It’s anchors away as writer Joanna Mayhew traverses the country’s waterways in style. Photography by Joanna Mayhew and Conor Wall.
The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap had all the elements you would expect of transport in Cambodia, and each one was equally unwelcome – clouds of dust, hazardous construction detours, unexplained delays, cramped quarters and frequent stops to load and unload chickens and bulky bags of rice. But the seemingly endless bumpy road provided a stark contrast to my return trip via the Tonle Sap River, aboard the luxurious Toum Tiou II.
Evoking images of elegant charters from years gone by, the three-day cruise winds down modest waterways, past mangroves and remote villages until meeting the mighty Mekong. Though arguably not the most efficient mode of transport, the boat offers a new perspective on the country, as if viewing it from its seams outwards.
Cruises have long been a player in global tourism, and river trips are now the fastest-growing element within the cruising industry. In Asia, popular cruising rivers include India’s Ganges, China’s Yangtze and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy.
“This region of the world is just opening its rivers up to cruising,” says Kourosh Aghassi, cruise director for Toum Tiou II’s parent company, CF Mekong River Cruises. “Within the cruising niche, this part of the world is the last un-cruised. The Mekong is the last great undiscovered river.”
“Cruisers,” as passengers are referred to, typically hop from one cruise to the next, crossing destinations off their list by the rivers on which they travel. As Cambodia offers two largely unfrequented rivers, the Mekong and Tonle Sap, it appeals to many who have already cruised the world’s other major rivers. “If you want to break away from the tourist trail, this is probably the most civilized way of doing that,” says Aghassi.
The Kingdom’s cruising market has grown in recent years, but the numbers are minute compared to others. Around five companies currently operate on the country’s rivers, with approximately 15 ships and 30,000 cruisers per year. By contrast, the Nile hosts 250 to 300 ships with several hundred thousand cruisers yearly, according to CF Mekong.
This means that, for now, Cambodia’s cruises remain intimate. CF Mekong’s small and shallow-hulled ships, or “discovery vessels,” allow for entry into the narrowest estuaries and access to major docks almost year-round. Launched in 2002 and the first company to operate the country’s rivers, CF Mekong focuses on ensuring cruisers experience communities as part of the voyages. The company pitches “affordable luxury” and is less costly than others, but prices are still high-end.
As my cruise from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh fell in the driest month of the year, it started with a three-hour speedboat ride across the expansive Tonle Sap Lake to the docked boat. The 14-cabin, 38-metre-long ship was only half full, with 15 passengers hailing from Switzerland, Australia, France, the United States and Germany.
Named after a traditional Khmer love story, the Toum Tiou II is all romance and charm. Panelled in wood throughout its three stories, the boat boasts thoughtfully designed cabins with large lookout windows, ample storage space and rainfall showerheads. The ship’s sundeck, enclosed dining room and hallways are tastefully accented with small tangerine trees and traditional handicrafts.
The journey was an experience of simultaneous immersion and escapism. Daily excursions to witness staples of Cambodian life – markets, temples and subsistence farming – brought intriguing and sobering insights to the country. Yet with each return to the ship, we were quickly enveloped by the refined elegance of the immaculate surroundings, with cold coconut cocktails, scented towels and a reminder that the next four-course meal would be served shortly. The oasis of the boat and the contrast to its surroundings would be disconcerting if they were not so tastefully done.
The most rewarding stop was the unassuming town of Kampong Chhnang, 56 miles upstream from Phnom Penh, edged by long stretches of floating villages that give the impression of it having chaotically spilled over its steep banks. Rows of blue, green and yellow houses jut into the dark water, with a collection of TV antennas pointing skywards. Cham and ethnic Vietnamese communities trawled for, sorted and sold fish as the roar of diesel engines echoed between the banks.
Once on land we visited a guru of all things palm, known affectionately as Mr Ri, at his home. The infectiously jolly 62-year-old harvested palm fruit in a burst of showmanship, racing up a shoddy ladder and precariously parading between trees on a single bamboo beam. His calloused hands attested to many years of producing the charcoal-hinted palm juice, fudge-like palm caramel and 49-percent-strong palm wine.
Nearby, a hands-on lesson was provided on making traditional chhnang pots, produced from the area’s signature rust-coloured clay. A 61-year-old potter used water to manually carve clay, walking in circles to create the ornate pot – which sells for 500 riel – in seven minutes. Under her careful tutelage, we also milled rice to be cooked on board as an accompaniment to a dinner of fish amok, beef soup and papaya salad.
Downriver at Kampong Tralach the outings became increasingly touristy with visits to a local school and ox cart rides through town, but the aged and impressive Reamker murals at Wat Kampong Tralach Leu were undoubtedly worth seeing. Though such visits are optional, they are part of a schedule marked by the frequent clanging of the ship’s gong, signalling wakeups, meals and excursions.
But while on board, periods of cruising proved, appropriately, the most enjoyable part of the trip. The shoreline is close enough to observe life on both sides while nestled in the cosy upstairs lounge or perched at the bow. Sounds of children playing in the water, exotic birds and Khmer wedding music hovered over our passing boat, and the river’s receded water exposed long bare stilts of elevated homes.
On day three, we passed under highway bridges and cut through a crop of small fishing boats to approach Phnom Penh. The city gradually filled the shore, and I found myself hesitant to return to land-bound life. From the peaceful sundeck, I took the final sips of my drink and indulged in one more complimentary ginger cookie. The crew secured the ropes and offered me a hand back to shore. I took one final glance at the Toum Tiou II, and reassured myself that there were plenty more rivers to cruise.
CF Mekong River Cruises offers trips weekly and fortnightly from July to April, with six- and eight-day cruises between Siem Reap and Saigon provided alongside shorter trips. For more information, see www.cfmekong.com