together, over their lips and saying, "suosdei." The higher the hands, the more respect is shown. In Vietnam, xin (pronounced "sin") chao translates to hello, and locals slightly bow in greeting.
* On a visit to a religious site, like Angkor or the Royal Palace, visitors must cover their shoulders and knees.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Summer 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.