Water is a vital necessity for the millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese who live among the rich fisheries and villages that form colourful riverside landscapes. One of the best ways for visitors to experience this ancient aquatic livelihood is by river cruise.
The new AmaWaterways Amadara cruise opens doors for travellers, including LGBT passengers, to experience such cultural delights as floating villages, 1,000-year-old Buddhist temples and even former Vietcong war shelters. Before the start of the cruise in Siem Reap, spend a few days exploring the heritage of both rural and city-living Cambodians.
Using guides is the most efficient way to see Southeast Asia, because of the language barrier and the likelihood guides give to maximize sightseeing opportunities. Consider signing up for a five-day bike tour with Pedalers Pub & Grille Cycling & Multisport Tours. You’ll discover places like Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in Siem Reap (and the image that appears on the country’s national flag). Biking past the ancient Buddha guardians of the Khmer
Empire creates unbeatable photo ops, while Tomb Raider flashbacks happen at Preah Kor, the temple where the movie of the same name was filmed.
You’ll have to steel yourself for parts of the journey. There are stops at former hot zones that were once littered with fatal mines. These agrarian areas, which now belong to veterans of the Cambodian war, afford an opportunity for historic reflection on the destruction under the former Communist regime.
After sunset, pay a visit to Pub Street, the most popular destination for shopping and partying in Siem Reap.
There is also an adjacent night market. The best time to buy souvenirs can be after dusk, when the temperature is much cooler in the city. Gay nightlife in Siem Reap is not plentiful, but surprise drag-queen dance performances on the night market stage are commonplace.
Many of the LGBT locals hang out at the most well-known gay nightclub, Rosanna, where daily drag performances also dominate. For accommodations, get the feel of another era at the oldest hotel in Siem Reap, Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor. It has beautiful touches like the 1930s lift made of wood and wrought iron, along with colonial architecture reminiscent of the French occupation.
The Pedalers Pub & Grille tour will take you to Prek Toal, an eco-gem a short drive from Siem Reap. The Prek Toal floating village is a favourite of birdwatchers, who revel in sightings of endangered water birds that breed within the most important UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Southeast Asia.
The village is fascinating in and of itself. Entirely self-sufficient on the Tonle Sap River, it contains homes, stores and schools that all float and move with the river currents. Astonishing scenes unfold on the tour, like a barely two-year-old baby waiting patiently on the tip of a canoe while his father meticulously lays fish traps.
Ironically, the villagers depend upon the invasive American hyacinth plant, which was mysteriously introduced to the region 100 years ago. The water is now covered in thousands of bright-green patches of the plant’s thick leaves and heavy roots, repurposed as compost to be used for the floating gardens. The flower
of the plant, meanwhile, is used for cooking and craft making.
After you have enjoyed a few days in the city, it’s time to begin your AmaWaterways cruise, which lasts a total of seven nights. It starts in Siem Reap and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The first excursion will be in the Cambodian port town of Kampong Chhnang. The floating village is 90 percent inhabited by Vietnamese, who flocked to the area because of the generous fishing channel created by the Mekong River. The boat tour takes you past the people living on floating houses, and the cruise guide offers insight into how they fish, trade, educate and thrive—all upon the water.
Heading into the former capital of Oudong, the group departs for the Oudong Monastery. There, guests visit Cambodia’s largest pagoda. There will be a Buddha blessing given by the monks inside the ornate building, where photos with these traditional religious figures are allowed. After the blessing, a fun and unusual activity awaits: an ox-cart ride in Kampong Tralach. At night, you’ll be treated to a Cambodian dance performance by Khmer children.
The dance moves incorporate hand gestures that illustrate the lives of fish, birds, farmers and other figures Cambodians encounter in their daily life.
The ship cruises the Mekong, with views of the bucolic surroundings and lush forests. Eventually, you enter Tan Chau, Vietnam, where the first stop is an excursion to an authentic small village called Evergreen Island. A walking tour reveals the way many a resident fishes, raises livestock and crafts rattan mats in a busy workshop.
There are many other highlights to be treasured along the way: In Sa Dec, Vietnam, you
experience a tour of the house of French writer Marguerite Duras’ Chinese paramour. And a visit to Xeo Quyt touches on the country’s tumultuous history, which is burnished by the presence of a former military base and Vietcong shelter.
Floating markets, fishing villages, eco-tours and the artifacts of war create an opportunity to get an in-depth look at these entrancing Southeast Asian countries—at once both changing and preserving centuries-old ways of life.
Locals are quick to welcome visitors with a smile, regardless of background.
Whether you choose to bike alongside 1,000-year-old temples, birdwatch in the biosphere reserves or try your hand at craft making, there are experiences for all in one of the most intriguing corners of the world.
(For more information about Cambodian and Vietnamese excursions, visit www.amawaterways.com or www.pedalerspubandgrille.com.)