March - April 2015 | Back to Archives

Southeast Asia by Boat

Two small luxury ships, two countries. Come sail with us in a captivating world vastly different  from our own.

BY MICHAEL SHAPIRO and BILL FINK

Click here to view a slideshow of photos from each of these boats and their excursions.

CRUISING CAMBODIA
BY MICHAEL SHAPIRO

"Let's go visit this family," says our guide as we motor through the floating village of Kang Meas in the heart of Cambodia. We're in a 10-seat skiff on an afternoon expedition during a four-night cruise on the new 40-passenger Aqua Mekong, the type of luxurious vessel not typically seen in these waters.

Long wooden boats filled with vegetables for sale surround us, along with a floating cell-phone shop, a place locals go to charge car batteries (no cars here - residents use the batteries to power their lights and DVD players), and a riotously loud ice-crushing plant where fishermen get what they need to keep their catch cold until they can bring it to market.

On our little skiff, we zip up to the family's home and ask permission to come aboard their platform to see how they live. The mother welcomes us with a shy smile, then pulls a plank from the floor to reveal a pool of tiny live fish they use for bait.

This isn't an arranged visit, just a spur-of-the-moment connection where visitors can meet locals who live a life on the water. We're on the Tonle Sap, part lake and part river, the world's only major body of water to flow in one direction during the wet season and the opposite way in dry season.

Nearby a little girl jumps in a metal basin, then paddles with her hands across the water to visit friends next door. Later that afternoon, we stop in the floating village of Moat Khla to see a Buddhist temple. A senior monk invites us to come onto the temple's swaying platform. We sit on floor mats as he and three young monks bless us with ceremonial chants.

It's another world out here, one we can visit because we've embarked on an aquatic journey from Siem Reap (near Angkor Wat) to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The ship also makes weeklong, two-country cruises from Siem Reap to My Tho near Saigon, Vietnam, sailing in both directions. Three- and four-night itineraries are available in each country as well.

LUXE HOME BASE
When we return to the mother ship after our excursion, staffers greet us with cool washcloths and watermelon juice, a refresher on this warm, steamy afternoon. The excursions are enticing, but in many ways the star of the trip is the 205-foot boat itself. Built by Francesco Galli Zugaro, who has been operating riverboats on Peru's Amazon since 2008, the Aqua Mekong is sleek, elegant, and spacious with stylish interiors created by local architects (Saigon-based Noor Design). The 20 suites are 322 square feet each with floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers, and central air conditioning. But the rooms are just the beginning: Play foosball in the combination library/game room. While working out in the fitness center, take in views of the river and fishermen trawling for the morning catch. Sip exotic cocktails such as the Kampot Fix - ArteNom 1414 tequila, fresh lime, star anise, Thai basil, and mild Kampot peppercorns - in a lounge made cozy with plantation-style chairs and low tables.

Cocktails are a prelude to the sumptuous menu created by celebrated executive chef David Thompson of Bangkok's Nahm restaurant. Thompson's menu mixes Asian and Mediterranean specialties, but the local dishes - such as the Kep crab "with a vindictive amount of chili," Thompson says - steal the show. (The solicitous kitchen staff can prepare food that's less spicy; it also caters to dietary needs.)

ABSORBING THE CULTURE
Our trip began with a stay at Amansara, an oasis of understated elegance in bustling Siem Reap, and a visit to Angkor Wat. We awake before dawn to watch the sun rise over the 12th-century edifice, walking along a forested trail in the day's first light. The temple complex - with Angkor's towering spires, huge Buddha faces at Bayon, and the beguiling Ta Prohm, where serpentine tree roots engulf the ruins - lives up to its status as one of the wonders of the world.

That afternoon we take a skiff through the floating village of Chong Kneas and see the Aqua Mekong shining brightly on the Tonle Sap at dusk as we board our home for the next four nights.

The next morning, we explore the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, Southeast Asia's largest at more than 120 square miles, our guide says, where we see pelicans, darters, herons, and blue-green bee-eaters, shimmering in the branches like jewels. The mangrove environment here somewhat resembles the Amazon, where Aqua Expeditions' other two ships are based, but Cambodia doesn't have Peru's teeming wildlife. "Anything that moves, Cambodians eat," Galli Zugaro says.

But there's human life - vibrant, bustling, finding a way to make a home in this aquatic world - and access to these places is the trip's genius. The people we meet aren't wealthy but share an irrepressible desire to connect. Exuberant kids jump and wave from their platforms and call out in English: "Hello sah, how are you?"

During the trip we're offered the option to bike through some land-based communities along the Tonle Sap near Phnom Penh. A few of us ride in streets cluttered with cows, visiting a school, a woman who makes clay pots, and a man who harvests palm sugar by climbing trees.

On our penultimate day on the river, we reach the Tonle Sap's confluence with the mighty Mekong River and cruise past Phnom Penh (we'll return the next day to explore the capital's Royal Palace and other sights). We take the skiff to shore and bike on Silk Island (Ok Nha Tey) to a settlement where women harvest silk from worms and turn it into intricately woven scarves. It's a dazzling ride past towering hay bales, clanking wooden horse carts, and luminous emerald rice paddies. I don't want this bike excursion, or this trip, to end, so I ask our guides if we can ride just a bit longer. They consent; we keep going as the sky starts to darken. Soon the clouds follow through on their threat and we're drenched. But no matter, we're just a short skiff ride away from our golden boat, and a final evening of tasty drinks, toothsome food, and all the comforts of our Southeast Asian paradise.

Details: Aqua Mekong cruises start at $1,050 per person per night. 866-603-3687; aquaexpeditions.com


IMMERSED IN MYANMAR
BY BILL FINK

Our gleaming white ship pulls onto the shore of Myanmar's Ayeyarwady River. Local village children incongruously dressed in sweaters in the 90-degree heat squat in the dirt in front of smoke-blackened thatched huts, gawking at our multidecked, 200-foot-long luxury ship. Palm trees sway in a humid breeze. In the distance, ancient pagodas loom over a jungled landscape.

The scene could have been lifted directly from 19th-century British colonial Burma, when an English-built steam paddleboat fleet (the world's largest) cruised what was then called the Irrawaddy River. But we are stopping in this small village and several others along our route not to check on a mining concession or to fortify a military outpost, but rather to interact with the locals, language barriers be damned.

"This is the new Burma," our local guide keeps telling us, a reference to the recently loosened military control over the country and its citizens' associated freedoms. But this is also the new Burma (or rather Myanmar) for visitors, a destination introducing new infrastructure and services to host luxury travelers, not just the hard-core, dirt-scrabble backpackers who have been coming for the past decade.

The newest way to see Myanmar is aboard the Sanctuary Ananda riverboat, a shallow-draft, 21-cabin vessel built last year specifically to ply the Ayeyarwady's sandy, reed-choked waters. The ship is like a floating luxury boutique hotel; its plush cabins come with gleaming teak wood floors, local textile designs accenting the walls and bedding, satellite TV, monsoon showers, and balconies off every room. The comfort and service levels will have you feeling like a raja from times long past. Each time you come aboard, staffers await with wet towels and fresh juice drinks. Grab a cocktail and relax in deep cushions and enjoy the views from the Panorama Lounge, or catch some breezes under retractable shades on the sundeck, take a dip in the pool, or lie out on padded deck chairs. The former head chef at Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental Hotel coordinates the meals, cooking up a fusion of Burmese, Thai, and international cuisine. Work off the tasty desserts in the small fitness room, or de-stress with a vigorous Burmese massage in the spa.

Our five-day sailing aboard the Ananda from Mandalay to Bagan is the culmination of a 10-day Myanmar journey led by Abercrombie & Kent that will immerse us into the new Myanmar - by city, by lake, and finally, in the noble Ayeyarwady River.

URBAN IMMERSION

Our tour begins (and concludes) with a day in Yangon, a teeming metropolis of more than 5 million, half of whom seem to wander the street markets at any given time. Under moss-covered, colonial-era mansions, vendors offer sizzling pans of chicken and pork, bubbling bowls of noodles, and unsettling mounds of fried crickets. Our Abercrombie guide takes us neck-deep into labyrinths of stalls, identifying a rainbow array of local fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices, and textiles. It feels like Myanmar's more than 100 ethnicities are all calling out in their native languages, simultaneously pitching the latest betel nut chaw combinations, cell phone covers, and Buddhist charms.

So I'm relieved when our group takes a detour into the Kalaywa Tawya Buddhist monastery, a training school for young monks, who are forbidden to speak during meals. In the main hall, a couple hundred young monks eat their day's alms in a silence punctuated only by the gong of the abbot whacking one giggling kid with a pan, and the mewing of a kitten getting fed by two mischievous monks in the corner.

For a combination of both the wild and serene, the sacred and profane, and a true immersion into Myanmar's identity, we move on to the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda temple complex in central Yangon. Anchored by a 325-foot-tall stupa coated with literally tons of gold leaf, the centuries-old religious site is filled not only with holy shrines, fantastic mythical statues, and hundreds of kneeling, praying visitors, it also has free Wi-Fi, ATMs, neon signs, and a whole shopping mall's worth of vendors. The locals didn't find the contrasts at all disturbing in this, the new Burma.

LAKE IMMERSION

An hourlong flight from Yangon takes us to Inle Lake, where we're quickly sitting water-level aboard a different type of riverboat - this one about 40 feet long, 3 feet wide. We motor our way to the lake's far reaches, where overgrown estuaries lead to thousand-year-old temple complexes uncovered only a decade ago. We navigate waterways through Venice-style canal towns, crowded waterfront markets, and floating gardens. Out on the open lake, fishermen stand precariously on the edges of their canoes balancing on one foot, holding and casting nets with both hands while simultaneously paddling with their other leg, using an oar tucked between their feet and hips, an aquatic ballet unchanged for centuries.

New hotel properties ring Inle, some featuring Polynesian-style overwater bungalows, others such as the Inle Lake View Resort where we stay for two nights, offer land-based vistas over the leg-paddling armada below. There's nothing quite like sitting in a wicker chair on a balcony smoking a freshly rolled Burmese cheroot cigar and watching the sun set over shimmering waters and a golden pagoda.

RIVER IMMERSION

Another short-hop flight takes us from Inle to Mandalay, where we begin our river cruise from this historical city of monks and monasteries. After visiting local sights, we board the ship at the town's edge and float down the coffee-colored Ayeyarwady. Drinking freshly squeezed juices and dining on a buffet of local delicacies, we recline like a boatful of Buddhas on cushion-covered couches in the ship's air-conditioned interior. But we aren't entirely insulated from the country around us. Local staff on board give demonstrations on everything from Myanmar's religion and culture to the proper way to tie a men's longyi skirt and how to artfully apply the powdery yellow thanaka sunscreen and makeup nearly every Burmese woman and child sports.

Held by chains and logs pounded into the earth, our ship "docks" overnight on a sandy riverbank near Bagan. We awake before sunrise to embark on an epic ballooning trip soaring over thousands of stone temples, pagodas, and stupas. But, alas, high winds cancel the trip so we immerse ourselves in Myanmar via a horse-cart tour instead.

Bumping along in an open wooden carriage along dirt roads, we watch the sun rise over temple spires to a soundtrack of waking roosters and the "tak-tak-tak" of farmers hoeing the fertile soil between the ancient structures. Monks arrive at the temples carrying their alms bowls for a day of begging. Inside several darkened temples we find massive golden Buddha statues and walls festooned with centuries of holy illustrations. I keep thinking I'll stumble upon a hidden passage, Indiana Jones style, and discover some magically cursed amulet. But before I do, we leave the temples to explore treasures found in behind-the-scenes tours of local lacquerware, jewelry, and craft workshops that continue their centuries-old artisan traditions.

After a farewell lunch aboard the ship, we return by plane to Yangon, where we have a final afternoon to explore on our own. Alone or in pairs, we tentatively wander the teeming streets and alleyways bursting forth with their flood of unique sights and sounds. The scene remains exotic, but after our 10-day immersion tour we feel like we can begin to navigate through the fast-flowing currents of the new Myanmar.

Details: Cruise-only rates on Sanctuary Ananda start at $1,364 per person. 630-725-3449; sanctuaryretreats.com. 10-day Abercrombie & Kent tours (including the five-day Ananda cruise) start at $6,295 per person. 800-554-7016; abercrombiekent.com




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