Editors' Note: Avalon Angkor is no longer in service. The ship has been replaced with Avalon Siem Reap.
Thirty-two-passenger Avalon Angkor is a comfortable, modern vessel with a classic, almost "African Queen" vibe created with the help of lots of teak. It was purpose-built in Vietnam in 2012 for Avalon Waterways to cruise on the main and backwaters of the Mekong and Tonle Sap in Southeast Asia.
Exploring along the rivers takes up a major portion of Avalon's cruise vacation tours between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which typically combine river cruising with land stays.
Avalon Angkor is an intimate vessel. The riverboat has just two passenger decks, each housing cabins. The second deck also features two outdoor sitting areas. One is at the aft for the occasional moments of lazing about while the vessel motors between shore excursions. The other, in the middle, is used for group meetings and socializing during the cocktail hour before dinner. Forward is a well-windowed, enclosed, air-conditioned dining room that doubles as the location for the nightly movie and/or lectures.
Avalon Angkor is smaller (about 130 feet long) than most other riverboats on the Mekong, with a shallower draft (4 feet, 7 inches), so the captain can guide the boat close to rural sights along tributaries, such as temples, local land and floating markets, and villages. Do not be surprised when this riverboat is tied to a tree, or when the path from village to river is down an embankment where the steps have been hollowed out of the dirt because more permanent steps and docks would be swept away with the next spring's floods.
The shallow draft also allows Avalon Angkor to float across muddy Tonle Sap Lake during the summer and fall trips, moving the vessel close to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where passengers are lodged during tours of Angkor Wat and its associated ruins. Most riverboats, needing more water beneath them, do not cross the lake and, instead, tie up on the Tonle Sap River while passengers make the trip between riverboat and a Siem Reap hotel by bus -- a ride of up to seven hours. (Passengers on all riverboats, including Avalon Angkor, ride the bus during the lake's lowest season, January through March.)
The river voyage is a bit of an adventure, but it's made easier by Avalon Angkor's accommodating staff. They line the occasional dirt embankment paths, offering steady arms. They stand ready with fresh fruit juice and cold, wet towels when passengers return from explorations. There are no massage facilities, but on one trip when an older female passenger skipped a tour because her legs hurt, a young crewmember promptly brought out a healing ointment and massaged her legs, saying he would do the same for his grandmother.
The cruise director (an employee of Avalon Waterways) and the guides (who are not) are keys to the experience. The guides are all locals, and many have personal tales to tell of their lives and their family histories in this war-torn part of the world. The cruise director stays with each group of passengers throughout the tour, starting and ending at top-class hotels in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. He participates in each shore excursion, all of which are included in the cruise tour rate, and he also provides guidance for free time in the cities.