We checked in for AmaLotus in the reception area of the Sofitel in Siem Reap, we were given our coach colour and headed out to get our seats. There were 3 coaches travelling to AmaLotus, the coaches were luxurious and spacious with 2 big double seats on the left side of the coach and then a single seat on the right so there was plenty of room for everyone. We were given our packed lunches for the journey.
Due to the weather conditions, the water level is not high enough to board the ship at Tonle Sap Lake so our coach journey took us around the lake and south of Cambodia to the embarkation port of Prek K’Dam. The journey took us 7 hours with 2 stops, one of the stops was a small village called Tarantula Village... And it certainly lived up to its name! We were greeted by lots of adorable local children who were excited to see people coming into their village, and some of them were carrying Tarantula’s... Those of you how know me, know that I am scared of the smallest spiders let alone big hairy ones so I was on guard and avoiding any contact. As we walked around the village, it became clear that these were not pets, but they were the main source of food in the village, there was a big frying pot with crisp chilli Tarantulas for anyone feeling brave – this of course was not me. Onward with our journey and we got our first glimpse of our home for the next 7 nights, AmaLotus, floating proudly on the mighty Mekong river! All of the coaches arrived and we were greeted on board by a line of the crew and staff including the captain.
The sun was shining bright in the sky and we really started to get excited as we walked through and up to the Saigon Lounge where we were welcomed with air conditioning, cold drinks and a lunch buffet fit for a queen. I don’t quite know how AmaWaterways do it but every time I board one of our ships my shoulders drop and I seem to fall straight into the most relaxed stance I have been in since my last trip! We were welcomed by our cruise manager before being taken to our cabins to unpack... I was excited about this. It is the first time in 18 days I was going to unpack; we have been living out of our cases while travelling around Vietnam. It just reminds me of the perks of travelling on a river cruise; we are going to sail from Cambodia to Vietnam, it takes 7 nights and you only have to unpack once! After enjoying finding things at the bottom of my case I forgot I had packed and making use of the facilities in the cabin, we sat out on our balcony to take in the beautiful scenery as the ship started to sail towards Kampong Chhnang. I love the twin balcony design, you can either sit out on our own private balcony or you can open the sliding French balcony doors while sitting inside the cabin. There is plenty of storage space for clothes and cases in the cabin. Having dressed for the welcome cocktail and safety drill, we met the Hotel Manager who educated us on the ship and the surrounding areas, gave us some hints and tips about the climate and what to expect during our cruise. It was then time to head to dinner. We were greeted by the Restaurant Manager as we entered and what I loved about the restaurant was as you walked in, on the right hand side there were all of the dishes freshly prepared on the menu so you could see what the dish looked like before you ordered.
Now, having spent the last 18 days travelling around, this was so useful for me, I often had things arrive that I had ordered in local restaurants that I had no idea would look like that or even what they were sometimes! The restaurant is open seating and there are plenty of tables for two should you want to enjoy some quiet time. We sat on a table for four and met two lovely ladies from New York who we ended up dining with every lunch and dinner time. Having already spotted a dish I liked the look of, I ordered the grilled prawns and sticky rice for main. The great thing with the menu is that there are lots of local options to try but there are also standing orders where you can have grilled chicken breast, salmon or steak with potatoes or fries and salad so there really is something for everyone. Included with lunch and evening meals are free flowing wine, beer and soft drinks. What was a special touch is that the wine changed for every lunch and dinner we had. After being the last to leave the restaurant we went up to the Saigon Lounge for a nightcap before heading to bed for our first night’s sleep on board the beautiful AmaLotus.
After a peaceful night’s sleep we were awake early and went to breakfast where there were so many amazing options. Now since being out in Vietnam and Cambodia I have become addicted to the traditional breakfast of noodle soup and it just so happens this is available on board so I was in my element. I know it seems a little odd to have noodle soup for breakfast but you have to trust me on this one, it is just so delicious and really filling so sets you up for the whole day! With the excitement of our first tour in Kampong Chhnang we waited in the Saigon Lounge until our group colour was called and then put on our life jackets to board the small local boat that would take us on a tour of the local floating village as AmaLotus was moored mid-stream, many of the excursions would be by small boat. Kampong Chhnang has a population of 538,163 and accounts for 3.6% of the total population of Cambodia. Roughly 85% of the population here is engaged in farming. Our guide was just superb, giving us destination knowledge as well as sharing personal experiences and stories about his life while we spent around an hour sailing around the floating village.
It is just remarkable to watch how the local people go about their daily life. The people are just so friendly, they wave to you as you sail past as they are cleaning their washing, fishing and even the children are singing for you and calling out to you with the most energetic waves and excitement, you can’t help but become a child yourself and mirror them. Waving goodbye to the busy rural port town we sailed back to AmaLotus and you can’t help but reflect and think about these amazing people who some, have to move their homes 5 times are year due to the water levels and making sure their families and homes are safe. AmaLotus set sail for our 42 mile journey to Koh Chen. During sailing to Koh Chen our Cambodian guides gave a talk in the Saigon Lounge on ‘Cambodia – Past and Present’. It was such an interesting talk and each one of the guides spoke to us about the personal experiences and how their families have been affected with past regimes. Our guides would be with us until we cross the border to Vietnam so we had time to speak with them and learn more while on our tours. Lunch was served and again there was so much choice of food. At lunch there is a buffet selection of appetizers, along with a fresh cooking station plus the main course options which you can order from your waiter. I went with the appetizers as was still full from noodle soup! We continued sailing the Mekong and arrived in Kohn Chen, a small copper village. We moored against the shore and went off in our groups for the excursion.
We walked around the small village and watched how the local people create and make the most beautiful pieces of silver and copper work. We walked around the Pagoda and were lucky enough to visit the local school where there were approx. 40 children in each class learning English. They sang a song for us and we shared pencils, books and pens with them, and a few sweets! At each town we have been to, the children give you the warmest of welcomes and they love to speak to you as this is how they continue to learn English. They are very inquisitive and I loved spending time talking to them when we had free time after the tours. Before dinner we had a briefing with the cruise manager who covered all the details for the next day. We went up to the sun deck where there is a swimming pool, bar and plenty of seating areas. The sunset was stunning... Does life get any better than this?! After dinner there was a movie on in the Saigon Lounge – ‘Pol Pot, A Secret Killer’. The lounge was busy with everyone wanting to learn more on the history of Cambodia. AmaLotus docked overnight in Koh Chen.
Today was a very special day for me and something that I had been looking forward to for the whole trip. In fact I hadn’t stopped going on about it and had even converted Charlie to the idea! We joined the coach in Prek K’Dam and set off for Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia. Situated 22 miles north of Phnom Penh. Oudong once boasted hundreds of buildings, temples and royal stupas, but most of these were destroyed in the early 1970s when Lon Noi ordered air strikes against Khmer Rouge fighters based here. A few monasteries have survived, along with the funerary stupas of some of the last kings. We visited the biggest Buddhist Monastery in Cambodia called Vipassana Dhura. It is a new, large temple that serves as a Buddhist study centre and the highlight of the visit... We had a group blessing chanted by Buddhist Monks. On arrival at the Monastery, we climbed the 50 odd small steps, removed our shoes and went in. We sat on cushioned mats that were all laid out on the floor in front of the Monks and were given some guidance by the guides as to what we should do during the blessing, how to sit and what it means. I sat patiently with my legs crossed, eyes closed and hands placed together as the Monks began to chant. It was the most amazing experience and towards the end we were showered with Jasmine Blossom to complete the blessing... I loved it.
After the blessing we had some free time to walk around the Monastery and also the grounds where we saw young monks in a lesson and also were able to witness the Monks being called for lunch. Just as we were leaving the grounds to go onto the next part of the excursion, we met a lovely lady who was a Nun, who has been studying at the Monastery for 6 years. We spent around 30 minutes on the coach before arriving at a village called Kampong Tralach for our Oxcart ride. The Oxcarts are the most popular transportation in the countryside and are used by Cambodian farmers to harvest crops, carry hay, animals and even their family. It was so much fun; Charlie hoisted me onto the cart and held me tight as we set off on our adventure through the countryside. All of us were in a long line and the Ox behind us took a liking to me and was insistent on getting as close to me a possible which Charlie, our driver and the other driver thought was highly amusing! We spent around 30 minutes on the Oxcart ride and we were followed by children from the village that sang to us along the way and gave us flowers. It was time to go back to the ship. We set sail for Phnom Penh, 27 miles away.
There were two options of tours for this afternoon. 1. Central Market 2.Tuk Tuk tour of the city We chose to go to the market as we loved the markets in Siem Reap and wanted to see if they differed. It is the biggest market in Phnom Penh and there is so much there, from clothes to jewellery to gifts to kitchen equipment, you name it, they have it! We had free time to do some shopping and wander around the city centre before going back to the ship ready for dinner. We were docked overnight so you had the option to go out and have dinner in a local restaurant. We chose to have dinner on board but to go out for drinks after and wander around the night market. I really love venturing out in the local cities and towns; we found a great bar on the front and watched the world pass us by thinking how lucky we are to share this together. Today has been the highlight of the whole trip for me, I loved every minute of it and it will stay with me always.
We are in Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city of Cambodia. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the capital since the French colonised Cambodia and has grown to become the nation’s centre for economic, industrial, commercial, cultural tourist and historical activities of Cambodia. Our tour this morning takes us to the ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘S21 Detention Centre’. We have learned so much from our guide since arriving in Cambodia but nothing quite prepared us for today’s tour. We knew it would be a difficult morning in the respect of visiting these places where the most awful things have happened but we wanted to pay our respects and to continue learning. The Killing Fields were a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. Estimates of the total number of deaths during this period range from 1.4 to 2.2 million people out of a population of 7 million.
We visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, it took us around 45 minutes to get there from the ship, it is only 9.3 miles away from the city centre but there is lots of traffic in Phnom Penh. We followed our guide around as he explained each of the areas and educated us on what happened here. After our tour we had some free time to look around, we went to the gift shop and bought a book as we wanted to read more about the history. Our next stop was the S21 Detention Centre – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Located in the former Tuol Svay Prey High School only a kilometre or so from the city centre, S21 is also known as the Genocide Museum. It was used as the notorious security prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means ‘Hill of the Poisonous Trees’ or ‘Strychnine Hill’. Many of the schoolrooms were divided into crude cells. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here. We spent around an hour walking through the buildings and listening to our guide educate us on what happened here. There are many photos of the poor victims and their suffering. Before we came, we watched the Sue Perkins documentary on the Mekong where she met one of the last remaining survivors. We were lucky enough to meet the same gentleman, learn about his story and buy his book. It was time to head back to the ship for lunch which was another wonderful banquet of Asian delights. The afternoon brought us another exciting excursion... A visit to the Royal Palace.
It was only a 5 minute coach ride from the ship and we got to spend a couple of hours touring the complex. The Royal Palace was built in 1866 as the home of the Cambodian King. Most parts of the Palace were open for us to freely look around, apart from the King’s buildings. One of the most impressive parts was the Prasat Prak, Prasat means Temple and Prak means silver. Prasat Prak is named this because of the 5000 pieces of its floor tiles are made of silver. As you enter the Pagoda you need to remove your shoes and there it is right in front of you, the shiniest floor ever seen! There is a stunning Buddha statue in the centre of the Pagoda surrounded by hundreds of other antiques. The Buddha is made from pure gold and had over 2,086 diamonds... One word – WOW! In some of the areas you are not allowed to take photographs and unfortunately Prasat Prak is one of them. The Palace and grounds really are breath-taking and I thoroughly enjoyed our tour here. We chose to do an extra section of the excursion and go to the National Museum which has hundreds of artefacts and stonework from all over the country, it was great to see some of the familiar carvings and photos from where we had already visited in Siem Reap. We spent around 30 minutes here before going back to the ship. The ship was docked overnight in Phnom Penh again so it gave us another opportunity to go to the night market and find another bar after dinner as we had to say our goodbyes to Phnom Penh and Cambodia for our onward trip to Vietnam. We read a quote while we were out here and it summed up my feelings on leaving Cambodia, “It’s the most dangerous country you’ll ever visit, because you’ll fall in love with it... And then it will break your heart”.
Today was the border crossing and we were sailing all day. Our journey from Phnom Penh to Tan Chau was almost 75 miles and would take us until the early evening so we had a full day to relax on the ship. We had a lovely leisurely breakfast, yes you guessed it, I had noodle soup again. After we went up on the sun deck and relaxed on the sun loungers, both reading our books as we sailed to Tan Chau. The scenery as you are sailing is extraordinary. We passed homes dotted along the river banks, grand beautiful Pagodas and lots of local people fishing and working on the rivers. They always say time flies when you’re having fun and it certainly was flying. It was already the afternoon and we had booked a spa treatment.
There are 3 treatment rooms on board plus a gym/fitness room, which I have to admit I didn’t use once! But how can you be on this beautiful ship without indulging in the odd spa treatment? An hour and a half passed in no time and I can honestly say it was the best hot stone massage I have ever had. There was an ice-cream party in the Saigon Lounge along with fruit carving and a cooking class on how to make Vietnamese Pho and fresh spring rolls. At around 4pm we moored mid river while the border formalities were carried out, we watched from the sundeck as small official boats came to the ship, we were only 20 miles away from Tan Chau and were now crossing into Vietnam. Tonight was a special night as the crew put on a performance for us after dinner in the Saigon Lounge. It was a great evening when the crew were in their on board teams and entertained us by singing and dancing followed by a party… ’AmaLotus has talent’ – what a great evening and certainly one that everyone enjoyed.
Good morning Vietnam! Today there were 3 choices of excursions, we chose option 2. 1. Walking tour on Evergreen Island River Village only 2. Walking tour on Evergreen Island River Village and Rattan Mat workshop 3. Trishaw Ride to Silk workshop and Rattan Mat workshop We travelled in small groups by a local boat to Evergreen Island. Our guide took us on a walking tour of the Island where we were welcomed into some of the local homes. Most of the homes were on stilts due to the changing water levels. It was incredible to see the homes and learn more about the way of life on the Island. As always the children were just adorable and followed us around the village singing and asking us questions.
We went to the main view point on the bridge where we could see lots of farm land and homes scattered for miles. We sailed on the small boat over to the next stop, the rattan Mat workshop. It was remarkable to see how fast the people were working. The machines were busy compressing the materials to make all different varieties and patterns of mats. The workshop here was family run and everyone was involved in pulling together and producing the highest quality of mats. There was a small gift shop onsite where you could purchase souvenirs. Back to AmaLotus ready for lunch and set sail for our next port of call – Sa Dec which was 56 miles downstream. Tonight was the farewell cocktail evening. It is hard to believe that our journey is almost over.
We were greeted in the main lounge by the Cruise Manager and cocktails. I always love this evening as it is when we get to applaud the staff for their hard work in making our stay so memorable. The Hotel Manager called out each of the departments to big cheers and applause until it was time to go to dinner. After dinner there was a movie in the Saigon Lounge – The Lover which is a true story and set in Sa Dec where our excursions would take us tomorrow.
There were 2 choices of excursions today: 1. Visit Sa Dec, a walk through the local market and visit the Lover House 2. Visit Sa Dec and a coach transfer for a 45 minute walking tour in Xeo Quyt Sa Dec is a quaint city that gives a true insight to Vietnamese life. It is a city in Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam. It is a river port and agricultural trading centre. The French writer Marguerite Duras lived in Sa Dec during a 3-4 year period between 1928 and 1932. Her mother ran a school on the corner of Hung Vuong St which still exists today. We were able to visit the Lovers House which used to be an office for a government agency but has been open to the public since 2009.
We had free time around the market to look at some of the local delicacies such as mice, frogs and of course lots of different types of fish. AmaLotus set sail for Cai Be, one of our last ports of call for excursions. This afternoon our tour took us on a small boat ride along the floating markets of Cai Be. Most of the local trade is done in the morning so it was not as busy as first thing but we were able to see local people buying from the floating stalls and boats. Each of the floating stalls have a long stick which they tie their produce/goods to so that everyone can see what they are selling – they then use this stick to pass to the buyer. We continued sailing around to a small area where we docked and walked through to a rice paper mill where we watched one of the local ladies making rice paper…We all got to try it and it was delicious. As we continued through the workshop, we watched rice pops being made, coconut candy, rice and snake wine. I tried everything except the snake wine... somehow the hundreds of snakes in a huge bottle that was on display put me off, plus our guide said that the snake wine was mainly for the men to have after a long day’s work so I didn’t feel I had earned it!
We bought lots of the local food to bring home. Our walk of Cai Be continued through to the 19th-century French Gothic Cathedral before sailing back passed the floating markets and returning to AmaLotus. It was our last night on board, I can’t believe how time has flown. We enjoyed our last meal with the two ladies who over the week have become great friends. The ship began to sail to My Tho, our final port of call. Our journey tomorrow would take us from My Tho to Saigon by coach and would take around 1 hour and 15 minutes. Our experience on AmaLotus has been truly amazing. The special memories we made on this trip will stay with me forever and I just hope that you can all experience the wonders of Vietnam and Cambodia. For those of you that already have, you lucky, lucky people.