Sailing the Mekong with Aqua Expeditions
Combining unparalleled luxury with exhilarating excursions, Aqua Mekong is breathing new life into the cruise industry
If I have one reservation about cruise holidays, it is that these experiences can sometimes feel a bit detached from the country and culture in which they take place. Secluded on your floating base, the surrounding landmarks and landscapes can pass by in a blur of snatched sights and fleeting visits.
But slowly snaking its way through the waters of sun-kissed Cambodia and Vietnam, Aqua Expeditions’ extraordinary Mekong cruise is steering a new course for the cruise industry.
Launched in 2014, the Aqua Mekong is a wood-panelled custom-made cruise vessel that accommodates up to 40 people. Spacious yet intimate, it hosts three-, four- and seven-night luxury cruises up and down the mighty Mekong river between Siem Reap and the Vientamese coast, with a range of routes and itineraries on offer.
Whatever passengers choose, there are no corners cut and no expenses spared here. King-size suites with bay windows sit snugly below an art deco-style bar, two sunbathing terraces and a rooftop plunge pool. This is high-class travel, capped off with a massage parlour and a restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef David Thompson.
But no matter how luxurious the living or delicious the traditional fish dishes being served on board, the standout feature of Aqua Expeditions cruises is the exhilarating excursions available for guests.
We board the Aqua Mekong for a four-night cruise from Cambodia’s lively capital, Phnom Penh, one of the three embarkation points across the region. From there, we set sail upstream along the placid Tonlé Sap river for a trip that will take us to the southern tip of its namesake lake, before heading back down to the capital via a loop of the Mekong, stopping each day to moor near a different city, town or village.
Following a 14-hour connecting flight out from London, our first day is spent in merciful peace as we glide across the water, my floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows letting in a warm, humid breeze as the skyscrapers that punctuate the city’s skyline give way to dense rainforest and an occasional sputtering of the engine of a passing fishing boat.
Come evening, I’m feeling sufficiently restored to head to the lounge, along with my nine fellow guests, to enjoy a feast of food, drinks and traditional Cambodian entertainment. The friendly ship staff introduce themselves one by one before making way for a range of musicians and other performers, who end our night of wine and laughter by leading us through some Cambodian dance moves.
It’s a fantastic first night, although “everything in moderation” is a phrase that springs to mind the following morning as we are awakened at 7:30 for a quick breakfast before departing for our first excursion.
Bleary-eyed, we are fitted with life jackets and hustled down onto one of the Aqua Mekong’s four custom-made launch boats, which shuttle guests – at surprisingly high speeds – to shore. Our morning consists of a leisurely sojourn through the village of Koh Chen, known for its high-quality silverware, where our guide, Hoeum, talked us through the process of smelting, sculpting and polishing the precious metal.
Next up is a brief minibus ride to Oudong, the former capital of the country. Founded in the early 17th century, Oudong’s historical pedigree is evident in its grand architecture, with ornate temple complexes shimmering in the baking sun as worshippers and tourists amble along the shaded dirt roads.
The highlight is the Vipassana Dhura Mandala Buddhist Meditation Centre, a vast compound of temples that are as stunning on the inside as they are unassuming from the outside.
We wander amid processions of monks as the sound of chanting wafts through the air, before regretfully departing to meet our waiting minivan.
We return to the Aqua Mekong for a second evening spent dining on sumptuous local cuisine – a huge selection of fish, meat, salads, rice and other side dishes guided by the rich, pungent framework of chilli, lemongrass and fish sauce.
The diligence of the talent kitchen staff is matched by the warmth and professionalism of the waiting staff, all of whom remember our names and various culinary preferences without a hint of difficulty.
The next morning we again hop aboard the launch boat and return to shore to visit a palm sugar village. The other guests have the wisdom to accept the offer of a tuk-tuk ride deep into the jungle to locate the town, but I opt to take one of the boat’s bicycles to make the trip.
In 35C heat and stifling humidity, I wheel past villages and dodge traffic on roads flanked by rice paddies and palm trees as my sole companion, the Aqua Mekong’s other guide, Chariya, tries to teach me some handy phrases in Khmer and Vietnamese.
Arriving sweaty but unharmed at our destination, we meet a smiling palm farmer who wastes no time in scaling the nearest 100ft tree with no safety gear to bring us a sample of his homemade sugar. He also mentions that he happens to produce palm wine. How could we resist?
And so, hyped up on sugar and with a satisfying moonshine buzz, Chariya and I saddle back up and gently cruise downhill to another nearby village. Here, he shows me around a paper-making factory, before grabbing us each a cup of sugar cane juice from a vendor, which we drink in the shade of a tree, looking out at the vast Mekong inching past.
That afternoon, after reuniting with the other guests, we head out again for what is arguably the highlight of the cruise – a kayak excursion around a floating village. Populated mostly by ethnic Vietnamese, the floating town of Moat Khla provides a fascinating insight into the traditions of this corner of the globe, with makeshift homes and shops carved out of the corpses of old barges and fishing boats, all bobbing up and down in tightly packed rows.
We weave in and out of impossibly tight squeezes in the late evening sun, the local people finding equal amounts of fascination and hilarity in both a fellow guest’s use of a drone and my rather awkward attempts at Vietnamese.
And so we reach our final day, which is a busy one, with a stop-off at a local school, a tour of a silk-making facility, a meeting with a Buddhist monk at a nearby temple and another bike ride. It’s a truly memorable conclusion to our trip, but when we return to the launch boat, we are told that more awaits us. Whisked off to a nearby, almost deserted island, we find a pop-up bar and lounge waiting for us on the beach as a goodbye surprise.
After a few rounds of sunset volleyball, cocktails and a dip in the mighty river itself, we skip across the water back to the Aqua Mekong, where I and a few other guests stay up into the early hours sipping fine scotch with our feet dipped in the outdoor jacuzzi, as the distant lights of Phnom Penh draw closer.
After saying a somewhat emotional goodbye to our guides and the rest of the staff the following morning, we are invited to spend our day exploring the capital, using two of the fabulous Rosewood hotel’s day suites as a base.
Opened in February 2018, this spectacular hotel is located in a skyscraper that towers over the city, with views that stretch for miles from the floor-to-ceiling windows. We check out the hotel’s superb bars and restaurants, including the highly recommended Iza Japanese eaterie, before relaxing in our sleek, wood-panelled rooms, where I contemplate all that we have experienced during our trip.
Prior to my Aqua Expeditions cruise, I had long grappled over the difficult choice facing travellers in southeast Asia - the choice between going “off-grid” and possibly roughing it to experience the culture head-on, or living in luxury at the risk of feeling “disconnected” from the life around you.
With Aqua Mekong, you don’t have to choose. It’s the exclusivity of staying at The Dorchester combined with the youthful buzz of backpacking; the thrill of cycling past rice paddies and kayaking through floating villages before returning to a freshly pressed shirt, a massage and a whiskey as the sun sets.
Staffed by locals, Aqua Mekong is the jewel in the Aqua Expeditions crown, a beautiful vessel offering world-class accommodation from which to explore the real Cambodia.
This isn't just a cruise, it’s an adventure.
Cox & Kings (0203 642 0861 www.coxandkings.co.uk) has an 8-day / 6-night trip to Cambodia, including a 4-night cruise on the Aqua Mekong, priced from £3,995 per person. This also includes return flights with Thai Airways, private transfers and a pre- and post- night stay at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh.