River Cruise on the Mekong

Everything you need to know about Meking river cruises

There was something almost akin to royalty about Pandaw’s wooden vessel, with undeniably strong Titanic vibes — minus the catastrophic finale, of course — and an air of old-world class and finesse. I would soon find myself completely immersed in the rich ambiance and understated luxury of the specially-designed Tonle ship, my not-so-humble abode for seven nights as I discovered the sights along a Mekong river cruise.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan your very own adventure on the mighty Mekong.

An object of beauty

Visually striking with its elegant wooden decks and vintage charm, the Tonle ship has been on continuous service on the Mekong since 2003. She was entirely refurbished in 2013 to create space for a library/movie theatre as well as a spa on the lower deck. The main level is where the formal dining room, used for all three meals and the occasional cooking class, is located. It should be said that every single on-board meal was a delight, from the Vietnamese noodle bar to the hearty Cambodian curries and the unmistakably European cheese spread at lunchtime.

The pièce de résistance, however, indisputably is the massive teak and brass sundeck. Stretching from one end of the ship to the other, with its 1920s flair, elegant furniture, and most importantly for some, a WiFi connection, this 360-degree promenade is where most guests spent their free time. One can hardly blame them, though, for the idea of sipping a fruity cocktail while relaxing on a luxurious lounge chair, basking in the sun, enjoying the unobstructed views of Cambodian countryside is an opportunity one can hardly decline.

In terms of accommodation, the Tonle ship has just 28 170-square feet staterooms (18 on the upper deck, 10 on the main deck); despite its relative compact size compared to ocean liners, Pandaw offers the highest passenger-to-deck-space ratio of any cruise ships afloat. Each stateroom features panoramic French windows, ample storage, a stone shower and an AC unit — not an extravagance in these tropical parts, where nighttime temperatures skirt around the mid-20s even in February.

How to plan a cruise on the Mekong

From the mystique of Angkor temples to the mayhem that is Ho Chi Minh City — where a mundane thing like crossing the street is a matter of life and death — the range and variety of excursions aboard this Pandaw cruise was simply mindboggling.

Pandaw’s guides took guests to lively floating markets, which I personally left empty-handed as I didn’t think neither my stomach nor my immune system would have been keen to forgive an affront of the sort, to the Cu Chi tunnels and the tragically aptly-named Killing Fields, as well as to hectic Phnom Penh and just about everywhere worthwhile in between. Over the course of eight days, I rode a tuk-tuk, a wooden barge and even a rickshaw in landscapes that left me speechless and met kind-hearted people whose smile I shall remember forever.

The contrast upon crossing into Vietnam from Cambodia was quite striking. After a seamless maritime border passage — there are very few things dollars can’t fix in these parts anyway — the bucolic scenes of the Cambodian countryside were far behind us, both figuratively and literally, as we entered the chaotic Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Cable ferries, fishing barges, dredging boats and private vessels crisscrossed dangerously just a few feet below, unfazed by the Tonle’s ear-splitting horns — it seemed as though everyone was too busy disputing its portion of Mekong to care.

With the help of knowledgeable guides and comprehensively prepared tours, myself and other guests were able to further acquaint ourselves with the multitude of layers of both Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s history and culture.

Life on board

While cruises are generally notorious for their almost overwhelmingly extravagant programme, this simply isn’t Pandaw’s style. Smaller ships call for more intimate activities — absolutely no casino or overstated productions here — and a slower pace where guests are free to interact however little or however much they like.

And, again, unlike most cruises, mornings didn’t start with an invasive speaker announcement and throngs of famished cruisers but rather with the chirping of local birds and the laughs of children playing in the river; just one of the many benefits of being on a ship small enough to access remote areas of the Mekong River.

A typical day on board the Pandaw Tonle commenced with either a leisurely breakfast or a coffee on the sundeck and was followed by a shore expedition, for which a bottle of water and a wireless headset were kindly provided. Guests were welcomed back on board with a freshly pressed juice and cold towels, just in time for lunch, during which the captain raised anchor to cruise towards the next destination. Afternoons were a mixed bag of hardships, really, between spa treatments, sunbathing sessions, lectures on local culture by the knowledgeable guide and perhaps even another shore expedition. At half past six, guests were kindly requested to head to the sundeck for sunset — not without the promise of a happy hour cocktail — and for a succinct briefing about the following day’s itinerary, where the cruise director was available to answer questions as well as to arrange special requests. Dinner came next. The remainder of the evening could either spent watching a movie in the theatre downstairs or indulging in a digestif on the sundeck.

Luxury dwells in the smallest, most devilish of details and while the ship was quite memorable in its own right, it was the proactive crew that made an instrumental difference. Stewards were constantly eager to help and hurriedly fulfilled each and every guest’s needs without having to be asked twice.

Not many ships can boast having amenities and ambiance so enticing that guests would actually question whether they wanted to leave the boat at all, even for a brief shore expedition. It’s no wonder repeat customers made up 45% of occupants on this cruise.

What you need to know about Mekong river cruises

  • Pandaw offers à la carte services and handcrafted luxury on some of Asia’s most legendary waters; as such, these are not party or entertainment cruises but intimate experiences centered around conviviality and cultural richness.
  • Cruises include accommodation, excursions, occasional activities and three meals per day. Imported soft drinks and alcohol packages can be purchased on board.
  • Rates start at $2400 for a seven-night cruise on the Mekong from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City.
  • A note on safety and security: the heat and humidity of South-East Asia can be a struggle for some and should not be under-estimated. Additionally, the terrain around temples and docks is not always levelled and can cause problems for visitors with limited mobility.

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