Its troubled history and extraordinary beauty makes Cambodia one of the most compelling destinations you can visit by ship discovers James Litston on an Emerald Waterways Mekong river cruise
A 4am start to the day is rarely an appealing prospect – but we’re promised that it’s going to be very much worth it. Our guide, Samnang, leads us over a floating pontoon in the inky darkness, then encourages us up a flight of stairs to sit in a line along a stone wall. Before long, the sky begins to turn rosy, gradually revealing a series of towers beside lily-filled pools as the new day brightens behind the stone temples of Angkor Wat. For a world famous, UNESCO-listed attraction, this is quite the introduction.
The temple complex that spent centuries lost to the forest is part of the much larger, but equally ruined, city of Angkor Thom, which in its 12th-century heyday was more than twice the size of contemporary Paris. Angkor Thom was the capital of an empire that, at its height, encompassed much of what is now Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Its wooden structures were consumed by the jungle when the complex was abandoned, but the magnificent, stone-built temples – including Angkor Wat – survived. Now, standing proud of the vegetation that shrouded them for centuries, these temples are Cambodia’s most compelling attraction.
Our Emerald Waterways Mekong river cruise has been expertly arranged as part of a well-paced, pre-cruise touring itinerary. The previous day, Samnang had led us around some of Angkor Thom’s other temples, pointing out their elaborate, 800-year-old details. At Bayon, we crossed a causeway guarded by gods and demons with startling expressions, all the while under the gaze of faces carved into the temple’s towers. We admired its sandstone walls and columns etched with incredible artistry, the friezes depicting daily life, wild animals, lotus flowers and battle scenes. More impressive still was Ta Prohm, whose doorways are choked by the twisting roots of banyan trees: a scene familiar from the Hollywood movie, Tomb Raider.
These highlights of Cambodia’s northern town of Siem Reap present the perfect introduction to a river cruise down the mighty Mekong. Our base here for the three-night stay is Shinta Mani Angkor, a boutique hotel with an excellent spa and a lovely, black-tiled swimming pool. As well as providing a chic retreat for the group to recover from jetlag, the hotel is also well situated for discovering Siem Reap’s street food and other attractions such as the vast Tonlé Sap Lake and the acrobatics of Phare: The Cambodian Circus.
Although Angkor Wat is the indisputable high point, the crowds make it feel very much on the tourist trail. It’s therefore something of a relief to board Emerald Harmony next day. We find the ship moored on the Tonlé Sap River, some four hours by coach from Siem Riep.
With capacity for just 84 guests and a complement of 40 staff, the environment feels blissfully crowd-free. Staff members eagerly help less mobile passengers to board via steps carved into the riverbank. Then, once on board, we settle in to explore our home for the next seven days.
Launched in August 2019, Emerald Harmony is the brand’s first self-built Star-Ship outside Europe and sails the Mekong year-round. I immediately love my bright, airy cabin all decked out in silver-grey fabrics that echo the colour of sunlit water outside through full-height picture windows. Also, I like the bathroom’s walk-in rain shower and refillable amenities – all part of the Emerald Waterways’ effort to rid its ships of single-use plastic.
The same level of chic design extends to the Horizon Lounge. Dressed in dark wood and leather, the space is lifted by floral-motif cushions and jade-green silk rugs. Beyond a full bar, there’s a tea and coffee station featuring an array of teas and infusions with local flavour, from lemongrass and turmeric to kaffir lime and hibiscus. Local flavours also dominate in Reflections Restaurant, where bountiful buffets and à la carte suppers are served by staff who seem endlessly eager to please.
We set off past a panorama of pagodas, stilt houses and floating villages, arriving next morning at Oudong to visit its elegant temples. The journey there past rice paddies and watery fields thick with bright pink lotus blooms is all the more memorable for travelling in wooden carts drawn by hump-backed oxen.
The experience provides a glimpse into everyday life in Cambodia’s countryside and, like most shore excursions, is complimentary under EmeraldPLUS.
From Oudong, we follow the flow to Phnom Penh, where the Tonlé Sap River joins the Mekong. An overnight stay gives time to enjoy a tuk-tuk tour of the city (again included with EmeraldPLUS), before bedding down and steeling ourselves for a rather more challenging experience.
The next day is gorgeously sunny and bright, as we head into the countryside to Choeung Ek, where we gather in the shade of a leafy garden. Snatches of birdsong erupt from the trees and a dove gently coos. In this peaceful moment, it’s all the more difficult to get our heads around the horrors that took place in this very spot nearly 45 years ago.
Choeung Ek is the biggest of Cambodia’s notorious Killing Fields. During the nearly four years that the country was ruled by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, more than a million civil servants, teachers, doctors, artists – anyone who might oppose the regime’s ideology – were massacred at sites such as this, their bodies dumped in mass graves. Around 16,000 people are thought to have died here at Choeung Ek. Learning about this history does not make for easy listening, but it’s an essential part of a visit to Cambodia.
Like most Cambodians, Smiley (our guide for this part of the trip) was personally affected by the genocide. He lost both his father and brother, while three of his cousins didn’t return from Khmer Rouge labour camps.
Smiley tells us the story as we stand on a boardwalk beside an area that’s pockmarked with depressions, each one a burial site. Fragments of clothing poke up through the soil, evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities. More visceral still is the mausoleum: a tall, stately structure packed with hundreds of human skulls neatly stacked in glass-fronted cases. Being here, contemplating the Khmer Rouge’s legacy, is a profoundly sobering experience.
Leaving Phnom Penh and crossing into Vietnam, I take an optional DiscoverMORE tour to the Tam Nong bird sanctuary. We leave early to catch the gentle light and more chances of avian activity, motoring up a canal in a traditional Vietnamese sampan. Along the way, we watch local people tending waterside crops or washing dishes, clothes and themselves in the river, its turbid water tinged with the silt that brings life and fertility to the Mekong Delta.
At Tam Nông, we spot drongos, jacanas and other birds that I’d never heard of, alongside more familiar herons and storks. Somewhere out there are Sarus cranes – the tallest flying birds in the world – but we’re just as happy observing kingfishers hunting for their breakfast, or the lotus blooms and water lilies in shades of shocking pink.
One of the most successful elements of this journey down the river is the balance struck by the well-planned itinerary. As well experiencing temples and wildlife, there’s an onboard cultural programme that sees performances from dance troupes for a burst of local colour. For further immersion, we stop into bustling towns such as Sa Ðéc, where we visit a market and pause to try street food at busy roadside stalls. Best of all, though, are the sleepy stilt-house villages surrounded by plots of banana and chilli. Here, we’re treated to a fascinating snapshot into an everyday way of life that could not be more different from our own.
In one village, we meet a man making earthenware flowerpots to sell in Ho Chi Minh City. We sip coconut water straight from the shell and feast on platters of tropical fruits grown here in the surrounding orchards. The mangoes, guavas, custard apples and durians (the latter a much-prized delicacy that tastes far better than it smells) are fresh and full of flavour – and the direct-to-consumer prices that the villagers receive are much higher than what they normally make from selling via wholesalers.
The result is an experience that’s rewarding for everyone – and one of the many highlights of an epic voyage down this greatest of southeast Asian rivers.
Emerald Waterways offers three river-cruise and land-touring itineraries through Vietnam and Cambodia, ranging from 15 to 23 days. A 15-day Majestic Mekong itinerary costs from £2,895pp, including flights, transfers, excursions, most meals (full board on the cruise) and quality hotel accommodation).