Cruising Asia’s Exotic Rivers

From the verdant and lush Mekong River flowing through the deltas of Vietnam and Cambodia, to the timeless and broad expanses of the Irrawaddy River in captivating Burma and the nearly 4,000-mile-long Yangtze, the exotic allure of river cruising has captured, and in China’s case recaptured, the interest of North American travelers.

According to Jimmy Murphy, chairman of AMAWaterways, which began a cruise program on the Mekong River last year, river cruising in Vietnam and Cambodia has become a hot product. “I’ve been around a long, long time, but I’ve never seen a situation where we put out a brochure and it’s as if there were travel agents waiting for the brochure to arrive to call clients and say, ‘We can now give you Cambodia and Vietnam in comfort.’”

The company offers two programs to the region, including the 15-day Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong, during which clients spend two nights in Hanoi and overnight in Ha Long Bay, before going on to a 3-night stay in Siem Reap and a visit to Angkor Wat, followed by an 7-night Mekong River cruise ending in Ho Chi Minh City. Cruise and land rates run from $3,048. The second is a 7-night cruise-only program where clients start off in Ho Chi Minh City and cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia, stopping at villages and local markets along the way, visiting temples, arts and crafts workshops, museums and more. In Cambodia, they visit the Royal Palace & National Museum in Phnom Penh, as well as the infamous Killing Fields outside the city. There are also visits to Wat Hanchey and Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham, and a tour of a floating village and local market in Kampong Chhnang, before disembarking in Siem Reap. Cruise-only rates run from $1,499.

Murphy says, “The appeal of that area of the world to the American public at the moment is fantastic. But the great thing is—and I really think it’s wonderful—when you’re in Vietnam, there’s absolutely no animosity on the part of the local population to Americans.” And, he adds, “Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is very much a Westernized city with very good hotels, good infrastructure and great French restaurants.”

On the cruise itself, Murphy says, “The towns along the way, in many of them you are very glad when you’re in them sightseeing,” But at the same time, he points out, “…you’re very glad you’re going back to an air-conditioned ship with Western standards. The towns themselves, sometimes you get the feeling that they’ve got a lot to be desired, but they are great places of interest. You’re seeing these countries before they become fully modernized or Westernized.”

Burma, or Myanmar as it’s now known, is still another exotically unique destination for a river cruise, and according to Annette Kishon-Pines, director of sales, the Americas, Orient-Express, “I think what makes Burma so unique is that it’s one of the few places in the world that is still very, very unspoiled. It’s a country that was in self-imposed isolation for most of the 20th century. The borders were closed by the government and basically, no one came in or out so nothing really changed. Finally, about 15 years ago, they opened up the borders and started inviting foreign investors and tourists, obviously, to a country that stayed still in time. And that’s pretty much what it’s still like today. You go to Burma now and it’s like you’re stepping into a time warp.”

The Orient-Express river cruiser, the Road to Mandalay, was actually an old KD-run river cruiser Orient Express bought in Germany. “We completely gutted it and brought it through the Suez Canal to Burma,” Kishon-Pines explains, only to have to do it all over again after it was nearly destroyed in a cyclone. “It was really a bad time for us. We had just brought the ship down and put it into dry dock and that’s when we got hit.… We weren’t even sure if the boat could be rebuilt, but we were fortunate.… It took us over a year to rebuild her and we took that opportunity to make some improvements,” she says. “We reduced the capacity from a 106-passenger vessel to an 82-passenger vessel. We increased the size of the smaller cabins on the lower deck, so they’re much larger now. We made it much more contemporary, very beautiful light colors, very airy, very spacious. We also updated all the facilities—the bar, the lounge, the restaurant, the swimming pool on the top deck. We have a little fitness room and a beauty salon.”