It’s intoxicating and foreign. The idea of old-world Indochina; a perfect blend of oriental mystique and French romance. Except that myth is no longer, rather lies the reality of a region that has made peace with its past and is charting a promising future. There is ample beauty everywhere – in the magnificent backdrops, the architecture of the temples, centuries-old traditions, lively cities and markets, and its genteel folk. This is the depth and knowledge that our luxury Aqua Mekong itineraries offer, ensuring our guests are immersed in authentic, meaningful experiences that will last a lifetime. Whether you’re chasing the echoes of the flourishing Khmer empire from the 9th to 15th century or becoming enlightened by the study of Theravada Buddhism in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam, this is one of the few cultural destinations on Earth that’s best explored on a river voyage. Here are just seven of our favorite highlights along the mighty Mekong.
#1 Shake Your Tailfeather
You won’t regret a dawn excursion to the fragile wetlands of the Tonle Sap Lake, where the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary lies. As one of Southeast Asia’s last refuge for large water birds like the spot-billed pelicans, milky stork, black-headed ibis, and the elusive masked finfoot, it is a wonderful opportunity for photography and contemplation as you wind your way along the peaceful hyacinth-clogged waterways aboard our intimate skiff. No other private tenders are permitted in these protected waterways, so you are sure to be in the exclusive company of only your fellow travelers, our guides and the knowledgeable Biosphere Reserve rangers. Brave the summit of a semi-permanent outpost built high up in trees to watch nesting pelicans and storks, so numerous in number it is a sight to behold.
#2 Love is in the Air
If you’re looking for romance, we recommend grabbing a copy of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant while on the Aqua Mekong. Walk in the footprints of the author when we rendezvous in Sa Dec, a sleepy but authentic Vietnamese town where its French colonial past is revealed in the beautiful architecture of the vibrant old market, an impressive church, old mansions, and merchant homes. It is the original setting of the French author’s autobiographical tale of illicit love between a teenage girl and a Vietnamese Chinese businessman, with ‘The Lover’, as it is known in English, subsequently turned into a film in 1992. Explore the house of Mr. Huynh Thuy Le, her legendary lover, which has been lovingly and traditionally restored, and go on a romantic walkabout of the town. It once served as an American Patrol and Swift Boat base during the Vietnam War and boasts famed flower gardens. You’ll also need to be prepared to participate and engage in all things related to food when we tour Sa Dec market with one of our onboard chefs!
#3 Pottering About
Turn back the hands of time and learn about Khmer riverside life in Kampong Chhnang, so-called the ‘Port of Pottery’ because archaeological findings here date to 5000 to 500 years BC. Visit the families of the little Andong Russei village to meet and watch traditional potters practice age-old craftsmanship and techniques that were all but lost in the recent years of the Khmer Rouge regime. Here, potters excavate clay from the nearby Phnom Dey Meas, which literally translates as golden earth mountain, of which fine specks of gold can be seen in the clay’s surface once it has been fired. While the throwing wheel has only been recently reintroduced to the community, clay pots are usually shaped by hand on a palm tree stump and battered into the desired shape with a wood paddle. You’ll even have a chance to try your hand at it yourself!
#4 Royal Treasure
Most people know about the ancient lost city of Angkor which rose like a zenith out of the Cambodian jungle, but an underrated historical highlight is Udong, the royal capital of Cambodia for more than 250 years until 1866. Located at the foothill of the mountains Phnom Oudong (Hill of the Victorious) and Phnom Preah Reach Throp (Hill of the Royal Fortune), the city was the location of many royal coronations. There is a monumental royal necropolis scattered at the top, whose many gilded Buddhist stupas have been systemically destroyed during Pol Pot’s reign. Legend states that the Buddha located in the Arthaross Temple faces north towards China instead of the traditional direction of east, thereby protecting the country from being conquered by the ancient Khmer kingdom. Take advantage of our knowledgeable expert guides about Cambodian history and religion, making the excursions an education and interesting immersion into the local culture.
#5 Fresh Flavors
While not as famous as the other markets in the region, Chao Doc is a vibrant gateway to many other attractions in the Vietnamese province of An Giang, as well as an important commercial center between the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. The floating market is an assault to the senses, with its bustling early morning energy. Fruits are mostly sold here, and you will see long poles advertising the products beside each boat. Jump aboard the local means of transportation – the rickshaw – to the nearby photogenic Chau Doc Market for a short interactive walking tour with one of our onboard chefs. You will be introduced to numerous regional specialties such as dried fish, tamarind paste, coconut- and mango-flavored sweets, palm sugar, lotus seeds and sugar palm fruit, some of which are used in Aqua Mekong’s flavorful and Michelin star chef-curated menu.
#6 Wheel Life
Every stop on our Aqua Mekong itinerary offers guided bicycle tours as an optional and fun addition to explore the countryside and authentic village life. Our top-of-the-line, all-terrain Cannondale bicycles can tackle any terrain in comfort and safety, suitable for all riders. No two cycling excursions in our itinerary are the same, so you’ll get to experience a different slice of Mekong life and culture with every ride. Most rides are an easy 10- to 17-kilometer route, winding through meandering roads and paths, over bridges and across rice paddy fields, with the heady scent of frangipani and mango trees hanging sweetly in the air. Every encounter with rural folk is genuine and curious, for both the visitor and the local.
#7 National Thread
One thing you will notice while touring along the Mekong is the ubiquity of silk in Cambodian life. It is part of the country’s national garment – the sampot, while golden silk is its national thread. On Koh Oknha Tey, a river island famed for its longstanding tradition of silk weaving, you will be able to admire dexterous Khmer artisans bent over their knotty art form. Learn about the processes of traditional silk production, beginning with the breeding of silkworms to the weaving of the silk weft ikat woven cloth, and of course, buy some as souvenirs!
Plan ahead with our 3-, 4- and 7-night itineraries aboard the Aqua Mekong.