Treasures of the Mekong – river cruise and city stays with Scenic
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Emerging from sleep to
see daylight peeping round the window blinds, I couldn’t at first identify the
noise. Certainly not the usual Saturday morning birdsong we enjoy at home. No,
this was definitely strange music punctuated with chat, but through a
loudspeaker. So what the …?
Cruise the Mekong and you
never know quite what you will encounter next. I had expected the floating
markets, the houses on stilts, and early morning fishermen, but a Buddhist
wedding celebration at 7am? Through the picture windows of our cabin on board Scenic Spirit, we could see lines of chairs beneath an awning, each one dressed
in coloured silk – all part of a traditional marriage party that continues two
days and a night.
John and I were Asia virgins
when we booked our Significant Birthday Holiday to Vietnam and Cambodia with Silver
Travel Advisor partner Scenic, choosing their Treasures of the Mekong itinerary
for its attractive sandwich of relaxed river cruising between two city stays. It
also offered the chance to see two contrasting destinations linked by one river.
Bustling Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country, whilst rural
Cambodia comes in way down at 68th with 50% of the population under
Between Ho Chi Minh City
in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, we would experience life in the mighty
Mekong Delta, visit the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and, leaving the
river, explore the UNESCO-listed temples of ancient Angkor, once capital of the
powerful Khmer Empire. The brochure and website offered a tantalising glimpse
of what was to come, but just a few days into the two-week trip, reality was
already far exceeding expectations.
This is a trip for the
curious Silver Traveller, the person who wants a holiday that combines
education, experience and entertainment. And to do it in style. Our tour began
with two nights at the sumptuous Park Hyatt in HCMC, formerly Saigon, before we
headed west by road to join the luxurious Scenic Spirit at the heart of the
Mekong Delta for a week on the river. At the end of the cruise, three nights at
the Park Hyatt in Siem Reap are the base for discovering the ruined temples of
We travelled in March
when daytime temperatures were in the low- to mid-30s, dipping into the 20s at
night. Expect high levels of humidity, but hotels, restaurants and, of course, Scenic
Spirit are efficiently air-conditioned, and excursions are well- timed and sensibly
paced. Expect early starts – 8 to 8.30 – with lunch in the cool and then a
second mid-afternoon excursion.
Some excursions involve
the whole group – 68 guests on Scenic Spirit – and cover must-do experiences
like the Liberation Palace in Ho Chi Minh City and the Royal Palace in Phnom
Pen, but most days there were two or three Free Choice options too ranging from
war history sites to a forest bird sanctuary, cooking classes to community
Cambodian tour manager Mao was supported by excellent local guides, all of whom
added an extra dimension to our trip with insights into the lives of their own
families. The horrors of the Vietnam War (American War to the Vietnamese) and
the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia still resonate today and don’t make easy
listening, but whether you choose or not to visit the notorious Killing Fields
or Cu Chi guerrilla tunnels, you’ll still come away with a much deeper understanding
of both countries.
On a lighter note, we
loved the excursions classified Scenic Enrich. These special experiences included
High Tea at Raffles in Phnom Penh and a city lights tour by tuk-tuk; a blessing
by a Buddhist monk; and a fabulous pop-up dinner and show at an Angkor temple,
all just for Scenic guests.
Back on board Scenic
Spirit, we luxuriated in one of the largest cabins on the Mekong, with our own
charming butler who left different gifts on our bed each evening – traditional Cambodian
Krama scarves, scented balm, good luck bracelets, and sweet tasting bars of
puffed rice. So much more useful than towel animals! We also enjoyed
outstanding Asian food at every meal – including optional crispy insects at the
Street Food buffet lunch - though Western choices are always available. And on
most evenings, we were moored mid-stream, making for blissfully quiet nights in
gloriously comfortable beds. I can also recommend the treatments in the Scenic
Sen Spa, exceptionally good value by Western standards at around 30 US Dollars
for an hour’s aromatherapy massage, particularly welcome after an atmospheric
but bumpy ride in a traditional ox cart!
Treasures of the Mekong
is not a budget holiday and definitely ranks in the Special Occasion bracket
for most of us, but there are no hidden costs and few extras. All excursions
are included along with full board and free drinks on Silver Spirit, and lunch
or dinner during city stays.
So what would I change
about the trip? Reluctant though I am to rank anything perfect, this actually
delivered even more magic than we’d hoped for. The whole Scenic itinerary was
impeccably conceived and run, and we couldn’t fault the staff, the food, or the
comfort. But what made it extra special for us was the fact that the trip was
as much about people as places.
Scenic support a number
of responsible tourism initiatives that bring much needed income into these
re-emerging countries, Cambodia in particular. The incredible Phare circus
performance where young performers from a charitable arts school weave
extraordinary acrobatics around a human story in Phnom Penh. The eco-village of
Cheung Kok near Kampong Chan were children ran out to hold our hands and adults
showed us their homes. And the talented youngsters who came on board to
entertain us with traditional Vietnamese dance and music.
The cities were exciting;
the temples overwhelming; and the river intriguing. But the people were
something else. It was a real privilege to be part of their world, if only for
two short weeks.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic.
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