Mekong River cruises are booming, particularly in Cambodia and Vietnam.
In 2020, at least 10 river boats — some quite luxurious — will cruise the lush and navigable lower Mekong. Most resemble the river boats of Europe, staffed with chefs who prepare authentic regional fare and local guides who share cultural histories as well as personal stories.
Cruising the Mekong — one of Asia's longest rivers — is a safe, convenient and pampered way to explore the region.
"I loved the idea of a Mekong River cruise because having no familiarity with Southeast Asia, I found it less intimidating to be on a cruise," says traveler, Julia Steinmetz, who cruised with Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours in late 2018.
River cruises typically offer one or two daily excursions, such as village walks, temple and monastery visits, and workshops to see how traditional trades are plied. Transport is often by local sampan or tuk-tuks, affording a close-up peek into rural life along the Mekong's tributaries.
"Our guests' best souvenirs come from interacting with the local communities — for example, enjoying an ox cart tour and visiting local silk-making facilities or bustling fish and insect markets," says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways river cruises.
A day is typically spent docked at Cambodia's bustling capital city of Phnom Penh to see the gilded royal palace, vestiges of French colonial architecture and the city's sprawling markets. Others focus on Phnom Penh's dark history during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, paying a visit to the haunting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.
One company stands apart with its traditional-style boats that pioneered river cruising in Southeast Asia.
For some 25 years, Pandaw has offered in-depth, exploratory adventures on beautifully rustic open-deck boats built to resemble the Irrawaddy flotilla paddle steamers that cruised the river more than a century ago.
Scotsman and Burma scholar Paul Strachan launched a river boat on Burma's Irrawaddy River in 1995, and so Pandaw was born.
In 2003, he began offering cruises on the lower Mekong, and in 2015 to Vietnam's Red River and the upper Mekong in Laos and China.
Pandaw's fleet of 17 nearly identical two-and three-deck boats carry from 10 to 60 passengers and are made of teak and hardwoods with brass detailing. The expansive and breezy outdoor space invites passengers to soak up life on the river.
Two boats do seven-night cruises on the lower Mekong — the 48-passenger Mekong Pandaw and the 56-passenger Tonle Pandaw — starting at $2,596.50 per person, which includes all meals and excursions. Both carry bicycles and offer massage services.
For a shorter option, the 60-passenger Indochina Pandaw offers three-night cruises between Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh, starting at $1,125 per person.
If your idea of adventure is returning from a fascinating but sweaty day of touring to a posh cocoon for a massage and soak in the pool, while a waiter trots over your favorite libation (included in the fare), then consider the all-suite 68-passenger Scenic Spirit.
Debuting in 2016, the elegant river boat has a five-star-hotel vibe and emphasizes dining, with elaborate lunch buffets, multi-course dinners and a generous choice of wines. The boat also boasts a gym, plus a roomy spa with sauna and steam room.
A 10-night cruise starts at $4,695 per person and includes three nights in a luxury Siem Reap hotel, meals, open bar, butler, multiple daily excursions and special entertainment, such as an Apsara dance performance against the backdrop of a 12th-century Angkor Wat temple.
Meanwhile, Scenic's more moderately-priced and less-inclusive sister line, Emerald Waterways, has the brand new 84-passenger Emerald Harmony, with seven-night cruises starting at $2,195 per person, including all meals, one daily excursion and wine and beer at lunch and dinner.
Another company, AmaWaterways, offers the 124-passenger AmaDara. Built in 2015, the boat is styled with French colonial-style interiors, glossy teak paneling and carved wood furniture. As it is on the Scenic Spirit, dining is a highlight; likewise there's a pool, small gym and spa.
Excursions are immersive, from a blessing at a Buddhist ceremony in an ornate temple to sightseeing tours that include rides in sampan boats, trishaws, tuk-tuks and even ox carts.
Seven-night AmaDara cruises start at $1,399 per person, and include daily excursions, meals and beverages including wine with lunch and dinner.
Controversies exist on the Mekong that aren't on most tourists' radars.
China's push to build dams for hydropower and sand exportation to other nations impact water flow, fishing, agriculture and communities. Meanwhile, climate change is blamed for erratic rainfall and unpredictable river levels, and pollution is a growing concern.
In an effort to help the latter, river cruises such as Pandaw and Scenic have replaced plastic water bottles with glass bottles in rooms and refillable bottles for excursions.
Mekong River cruises operate for the most part of the year (except for May, June and sometimes July) with daily highs in the 80s or 90s degrees Fahrenheit. It's hot and dry from March to May; rainiest from July to October; and slightly cooler from November to February, with the latter considered to be the best time to cruise.
Most cruise lines offer hotel stays before or after the cruise — to explore Cambodia's spectacular 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap and to visit Vietnam War sights in Ho Chi Minh City.
As river levels can fluctuate quite dramatically, be prepared to go with the flow and be flexible with itineraries. Also, a degree of physical mobility is required, as "docking" often means tying the boat to a tree or post, requiring passengers to cross narrow walkways and muddy riverbanks to reach the land.
— The author Heidi Sarna has taken more than 100 cruises and specializes in small-ship cruising. She is the co-founder of QuirkyCruise.com.