--by Fran Golden and David G. Molyneaux, Cruise Critic contributors
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.
Avalon Angkor Fellow Passengers
Avalon Waterways appeals to English-speaking passengers in the 55-plus age range, though Southeast Asia river trips tend to draw a younger, more energetic group of cruisers who are well-traveled and relatively mobile. Though strenuous hikes are few and short -- Avalon provides transportation for those who do not feel up to them -- daily walks to villages, religious sites and markets require significant energy, as do walks in Angkor Wat and its associated ruins.
Avalon Angkor Dress Code
The ship is casual at all times, though most passengers put on fresh shirts or blouses for dinner. The soles of passengers' shoes are cleaned as they board at the end of shore excursions (for health reasons and to preserve the teak decks), and some passengers do not put them on again until it's time to go ashore the next morning. The river can be cool at night (bring a jacket or wrap), and it can be mighty warm during the day, depending on the season. You might want to wear long sleeves and pants in the evenings to discourage insects; bring bug repellent. Also bring rain gear and a sun hat, and dress in layers for walking ashore. You will need long pants and tops that cover shoulders for some shore excursions.
Avalon Angkor Gratuity
Gratuities are included in cruise fares for services during meals and land stays (including porter tips for one piece of luggage per person). Gratuities for the Cruise Director, local hosts, local guides, driver and ship's crew are not included and are discretionary. Avalon recommends $5 to $7 per person, per day, for the Cruise Director; $3 to $5 per person, per day, for the local guide; and $5 to $7 per person, per day, for the crew. All transactions aboard the riverboat are in U.S. dollars.
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We did a land/river package with Avalon starting in Ho Chi Minh City and ending in Bangkok, with 7 days aboard the Avalon Angkor. We went northbound along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, and then across Tonle Sap Lake -- from Ho Chi Minh City to ...continue