The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. Running for almost 2,700 miles from China’s Tibetan Plateau into the South China Sea, there is no better way to get to know this fascinating part of the world than through a river cruise.
The most popular route is along the lower third of the river, from the bustling hubs of Vietnam to the charming ports of Cambodia, where along the way boats pass a mesmerizing world of rice paddies and water buffalo, temples built by the Khmer and floating markets that sell exotic fruit.
The Mekong is very much a working river, supporting millions of people along its length, so a cruise here is an opportunity to see first-hand the commerce and culture that make the region so fascinating. In the last few years, a new crop of riverboats has taken to the river.
These modern vessels offer luxury accommodation with the all the style of a boutique hotel. No creature comfort has been overlooked, and the dining, spas and spacious suites are as fine as any on land.
Most Mekong river cruises accommodate less than 100 passengers, enabling intimate small-group excursions that provide an first-hand look at the sights along the way. Large sun decks are de rigeur and offer a prime spot for observing life on the river. You’ll see fishermen busy working in narrow wooden boats; smiling kids waving before launching themselves into the golden water; and lush banks that provide a habitat to 1,200 species of birds, including egrets and kingfishers.
Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, and Phnom Pehn are popular stops, as are smaller towns and traditional artisan villages. At Sa Dec, south of Ho Chi Minh City, wander through the quayside market where hollering traders in conical hats sell live fish and exotic fruits.
Join the locals and ride on the back of a rickshaw through the streets. Be sure to pause to look inside the Chinese-style riverfront house with an arched veranda; the family home of Huynh Thuy Le, the man with whom French author Marguerite Duras had the affair she describes in the novel The Lover.
In Phnom Penh boats moor alongside the Sisowath Quay, an area buzzing with life come dusk. Here, locals meet en masse to exercise, socialize, and browse stalls selling local delicacies such as deep fried tarantula.
View the fine collection of Khmer sculpture at the National Museum of Cambodia and take a guided tour of Cambodia’s exquisite Royal Palace. Within the palace gounds you’ll find the Silver Pagoda, an exquisitely ornate temple that contains the life-sized Emerald Buddha made of solid gold.
In Siem Reap, take a pre-breakfast stroll around the gilded Wat Dey Dos pagoda. With ornately painted shrines depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology and golden statues of monks and animals, it’s a preview of the visual feast that awaits at the twin mountaintop monasteries of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei. Siem Reap is also the gateway to Angkor Wat, the must-see highlight of the region. This majestic temple complex rising from the jungle is an awe-inspiring sight that few places in the world can match.
From the laid-back style of life aboard a luxury riverboat to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes only found in Southeast Asia, this truly is the journey of a lifetime.