WRITER / PHOTOGRAPHER: Nick Walton
There can surely be no better way to cruise Cambodia and Vietnam than aboard the newly launched Aqua Mekong, a luxury boutique cruise ship that promises to take well-heeled adventurers far from the tourist traps.
It’s cocktail hour and in the dimly lit lounge, a bartender shakes up a storm as the last brushstrokes of day fade onto the horizon. Darkness comes quickly on Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake, as if a giant vacuum has sucked up all the light, leaving only an inky darkness that’s punctuated by the bumblebee sounds of fishermen’s longtail boats headed out for the night’s catch.
It’s a breathtaking transition, enjoyed from a unique perspective: the beautifully styled Aqua Mekong. This river cruiser is by far the most luxurious way to experience Tonlé Sap and the mighty Mekong River, two waterways that are vital to Indochina. Combining the chic décor and the personalised service of an inner city boutique hotel with the cultural immersion that comes with life on the water, Aqua Mekong is ushering in a new era in high-end tourism for one of Indochina’s least visited corners.
It’s the first night of our four-night itinerary as we cruise from Siem Reap, across the ocean-like lake towards Phnom Penh, from where the ship continues on the Mekong River into Vietnam. In the comfort of the ship’s intimate lounge, with its polished wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, and bespoke furniture, Cambodian and Vietnamese guides map out our itinerary east and south across the vast expanses of Tonlé Sap. Outside, the anchor is raised and we begin to cruise into the darkness.
Tonlé Sap Lake is perfect for expeditionary cruising. A vast, dumbbell-shaped body of water, it’s a crucial ecosystem, and home to over a million people whose lives and livelihoods ebb and flow with the lake’s waters. During the wet season, when floodwaters from the Himalayas expand Tonlé Sap to 12,000 square kilometres, making it one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes, its floating fishing communities move to the lake’s banks. During the dry season, when we visit, the lake shrinks to 2,500 square kilometres, its villages returning to deep water en masse, the flow of the Tonlé Sap River reversing in a unique hydrodynamic phenomenon that can be seen from the ship. Unfortunately, this is also an ecosystem under threat since it’s feared that a series of large-scale hydroelectric dams scheduled to open in Laos and northern Cambodia over the next decade will disrupt the finely tuned balance of the lake and the fisheries so fundamental to the people of Indochina.
So Aqua Mekong, the newest vessel of Aqua Expeditions, the expeditionary cruising company owned by Italian-American Francesco Galli Zugaro, couldn’t have launched at a better time. Zugaro’s passion for expeditionary cruising was forged during years working with a cruise line in the Galapagos Islands and Aqua Mekong joins his two South American ships, which ply the Peruvian Amazon. Many of my fellow guests, who number just 27, have cruised on the Aqua Aria or Aqua Amazon, and have eagerly awaited this new ship’s arrival on the Mekong.
She’s been worth the wait too. Designed by Saigon-based architect David Hodkinson and built in shipyards in Singapore, Aqua Mekong is the first five-star vessel on the Mekong, a river that’s increasingly sought after by intrepid travellers. Dressed in the natural tones of polished wood and locally sourced fabrics, the ship is spacious, airy, and modern without being flashy, and it’s staffed by a superb crew led by hospitality genius Kim Loan Le. The ship’s 20 cabins – eight of which feature private balconies – offer a surprising amount of space (30 square metres) and are minimalist yet welcoming, with plush twin daybeds wreathing French door-style windows, addictively comfortable king-size beds and walk-in rain showers. It’s also the little touches that go a long way, from the Nespresso coffee machine and built-in USB connectivity in addition to the complimentary WiFi and a triple-fold housekeeping service that makes coming back from excursions a dream. For the ultimate indulgence, interconnecting suites may be booked together to create private living rooms and multiple bedrooms.
Despite its expeditionary credentials, contemporary touches extend throughout the Aqua Mekong, from the bar on the top deck, with its collection of small-batch rums and inventive evening cocktails, to the plunge pool perched above the bow, to the intimate day spa. A crew ratio of 1:1 and a menu created by Michelin-starred chef David Thompson, who regularly joins the ship, ensure that this is no simple river meander. Early the next morning, we depart on the ship’s modern skiffs – the only ones of their kind on the lake, they are a signature of the Aqua experience and offer guests a chance to explore deep within this unique aquatic landscape.
Loaded with cameras and Aqua water thermoses – one of many green initiatives created by the company – we cruise the flooded forests of the almost 31,500-hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, regarded as the single most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for many threatened waterbird species. The Mercury engines of the skiffs run almost silently as we cruise through the flooded landscape in search of great egrets and Indian shags. Atop trees slowly dying from their guano, Oriental Darters parade before us, their outstretched wings drying in the sun, while squadrons of giant pelicans patrol above, their expansive wingspan allowing them to glide high above the flooded vista with ease. Under one large water-wreathed tree, we chat with three poachers-turned-rangers; the sanctuary is home to many endangered species, and hunters who once preyed on the migratory visitors now protect them, armed with rifles and radios, at 36 ranger stations.
We cruise on, keeping one eye on the treetops and another at their base in search of elusive Siamese crocodiles. The inclusive excursions, combined with the comforts of our contemporary ship, make Aqua Expeditions’ offering unique. In the tiny floating village of Kampong Khleang, children and adults alike glide through mirror-like waters on traditional long boats, leaving lingering wakes that wash against homes perched on pontoons. We use GPS and line of sight to navigate the flooded forests surrounding Moat Kla, where excited children rush to doorways and wave frantically as we, probably amongst the first foreigners they’ve seen, cruise by. In tiny Koh Oknha Tey, we visit a local school and take turns to donate stationary supplies and sing with the children, and among the palm plantations of Kampong Chhnang, we watch Angkorian pottery respun and sip palm nectar in the shade. We also meet third generation silversmiths and learn the art of Khmer silk. It’s that kind of cultural immersion, with creature comforts.
Of course, it’s no hardship returning each evening to cocktail hour in the lounge and David Thompson’s delectable cuisine in the ship’s intimate dining room. Famed for being awarded the first ever Michelin star for a restaurant serving Southeast Asian cuisine at Nahm in Bangkok, on Aqua Mekong, Thompson serves up delectable dishes as sharing platters, with daily changing menus laced with signature favourites, from river prawns with tamarind and palm sugar served on betel leaves, to sticky ribs, green papaya salad and fiery coconut laksa. Locally sourced ingredients, including Khmer Kampot black pepper, Mekong River catfish and prawns, and fruit from the markets of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, ensure brilliant flavour combinations and insightful cuisine throughout our cruise, even if a few passengers had their palates – and spice tolerance – tested.
Then, each evening, it’s back to the lounge or one of two outdoor decks, to watch fisherman lure their catch with green fluro bar lights that sway in the evening breeze, and to listen as silence cascades across the Great Lake once more.