The Mighty Mekong River flows some 4,900km traversing six Asian countries, from its source in Tibet through Yunnan Province China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and ending in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
By comparison to mainstream river cruising in Europe, accommodation-providing cruise companies in Southeast Asia offer only a handful of vessels. Virtually all of these ply the waters of the lower Mekong, from My Tho in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and conclude near Siem Reap, home to the iconic Angkor Wat.
Along the way, these cruise vessels undertake a variety of daily shore excursions, providing guests an opportunity to explore well-trodden tourist sites and take a short break from life onboard. The problem is, for over a decade, the same cruise operators stop at the same locations and use the same ports of call.
So nowadays, as the ‘independent traveler’ becomes more ‘independent’, so do their tastes and the need for more natural and more traditional, cultural experiences.
One of Southeast Asia’s ship building pioneers, an early explorer of the lower Mekong, is Vietnam’s Mr Truong Quang Cuong. He has been at the forefront of designing and building several river cruise vessels since 2006.
“Times are changing and instead of large and impersonal 50-60 cabins, we decided to cater for the small intimate cruises, more like a floating boutique hotel. We built two identical vessels, each with only 12 cabins. Nice and personal,” said Mr Cuong.
The recent launch of luxury river cruise vessel RV Mekong Princess has prompted the discovery of new shore excursion locations. A mandatory stopover for virtually all cruise companies, is the famous floating market at Con Tho, in the Mekong Delta. But from this southern river port to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, there are canals, tributaries, islands and villages that have never been visited by foreigners.
At Thot Not, the Bang Lang bird sanctuary is a wild jungle oasis. Visitors climb a lookout tower to witness the nesting Bang Lang birds.
Only 15km south of the Vietnam-Cambodian border is the small island community of Long Khanh. Landing here is like stepping back in time, where a population of only 20,000 lives in timber houses built on stilts, as protection from the seasonal floodwaters. Old women weave traditional Khmer fabrics of vibrant colors, creating scarves and sarongs of the highest quality. These are woven on antique medieval- style looms and then sent to market.
Sitting on the outside porch of a typical Mekong Delta abode, are hard working women making a myriad of household items using water hyacinth reeds. Harvested by hand from the nearby waterways, the young girls from the community gather the fresh reeds and lay them out to dry for a day or two. These are then cut and intertwined on a metal frame, to become items for use in local homes, restaurants and are also exported to international brand name companies.
It’s easy to see if locals are over-exposed to foreigners, or not. When you arrive in remote villages, the children run away and hide from prying camera lenses, and adults simply smile politely, acknowledge our presence and continue doing what they happily do, day in and day out.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and inspiring observation for travelers to these remote parts is, witnessing the spirit of community, the cooperative lifestyle and subsistence way of life. It’s about getting things done and supporting family and closest neighbors.
The RV Mekong Princess commences its first season in September this year, taking guests to these fascinating places, meandering along the way and exploring the mighty Mekong River.
- texts and photos by Barry J. Atkinson
RV Mekong Princess
- Newest high-end river cruise boat.
- Suite cabins with private balconies.
- Plenty of onboard activities.
- Elegant Indochine Restaurant.
- Experience the finest spa and fitness centre after excursions.
- Enjoy the outstanding day trips along the Mekong River.
Ports of Call
- Ho Chi Minh City
- Cho Lach Market - Ben Tre
- Chan Tho - Tho Not
- Long Xuyen - Can Tho City
- Border Crossing - Hong Ngu
- Phnom Penh
- Kam Pong Chang - Tonle Sap River Cruise
- Siem Reap