Nick Walton cruises Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake aboard the newly launched Aqua Mekong, a luxury river cruiser that promises to take well-heeled adventurers far from the tourist traps.
The beautifully styled Aqua Mekong river cruiser, is by far the most luxurious way to experience Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong River, two waterways that are vital to Indochina. Combining the chic décor and personalised service of an inner-city boutique hotel with the cultural immersion that comes with life on the waters of Cambodia, Aqua Mekong heralds a new era in high-end tourism for one of Indochina’s least visited corners.
Tonle Sap Lake is perfect for expeditionary cruising. A vast, dumbbell-shaped body of water, it’s a crucial ecosystem and home to over a million people whose lives and livelihoods ebb and flow with the lake’s waters. During the wet season, when floodwaters from the Himalayas expand Tonle Sap to 12,000 square kilometres, making it one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes, its floating fishing communities move together into deeper water. During the dry season, when we visit, the lake shrinks to 2,500 square kilometres, its villages returning to the lake banks en masse and the waters of Tonle Sap Lake reversing in a unique hydrodynamic phenomenon that can be seen from the ship.
Aqua Mekong is the newest vessel of Aqua Expeditions, a two-ship expeditionary cruising company owned by Italian-American Francesco Galli Zugaro. Designed by Saigon-based architect David Hodkinson and built in shipyards in Singapore, Aqua Mekong is the first five-star vessel on the Mekong, a river that’s increasingly sought after by intrepid travellers. Dressed in the natural tones of polished wood and locally sourced fabrics, the Aqua Mekong is spacious, airy and modern without being flashy. The ship’s 20 Design Suites – eight of which feature private balconies – weigh in at a surprising 30 square metres and are minimalist yet welcoming, with plush twin daybeds wreathing French door-styled windows, addictively good king-size beds and walk-in rain showers.
It’s also the little touches that go a long way, from the Nespresso coffee machine and built-in USB connectivity to the complimentary Wi-Fi service and a triple-fold turndown service that makes coming back from excursions a dream. For the ultimate indulgence, interconnecting suites may be booked together to create private living rooms and multiple bedrooms. Despite its expeditionary credentials, modern touches extend throughout the Aqua Mekong, from the bar on the top deck, with its collection of small-batch rums and inventive evening cocktails, to the plunge pool perched above the bow and the intimate day spa. A crew ratio of 1:1 and a menu created by Michelin-starred chef David Thompson, who regularly joins the ship, ensure this is no simple river meander.
The inclusive excursions, combined with the comforts of the most modern ship on Asia’s rivers, make Aqua Expeditions unique. During the four-day itinerary, we visit floating and stilted communities, some thriving towns and intimate, isolated villages; we visit families that have crafted silver and silk for generations, and are welcomed into homes to experience life on the lake first-hand. In Chnok Tru, I watch as massive ice blocks are shredded at a floating ice factory, and as homes and stores are formed into convoys to be repositioned in deeper water. In tiny Koh Oknha Tey, we visit a local school and take turns to donate stationery supplies and sing with the children, and among the palm plantations of Kampong Chhnang, we watch Angkorian pottery re-spun and sip palm nectar in the shade. It’s cultural immersion with creature comforts.
Fly from Jakarta to Phnom Penh with Garuda Indonesia www.garuda-indonesia.com
A four-night downriver itinerary is priced from US$3,500 per person, inclusive of all meals, selected beverages, transfers, excursions and internet access. www.aquaexpeditions.com