In early January, 2013, my wife and I and another couple our age [all recently retired] boarded the AmaWaterways river boat, the AmaLotus, for a 7-night cruise of the Ton Le River south of Siem Reap onto the Mekong River at Phnom Penh and down the Mekong to Saigon. In a word, this river cruise was "Outstanding." To us, it definitely deserved a Trip Advisor rating of 5 Stars. Factors we took into account in this rating included: itinerary, excursions, guides, on-board presentations, stateroom, shipboard life, logistics, food, and service.
The itinerary is just about all that we could ask. Our trip started from Siem Reap in the Angkor Kingdom. Unfortunately, we were there in the dry season, so we needed to board the AmaLotus further downstream than we had hoped--but that was not a surprise, as we were fully informed of this possibility in all the pre-trip literature. Besides, the bus trip from Siem Reap was down National Route 6, a truly fascinating trip in its own right, and that's not taking into account the historical significance of National Route 6 as a major thoroughfare of the Khmer Rouge as they charged down from the north in 1975, and as they retreated back to the north in 1979 with the Vietnamese invasion [knowledge of Cambodia's history the last 70 years provides greater insight from one's experiences on this cruise]. After boarding at the Prek Kdam Bridge, we then went back north on the river a bit.
I sat in my stateroom with the sliding door open, watching the river and river life go by. It was awesome. We had not been on the boat two hours and I was already thrilled with the voyage. On the shore were homes built on stilts, cattle coming to the water to drink or be bathed, people bathing in the river, villages, cities, and an abundance of life. On the river were countless long, narrow, wooden fishing boats with fisherman setting and hauling in their nets, ferries scooting from one side of the river to the other with crowded decks, and the occasional barge. Watching life on the river and its shores was the very reason that we booked a cruise on the Mekong in the first place. And each day for the rest of the cruise down the Ton Le River into the Mekong River [at Phnom Penh] and all the way to Saigon on the Mekong brought new and different sights. If I'd never left the boat for an excursion, I would have been pleased with the views from the deck. But we did leave the boat for excursions, and they were excellent.
We visited villages, floating villages, several markets on shore [all incredibly exotic], several floating markets, fish farms, silk weavers in a small village [well they had silk products and looms, but I suspect the looms had not operated in years], a small plant that produced sleeping mats [it really was interesting], temples [too many temples], and a small plant that made Vietnamese sweets. Perhaps best of all, Phnom Penh. Not only was the city beautiful in many parts--especially the walkway on the river front--but from there we visited Choeung Ek [a killing field] and what is now called the Genocide Museum, but was the Tuel Sleng prison, often called S21, run by Comrade Duch [pronounced doik]. There was endless variety in the excursions, we were not rushed through the sites we were visiting, and the guides for each local area were well informed and thorough in their coverage.
In addition to the many excursions, there were three or four excellent presentations by local guides on cultural and historical aspects of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as an excellent video presentation about Pol Pot. This Mekong River Cruise made every attempt to help its guests be informed about the nations we were visiting.
There were numerous guides on the cruise and excursions, and though it became a bit difficult to remember their names, they were all terrific. Our guides were well informed, spoke excellent English, and tried very much to make our excursions entertaining and meaningful.
Our stateroom, a basic stateroom and not an upgrade, was wonderful. The king bed was comfortable, the small balcony was inviting, but it was usually too hot to use. The external wall of our stateroom was fully windowed, and the view it provided of the river and shore made just hanging in the room and watching the river go by very inviting. The bathroom was large and nicely done. The stateroom was air conditioned, which was much appreciated--this is, after all, Cambodia and southern Vietnam. This was an excellent stateroom and we were most pleased with it.
My wife and I also enjoyed the size of the group on a river cruise. We have taken several ocean cruises on large vessels [e.g., Princess, Celebrity], and though we much enjoyed all of them, there is something very comfortable and easy about a river cruise with only 98 passengers, plus it was easy to become friendly with many. The table for four that we and our travel companions used the first two days expanded to a table of six the third day and a table of eight the remainder of the trip--and stayed at eight only because that was the largest table size.
Breakfast and lunch were buffets, except the main course was served for lunch. Dinner was served in its entirety, and selections were made from a menu. All food was excellent, and the selections were more than satisfactory. I am a big eater, but not very picky; but also at our table was a light eater, who was very picky. He and I were both extremely pleased with our options and with the food. Further, the wine flowed freely at lunch and dinner, and the house wines were very good. The food options were eclectic, from grilled steak to Pho to lasagna. I never heard anyone complain about the food or the wine; in fact, any comments heard were complimentary! And the service; phenomenal, just phenomenal.
The logistics of the AmaWaterways Mekong River Cruise were excellent. Disembarking for excursions, boarding busses or other means of transportation--an ox cart one time, a bicycle rickshaw another time--and re-boarding the ship were done with aplomb and without a hitch. There were no surprises in the logistics, attesting to the good planning by AmaWaterways and the excellent follow-through by the tour leaders, guides, and ship personnel.
Without hesitation my wife and I would take another AmaWaterways river cruise. We were delighted with our cruise, enchanted by the itinerary, and mightily impressed by the accommodations, food and service.