Southeast Asia boasts some of the world’s most magnificent and underexplored waterways. With river cruises expanding in Cambodia and Vietnam, tourists now have unique access to the countries’ interiors. BY JOANNA MAYHEW
The dark wooden vessel slices through the water, winding past mangrove-lined shores interspersed by modest villages, and offering rare glimpses into Cambodian life, from the day’s fresh catch to palm sugar harvests. Aboard the three-day lavish Toum Tiou II cruise, 15 passengers are wined and dined as we travel from the expansive Tonle Sap Lake at Siem Reap’s outskirts to the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers at the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. The journey is an experience of immersion and escapism, with daily excursions through riverfront pagodas and markets offering intriguing and sobering insights to the country.
In recent years, river cruises in Southeast Asia have been increasing in popularity, following the success of other Asian waterways such as India’s Ganges and China’s Yangtze rivers. River tours are the fastest-growing element within the global cruising industry, which has grown from 12 million passengers in 2003 to 21 million in 2013, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
In 2013, 5 percent of tourists arrived at their destination by water, cruise and ferry, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for 10 percent of the global industry’s capacity, with Southeast Asia’s slice making up 18 percent of this, CLIA states. The association also found a high interest in river cruising among 61 percent of their clients, and “exotic rivers” were amongst the organisation’s predicted hot destinations in 2014.
“River cruising is fast becoming a major tourism trend,” says Naidah Yazdani, Asia director for CF Mekong River Cruises, which owns Toum Tiou II and has operated Cambodia’s rivers for 13 years. “People used to explore countries via land packages, then ocean cruising became big. Now, more and more people are gravitating towards river cruising.”
The appeal to these cruises is in part the proximity they provide to remote areas and communities, potentially offering more insight into traditional life, as rivers often run where roads do not. “Many of these sights are inaccessible to those visiting by land,” says Yazdani.
Successful cruising requires not only beautiful destinations, but also rivers that run past those destinations — a benefit that both Vietnam and Cambodia enjoy. “The advantage of a cruise is you can go around these countries, but with a river cruise you can go right inside,” adds Niall Crotty, sales and marketing manager for Mekong Dawn Cruises, which began operating last year.
Another draw is that these experiences can take place at no cost to comfort, which is particularly attractive for older travellers. “If you want to break away from the tourist trail, this is probably the most civilised way of doing that,” says Kourosh Aghassi, former cruise director for CF Mekong.
River cruisers make up a specific sub-culture within the wider industry. These are often repeat passengers who tick destinations off their list by the rivers on which they travel. Having sailed the world’s most famous rivers, for many of these cruisers, Southeast Asia is the final frontier. “This part of the world is the last un-cruised,” adds Aghassi. “The Mekong is the last great undiscovered river.”
The lesser-known Tonle Sap River is also exceptional. Due to its unique relationship with its self-contained lake, it is the only river in the world that completely changes direction twice a year. “You actually have something quite magical here,” says Crotty.
Cambodia’s cruise industry remains relatively new, offering plenty of potential for additional businesses. About 15 cruise vessels currently operate on the Tonle Sap and Mekong, and the majority of cruises run between Cambodia and Vietnam. Though small, the sector has been fast growing, with ship numbers doubling in the past few years, according to CF Mekong. The industry also benefits from the river’s proximity to the country’s biggest tourism draw — Angkor Wat.
Vietnam’s sector is much larger, with many of its 7.9 million yearly tourists exploring the Mekong Delta and Halong Bay via boat. “Vietnam has jumped leaps and bounds,” says Crotty. “As tourism has increased, they’ve really made use of their riverways.” With this, the country leads in cruise expertise for the region, and many of Cambodia’s crewmembers, captains and boats come from Vietnam.
Prices for cruises in both countries range from reasonable to extravagant, with luxurious newcomer Aqua Mekong topping the list. The 62-metre Aqua Mekong, which is Aqua Expedition’s second venture after the Amazon, was designed by Saigon-based architects to replicate a five-star hotel and boasts 30-square-metre suites, an outdoor pool and a private library, among other amenities.
Five-star river cruises are just one of the industry’s latest trends. Another is an increased prioritisation of cuisine and chefs. As opposed to hotels, cruise boats have a captive dining audience, and therefore food becomes an important focus while travelling. Many companies take the opportunity to introduce guests to regional flavours and dishes. “Our chefs have become mini-celebrities,” says Yazdani. On Aqua Mekong, Michelin star chef David Thompson heads the kitchen.
Passengers are also getting younger. “It’s no longer the sort of holiday that only retirees take,” says Yazdani, referring to the typical sixties and seventies demographic found on sea cruises. Companies such as Mekong Dawn Cruises target those in their forties and fifties, as Cambodia is still viewed as an adventurous destination. There is also a growing customer base from Asia, with more passengers from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, according to CF Mekong.
But as industry growth continues, especially in Cambodia, it may not all be smooth sailing. Various proposed or in-process dam projects, particularly those being constructed in the 3S River Basin, threaten to alter life along the river, affecting ecological diversity and reducing fish populations, according to Conservation International. And while stakeholders say the industry is well managed by the government, additional oversight may be needed as boats crowd the shores. “Cambodia’s not set up for mass tourism in smaller areas,” says Crotty, adding this concern is compounded by most tours stopping in the same places.
The advent of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of the year could improve both local and industry-wide management. ASEAN standards should provide additional regulation for growth and improve safety across the two countries. Open visa systems could also help promote cruises, as well as new routes for operators. Free movement of ASEAN employees could allow companies to hire varied crew members. “This will add vibrancy,” says Yazdani.
It seems appropriate that ASEAN unification is coming at a time when cruising is set to expand, as countries stand to benefit from the mighty river linking so many of them – the Mekong. As Crotty puts it, “It can only be a good thing.”