An Aqua Expedition on The Mekong
by Lisa TE Sonne
“Breathe in deeply. Now breathe out slowly, and open your eyes.”
I lifted my lids and saw a shining palace with swooping curved eaves of gold on a riverbank. We had just ended a sunrise meditation and what I was seeing was not a left-over visualization, but a reality with the softening urban haziness. We were cruising on the Mekong River and were easing by the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, with its stretches of high-rises and historic scenes.
I was sitting on a bamboo mat on a polished wooden deck, at the back of what’s called a “floating boutique hotel” named the Aqua Mekong, probably the most luxurious tourist vessel on the river. At a table nearby, tea, coffee, fresh juice, and a vibrant bowl of tropical fruits waited including the dramatic Dragon Fruit and sumptuous papayas.
Only a few of the 20 passengers choose to start the day this way. Others may have been out on their verandah day beds, peeking at the morning through the floor-to-ceiling windows from their king-sized beds, taking a rain shower in their private bathrooms, wandering through the library, or still sleeping off a fun night. For all of us, memory-making awaited.
In the past few days, I had kayaked past Zebu (Brahmin cows) and taken a skiff to a floating market with fruits on the boat masts for advertising. I had been blessed by a Buddhist monk in a temple that was once a prison, and eaten a tarantula and scorpion at an exotic cocktail hour onboard. I saw how tilapia fish are farmed and how silk is made and woven. I also ate well and enjoyed diverse conversations with guides and passengers and locales.
Our mothership on the Mekong, which can translate as “Mother of the Waters,” carried us from Vietnam to the capital of Cambodia. The journey included jasmine scents in the hallways, about a 1-1 crew-to-passenger ratio with kindly, attentive staff, and amenities including a spa, library, well-stocked bar, movie room with reclining lounge chairs, and dipping pool.
We were ferried to changing shores in sun-protected skiffs to explore markets, monasteries, and museums, and to meander in villages by bike or foot – all with guides we knew from our boat. When we returned to the mothership, we were given cool, lemon-grass scented cloths, fresh juice from watermelon or other fruits, and we took off our shoes so the staff could wash them before the next outing. Our air-conditioned suites were cleaned three times a day, and overnight laundry was free.
This kind of nurturing, privileged travel mitigated the heat and humidity that characterizes that geography, as well as helped when visiting a part of the world whose past history is painfully blistered by war (the “American War,” aka the Vietnam War) and cruel regimes (the brutal Khmer Rouge that decimated an entire generation of educated people). Tourism and sharing smiles with locals sometimes seemed surreal in a present that is a mixture of resiliency – both struggle and success. Choices of what to do on shore in Phnom Penh included touring the gardens and jewels of the Royal Palace, roaming the National Museum with its great collection of Khmer Art from the magnificent temples built a 1,000 years earlier, or visiting and shooting a gun at an infamous “killing field,” where thousands had been shot by their own government.
Weather loves to remind travelers that true travel is not a controlled amusement park ride. If you want an inkling of understanding what it is like to live in the place you are visiting, changes in weather can be a gift. And if you are traveling the Aqua way, you can return to the boat and take a nice warm rain shower, or simply dry off after your short foray.
During our journey, thunderstorms waited until the outdoor “Unicorn Dance” performance finished before the sky cried. Another day, when we climbed up for sweeping views of lush rice fields and valleys we had time for about five photos before the raindrops pushed us inside, then rain deluged down while we watched inside as monks made jasmine leis.
The time we did get wet was while our skiff was speeding back to our floating sanctuary, and the water dropped like little fists, pummeling the skiff from raw clouds. The crew quickly handed out rugged raincoats with big hoods. That was when I remembered that the cruise company was called Aqua Expeditions (not Aqua VR or Aqua Ride) as it transported us, as comfortably as possible, through places more remote than many travelers think to go.
For the Mekong, Aqua Expeditions offers 3-, 4-, and 7-night trips. Some go upriver and others downriver. Some are in the “high season” when you can go further north on the fuller waterways and even venture into the famed Tonle Sap Lake, with more than a million floating homes and businesses. Many people opt to take extra days before or after the cruise to enjoy the natural beauties of Hanalay Bay in Vietnam or to explore Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the largest spiritual building on the planet. My cruise was upriver for four days during the transition from low season to high season.
Great food is one of the signatures of Aqua Expedition travel – whether it’s on the Mekong or on their Amazon cruises in South America. Soon they will also be offering their culinary and cruising best in Indonesia. The delicious food provides a bonding for the variety of passengers.
English was the common language for the nine nationalities among our small group of passengers, including between the young married couple- she was from France and he was from Singapore. Friendships were quickly formed. A single 75-year-old woman on board never sat alone, as she was adopted by others and she adopted them. A single woman approaching 30 got lively international advice on her love life and the “ex” back home. Others bonded in beer debates- local brews on the trip vs. local brews at home.
We had two birthdays on board and each was celebrated with personalized cakes and singing. It was clear this was a wonderful travel venue to go with a friend, a group of friends, a romantic partner, or even solo.
English was also the common language between the guides and crew who were Cambodian and Vietnamese. Having guides from the actual countries made the lectures and informal chats more compelling, as we learned about their countries’ people, places, and hopes in this fascinating period of history, as both Cambodia and Vietnam try to balance autonomy and allies, China and the Western world, cultural independence and economic interdependence.
Looking back, I loved the color and cacophony of the markets – people living their lives selling incredible fruits, live reptiles, and all kinds of seafood, but never begging or asking for anything from us.
I also recall a quieter time when I went out on my balcony, wet from a refreshing rain shower in my private bathroom, laid down on the wide lounge chair, and looked through the glass wall as little islands of lotus plants floated in the river current. I closed my eyes and felt the warm breezes and listened to the gentle, mesmerizing lapping of the Mekong River against our boutique boat.
I felt like I was moving through history – and a dream – at the same time.