If you've made the commitment to head to a faraway land, you might enjoy traveling with a little comfort and style.
How about peace of mind knowing that every little detail will be covered? Our cruise with Avalon Waterways on the Mekong River proved to be an ideal choice for several reasons.
Cambodia and Vietnam certainly are a long way from our home on the East Coast, and we wanted to make the trip a memorable one. I love traveling with my wife, Colleen, and her brother, Ryan, and his wife, Kelly, and we had been planning this voyage for well over a year. Colleen and I have been on many river cruises, but Ryan and Kelly would be taking their first.
This was new territory all around -- the group's first trip to Southeast Asia.
Ryan and Kelly put a lot of trust in us. We sold them on the idea, assuring them they would like it, even though at 30 and 31 years old, they were the youngest on the ship (two to three decades younger than most other people on our trip).
Venturing to exotic places is thrilling, and experiencing different cultures is a prime reason we love to travel. But the logistics can be daunting.
That's where a company like Avalon Waterways comes to the rescue. We expected the trip to Cambodia and Vietnam to be filled with a lot of off-the-beaten path cultural immersion because we have sailed with them before in Myanmar.
Check out my stories on our experiences on the Irrawaddy River with Avalon Waterways:
Postcards from Burma: a Five-Part Series on History, Culture and Incredible Experiences
Avalon Waterways also treats us to a bit of comfort during the journey, which is what a vacation is all about. During our 13-day program, we had a diverse mix of excursions during which we went out to enjoy nature or learn about the people, communities, politics, agriculture, music, dance or simply observe a bit of the daily life of the residents in this part of the world.
Then, back onboard the ship, Avalon Siem Reap, fellow passengers and tour guides relived what they had experienced that day over cocktails, wine, beers and exquisite regional cuisine served by the ship's chef and crew.
Avalon Siem Reap sails with a maximum of 36 passengers in an elegantly decorated ship, with huge suites that feature balcony-window-facing beds. This means you have views of the river and surrounding scenery as you wake up or go to sleep, or anytime you're relaxing in your comfortable bed.
The space-to-passenger ratio is exceptional. I never have enjoyed more headroom on a ship, and the bathrooms and showers are huge. (You can easily fit two people inside the large glass-enclosed shower stalls.)
The decor is also indicative of the region, with Asian-themed art, wall hangings, statuary and dark teak floors.
The ship has two passenger decks; there is no "up-top" sun deck. This ship is specially designed to get under the low bridges along the Mekong. Avalon Waterways chose to offer more space inside the ship because it had noticed that passengers on ships with sun decks rarely used the space or always wanted to have canopies up for shade because the sun is so intense during most of the year in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Avalon Siem Reap, instead, features a fantastic outdoor relaxing and viewing area on at the bow on Deck 2 just in front of the Panorama Lounge.
Avalon Siem Reap has a small room for massages. The prices are fantastic, too. A full-body treatment for one hour is just $40. A small gym on Deck 1 is outfitted with a treadmill, exercise bike and a few light weights. You can also find yoga mats and exercise bands here. We had a small group that would snag a few yoga mats and head out to the Deck 2 bow for morning workout in the fresh air while watching the sun rise.
The Panorama Lounge is the hub of activity for passengers who become fast friends. Wi-Fi is included in your fare but can be spotty when everybody is onboard trying to access it at the same time. But we saw people have luck making video calls back home, and we were able to get online to check emails and upload a few pictures of our trip to social media daily.
Passengers gather in the lounge to play games, read and take in the river sights while enjoying the included beers and local cocktails all day long.
This is also where movies ("Good Morning Vietnam") and other presentations from our guides take place. A daily briefing before dinner outlines the next day's port activities. Our tour guide while we were in Cambodia was an amazingly personable, funny and knowledgeable man named Sokun.
Sokun gave us a fun demonstration of the dozens of ways to use a traditional Cambodian scarf.
We were treated to wonderful performances by dancers from an orphanage when in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, and a crew farewell show when in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Every single cruiser was up and dancing and flashing broad smiles while mingling with the energetic crew that had taken such good care of us during our voyage.
It really was starting to feel like home and had gone by too fast before it was time to leave the ship.
The Top Five Temples to Visit in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Six Things to Know Before You Go on Your Trip to Vietnam
Before reaching Avalon Siem Reap, though, we started our journey in the historic Cambodian city of Siem Reap. Our accommodations -- the Park Hyatt Siem Reap -- provided us amazing comfort. We wanted for nothing.
Park Hyatt Siem Reap features a large fitness center, stunning pool and a fine breakfast buffet. The hotel is located in the heart of Siem Reap, and we found it easy to walk into town to enjoy a range of Cambodian cuisine at the restaurants. There also are tons of shopping opportunities nearby, and Colleen and Kelly took advantage of one of the dozens of massage parlors that feature rock-bottom prices. (They got foot treatments for $4 for 30 minutes each.)
The U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere in Siem Reap.
After seven days sailing through Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and along the Mekong River on Avalon Siem Reap, we arrived to Ho Chi Minh City, the capital of Vietnam. The luxurious Intercontinental Hotel was our home base for two more days of exploring in this historic destination.
The service here is the best we've ever had. At the large gym and rooftop pool area, we were constantly waited on. Towel service, cold water bottles and even help racking our weights in the gym. I'm not used to that level of attention, but I appreciated the enthusiastic staff members and their friendly smiles each time I ventured up to enjoy these amenities.
The breakfast buffet is a highlight at the Intercontinental Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. You could sit for hours trying to get a taste of all the traditional Vietnamese foods that are served alongside Western favorites. There are omelets, fresh fruits, pastries, juices, breads, muesli, oatmeal, nuts, seeds, granola, meats, pho, noodles and buns. It goes on and on. Kelly said she couldn't stop thinking about the buffet and looked forward to it each morning.
For two days, we enjoyed Avalon Waterways' planned excursions to a variety of temples, all led by Sokun and our Avalon Cruise Director, Ho Huu Phiem. We were incredibly excited to get to see Ankgor Wat, of course, and the historic site, which is the largest temple complex in the world is impressive. Indeed.
But there were equally interesting if not as large destinations that we enjoyed exploring. The temple sites of Ta Prohm and Bayon Temple at Ankgor Thom are not to be missed on your trip to Siem Reap.
Avalon made sure we got to try all kinds of transportation, too, in both Cambodia and Vietnam.
We rode in cyclos and on ox carts, tuk tuks and motor carts. In the river, we slipped into flat-bottomed sampans and were ferried to villages in long wooden vessels with canopies.
I found it peaceful to spend time on the muddy brown flowing waters of the Mekong. Going from destination to destination each day, we navigated canals lined by bending palm trees. We felt the embrace of the lush green junglescape and walked on brown roads and paths to venture to remote spots where people scrape out livelihood.
While technically poor, the people in both Cambodia or Vietnam never give off the sense of being desperate or destitute. They focus on family, and the members live in modest but neatly kept homes on stilts.
Our interactions included a community that produces coconut candy. We also met a family of scarf weavers (our group must have bought more than 50 scarves that day; thankfully nobody came to blows during the frenzied buying of the colorful hand-made items).
We made a visit to a village that specializing in crafting the traditional sampan boats, meeting artisans who can make up to two per day by cutting the wood and bending and shaping the pieces using an open flame.
My favorite day was in Cambodia. We climbed to the hillside temple village of Wat Hanchey, which dates to the seventh century, and participated in a traditional water blessing ceremony with two monks at a gorgeous temple. In the afternoon, we visited the farming village of Ankgor Ban and were invited into a family home to look around before going to a school house to sit with a classroom full of the most energetic and amazing youngsters (ages 7 to 12). Each person in our Avalon Waterways group sat with two kids and helped them read stories in English to assist them with the proper pronunciation of the words and phrases. It is a delightful experience to hear all the little voices excitedly reciting sentences and to see children who are so ambitious and passionate about learning.
Overall, the cruise is packed with memorable experiences such as these. We toured the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, which is a day of important reflection and eye-opening discovery about the brutal Pol Pot regime.
It's impossible to tour Vietnam and Cambodia without trying to learn more about the wars and conflicts that plagued the regions for more than a century. In Ho Chi Minh City, travelers will visit the War Museum to see Vietnam's interpretation of the "American War," and you also will go to the Cu Chi Tunnels site, which played an important part in the Viet Cong war strategy. Visitors can crawl through the tiny tunnel complex in the jungle. It is fascinating.
We also had several opportunities to visit markets and try the local foods. And Avalon Waterways also organized a couple of group dinners -- one in Cambodia and a farewell dinner in Vietnam -- where we could enjoy regional cuisine and see traditional music and dance performances.
In Ho Chi Minh City, we took an interactive cooking class and learned how to whip up some traditional favorites, which then became our delicious lunch. In one village, we knocked back a couple shots of snake wine, which tastes fine but looks intimidating with a giant cobra (scorpions, too) soaking in a big bottle of the booze. It ferments for a few years before it's ready to drink, and man, is it ever strong.
On the ship, the food focused on local fare, too. We had jackfruit, mangos, fish amok, noodles, rice, pho and other seafood and beef preparations that highlighted the tastes of Vietnam and Cambodia.
American options were always available on the dinner menu, too. So, you can take a break from the Asian food or add familiar flavor to your meal, such as pasta with red sauce or chicken, if you want.
Overall, the food on the ship provides plenty of options, and the buffet style for breakfast and lunch means you can get the exact right amount to satisfy your cravings and appetite.
The bar service is always open, and sodas, coffee, tea, water and local beer and spirits, are complimentary. Cruisers pay for wines and premium spirits, but complimentary wines are offered during onboard lunches and dinners.
If it's your first trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, I think a cruise like this with Avalon Waterways is the way to go. You get to see so much and have the expert guides on hand who can talk about the history and navigate the logistics of the trip with a certain mastery that allows you to just enjoy the whole experience. Now that I've done this and have a good sense of the area, I do feel comfortable coming back to certain spots to try on our own (as a land trip, for example, in Siem Reap).
To maximize your enjoyment on a Mekong River cruise with Avalon Waterways:
- Pack sunscreen and bug spray. It's hot, and you will be out in the jungle with biting insects.
- Don't overpack on clothes. Focus on comfort and loose-fitting items for the hot and humid conditions. Onboard, attire is casual. The ship is climate-controlled, so you will be comfortable.
- Bring small bills, a lot of $5 and $1 denominations, for your purchases. Most places we went accepted U.S. dollars or euros but might give you back change in the local currency. We didn't get any Vietnamese dong or Cambodian riels during our two weeks there and were fine.
- Learn a couple phrases in Khmer (Cambodia) and Vietnamese. The residents will love hearing you say hello -- "chomreabsuor" in Cambodia and "xin chao" in Vietnam.
- Take an afternoon nap and enjoy the sights and sounds of the river from your window-facing bed. You're going to be doing a lot each day, rising early and wandering in the heat and humidity. Take advantage of your comfy beds to relax, take a load off and enjoy a quick snooze to rejuvenate for the evening activities when your schedule allows.
- Get a massage treatment. This also will help keep you fresh.
- Drink plenty of water. Carry it with you in a day pack and ask for more if you run out. Avalon Waterways will provide plenty of water on your cruise, and your guides will always be reminding you to replenish.
- Have an open mind and get outside your comfort zone. You're going halfway around the world, so it's likely that you are adventurous. Go for it. Try new foods, Dance, sing and interact with the people you meet. You will have so much fun.
Thanks for reading, and happy travels!