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Monday,  May 20, 2024 7:49 AM 

On Location: Temples, tuk-tuks & tunnels – What to expect on AmaWaterways’ Mekong cruise

On Location: Temples, tuk-tuks & tunnels – What to expect on AmaWaterways’ Mekong cruise
From left: Carole Petersen. franchise owner, Expedia Cruises; Sandra Gardiner, director of sales, Canada, AmaWaterways. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

On a riverbank in Angkor Ban in northwestern Cambodia, more than two dozen monks in saffron robes carrying satchels with attached bowls form a line at the top of a marina staircase.

The stage is set for almsgiving, a morning ritual in Buddhist countries where alms (food) is donated to monks for the purpose of supporting monastic communities.

In Angkor Ban, a region of nine rustic villages filled with steeple-shaped mausoleums, wooden houses built on stilts and Brahman cows (villages that weren't destroyed during the Khmer Rouge), almsgiving is a tradition that unfolds in silence.

Almsgiving unfolds on a riverbank in Angkor Ban in Cambodia. (Pax Global Media)

Monks will pass, one by one, in a meditative state, while community members pay their respects by placing food into each participant's bowl.

It’s a spiritual sight, as we observed wholeheartedly one humid morning, metres away from upper decks of the AmaDara, a 124-passenger ship operated by AmaWaterways, on one of the final stops of a week-long river cruise along the Mekong River.

“Ama” means love, and the company’s participation in almsgiving is a testament to that.

AmaWaterways guests observe almsgiving from the AmaDara in Angkor Ban, Cambodia. (Markus Schneeberger)

At sunrise, the AmaDara’s crew will gather on a slanted, concrete docking surface to prop tables and unwrap leftover food from the ship to share with monastic locals.

When this happens, ship staff are no longer waiters and bartenders. They're alms givers, participants in a tradition dating back to the 14th century. 

Charms of the Mekong

It was one of many memorable moments observed during AmaWaterways’ “Charms of The Mekong” voyage, which PAX, alongside Canadian franchise owners from Expedia Cruises, covered exclusively from Oct. 16-23.

As PAX first reported, the seven-night, eight-day cruise, which starts in My Tho Port in Vietnam and ends in Kampong Cham in southeastern Cambodia, transports guests to a world of ancient cities and villages where dynamic guides, who call passengers “family,” are the stars.

Canadian franchise owners from Expedia Cruises joined Charms of the Mekong with AmaWaterways in October. (Pax Global Media)

“Charms of the Mekong” is one of two itineraries offered by Ama on Asia’s famous trans-boundary river, where the cruise line has been perfecting culture-rich itineraries since 2009. (Their other route is called “Riches of the Mekong.”)

The AmaDara, which debuted in 2015, was built for plying the Mekong, where calm currents, originating from the Tibetan mountains in China, fade from muddy brown to cool blue.

READ MORE: On Location - “Ready for adventure”: PAX unpacks the Mekong with AmaWaterways & Expedia Cruises

“AmaDara” means “Love Star,” and the ship’s mahogany wood interiors encapsulate a type of old-world glamour that you just don’t find on most river ships today.

The AmaDara, which debuted in 2015, was built for sailing the Mekong River. (Markus Schneeberger)

The vessel’s Oriental and French-colonial décor and spacious, twin-balcony staterooms make for an upscale experience on board, where smiling staff memorize guests’ names and serve delicious, locally-sourced meals – a new selection of Chef creations each day – from net rice noodles with roasted pork belly to pork stew (chicken, salmon and other staples are also available, if desired).

Spacious staterooms aboard the AmaDara. (Pax Global Media)

Lush greenery on the sundeck of AmaDara. (Pax Global Media)

It’s a mostly all-inclusive voyage, too. In addition to meals and unlimited wine at lunch and dinner, local beer, house-brand spirits and soft drinks are available at all times (which differs from Ama’s Europe cruises, where alcohol is included, but only during specific hours).

The AmaDara, at just 324 feet in length, is also smaller than the cruise line’s Europe ships, holding just 124 passengers across 62 staterooms.

On board the friendly AmaDara, where everybody knows your name. (Pax Global Media)

Think of it as a floating luxury boutique hotel – upscale, but not uptight – where guests, from Gen X couples to mother-daughter duos to active boomers, aren’t just passengers. They’re family.

Cory Andrichuk & Wendy Li of Expedia Cruises (left) and Sandra Gardiner, of AmaWaterways, explore the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. (Pax Global Media)

Adventure, activated

The 400-kilometre cruise may be the epitome of comfort – the AmaDara has all the fixings, such as a sundeck bursting with green plants and orchids, a fitness room, an outdoor pool, a spa and onboard wellness activities, like yoga.

But central to the voyage is an invitation to step outside of your comfort zone. 

“This program is for somebody who's open minded and ready for some adventure,” said Sandra Gardiner, AmaWaterways’ director of sales for Canada, who was on our sailing.

Tender boats transport guests to land from the AmaDara. (Pax Global Media)

The Mekong, unlike waterways in Europe, is a different river dance.

The AmaDara will dock in remote places where ports can be anything from a muddy hill, where stairs have been dug out, to a concrete slab on the side of a village road.

In Kampong Cham, our final stop, the crew unravelled ropes and tied the ship to some trees.

Gangways in creative locations on the Mekong. (Pax Global Media)

Disembarking isn’t always a land-based process either.

In Vietnam, for example, we were handed life jackets, led into tender boats, and motored into canals to reach remote villages, passing waving fisherman and stilt houses along the way.

The cruise, at times, felt like an expedition. A very accessible one. 

Ready for adventure on Ama's tender boats. (Pax Global Media)

Ama’s shore excursions (which are included in the price) are designed for all types, from slow walkers to active explorers.

Guests choose which itineraries they’re interested in before the cruise (a single day can present multiple options, in the morning and afternoon), but excursions can be changed once on board.

A walk through a village in Angkor Ban. (Pax Global Media)

Locals greeting us in Angkor Ban. (Pax Global Media)

Our resourceful leaders – a skillful cruise director named Tung, referred to as an “Asian James Bond," and a hotel manager, Markus, an Austrian beer maker and natural MC, were the ringmasters who kept guests revved up and ready for each day’s activities.

Tung, the ultimate AmaWaterways cruise manager. (Pax Global Media)

It starts in Saigon

But for some, the adventure began long before the AmaDara even entered the picture.   

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s most populous city (also known as Saigon), is a pre-cruise add-on, where Ama passengers, prior to their sailing, can cozy up in the glam Sofitel Saigon Plaza (which has an amazing rooftop pool) and explore downtown. 

Checking into the Sofitel Saigon Plaza. (Pax Global Media)

There’s lots to see in a city that never sleeps. Here, millions of scooters flow through the streets like a river, roaring past temples, skyscrapers and roadside vendors, at all hours.

Green space in Ho Chi Minh City. (Pax Global Media)

Scooters fill the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. (Pax Global Media)

Once a hub during the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh City, today, is a bustling metropolis of more than nine million people – a place of organized chaos where bowls of hot pho, crispy bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches), tranquil parks and rooftop nightclubs converge.

Sky-high nightclubbing at Chill Skybar in Ho Chi Minh City. (Pax Global Media)

We visited local landmarks, such as the neo-classical Saigon Central Post Office, constructed in the late 19th century when Vietnam was part of French Indochina.

Then, to Independence Palace, where the Vietnam War ended in 1975 after a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through site’s main gates.

Inside Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. (Pax Global Media)

Inside, a bygone era unfolded. We toured presidential living quarters, conference rooms, banquet halls, and even war command centres and bunkers in the basement, which are lined with maps of military operations, vintage rotary telephones and teletypes.

The Tunnels of Củ Chi

Vietnam is a beautiful country that’s come a long way. But there are also dark reminders of war from a not-so-long-ago era.

An hour and a half from Ho Chi Minh City are the Tunnels of Củ Chi, where communist guerrilla troops, known as Viet Cong, dug thousands of miles of connecting passages (and booby traps) into the jungle floor, starting in the 1940s during their war of independence with the French.

These underground caves (hiding spots) were also the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Today, the tunnels are a tourist attraction.  

The tunnels of Củ Chi. (Pax Global Media)

As we circled “trap doors” in the earth, our guides painted a harrowing picture of what it was like for soldiers who hid (and lived) in these tunnels, where oxygen, food and water was scarce, and where ants, centipedes, rats and spiders were also enemies.

Brave tourists can crawl through a restored tunnel to get a small sense of what the claustrophobic conditions would have been like.

Visitors can crawl through a restored tunnel. (Pax Global Media)

It’s a heavy experience, but a recommended one – if only for understanding the significance of the tunnels and their role in Vietnam’s complex history.

"An adventure of a lifetime"

With Saigon fresh in our minds, we at last boarded the AmaDara – at a loading dock some 1.5 hours away – and began our Mekong cruise, where guests, on port days, can opt to stay on board and relax or sign up for an adventure of a lifetime.

When gliding down the Mekong, life floats forward.

The AmaDara on the Mekong River. (Pax Global Media).

In Cái Bè, a river-land town in rural Vietnam, we learned the secrets of making rice paper and sweet candy, like rice pop (think peanut brittle, but elevated).

AmaWaterways' Sandra Gardiner learning how to make rice paper. (Pax Global Media)

Then, in Sa Dec city, we strolled through a wet market, passing frog legs and fish scales, and visited Cao Dai Temple, a sacred complex, painted yellow, that combines Buddha, Confucius, and Taoist teachings.

Expedia Cruises franchise owners and guests in Cái Bè, Vietnam with AmaWaterways. (Pax Global Media)

There’s room to move like a local on this Mekong march.

In the town of Tan Chau, we climbed into trishaws – a three-wheeled vehicle with pedals – and merged into a moderate traffic flow of cars and scooters.

Trishaw rides through the town of Tan Chau. (Pax Global Media)

If anything, it was training wheels for the road ahead.

Days later, in metropolitan Phenom Penn, the ten-times-busier capital of Cambodia, we traversed by tuk-tuk, an engine-powered rickshaw, wedging into bumper-to-bumper avenues lined with shops and landmarks, such as the majestic Royal Palace, the National Museum, the Independence Monument and Buddhist temples with pagodas, like Wat Phnom (all of which we visited).

Joining the traffic flow in Phenom Penn, Cambodia. (Pax Global Media)

Exploring the Royal Palace in Phenom Penn, Cambodia. (Pax Global Media)

Other times, like in hillside Oudong, Cambodia’s former royal capital in the 17th century – which, today, is home to one of the country’s largest monasteries – transportation took a more traditional form. 

In the nearby village of Kampong Tralach, we bumpily rolled down dirt roads in wooden carts pulled by oxen.

Hilltop stupas in Oudong, Cambodia’s former royal capital. (Pax Global Media)

The local connection 

As we flowed further down the marshy Mekong, passing lush-green rice paddy fields, and stepped into villages – in Angkor Ban, one woman, named Thary, invited us into her wooden stilt home with bamboo flooring to look around – the rhythms of local industry surrounded us.

In Vietnam’s Tan Chau, there was the family-run workshop that specializes in rattan mats and smooth silk clothing – two economic drivers in the community.

Thary invited us into her home in Angkor Ban. (Pax Global Media)

For many in our group, this was a souvenir-shopping dream, and as the cruise progressed, Ama’s passengers only got silkier as they donned new, locally-sourced outfits at dinners.

Later on, in Cambodia, the Mekong introduced us to peaceful “Silk Island,” known for its traditional silk weaving – products cultivated by mulberry-hungry silkworms in cocoons and manual loom-weaving techniques.

Silk weaving is an age-old art in Cambodian homes. (Pax Global Media)

Silk weaving is an age-old art in Cambodian homes, often passed down from mothers and grandmothers.

That afternoon, local artisans, with the help of our guides as translators, shared this colourful tradition with us.  

Silk Island is known for its traditional silk weaving. (Pax Global Media)

Our visit here also carved out an opportunity to give back.

In a nearby village, an elementary school invited us over to meet the principal, teachers and students.

Guests on a previous Ama Mekong cruise were so touched by this experience, they rallied together to raise money to buy the school new desks, paper, and a printer with ink cartridges.

Sandra Gardiner was there to announce the gifts, which will help the school tremendously (previously, staff had to go all the way to Phenom Penn, one hour away, to print something).

Sandra Gardiner, AmaWaterways’ director of sales for Canada (second from left) announces the delivery of gifts to an elementary school. (Pax Global Media)

Some of the best moments on river cruises are the unscripted ones.

Even our hotel manager, Markus, opened his world, inviting PAX and the folks from Expedia Cruises to his countryside home, on a small island some 15 minutes from Phenom Penn, one afternoon to sip beers, like passion fruit pale ale, that he brews himself under his own brand, Black Bamboo.

This exclusive experience, a side hustle for Markus, hopefully, one day, becomes an official Ama excursion.

Markus, our hotel manager, shares samples of his signature beer Black Bamboo. (Pax Global Media)

Dark history 

The friendliness of locals made each day special. At night, the generosity of communities sprung alive on the AmaDara as local dancers and musicians stepped aboard to share their talents in the ship’s lounge after dinners.

But amid the joyful times, there were also sombre ones.

The Mekong presents a kaleidoscope of history, including events that represent some of the darkest days of humanity.

In Cambodia, scars of genocide surfaced at the Killing Fields, a former orchard in the village of Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometres from Phnom Penh, where more than 1,000,000 people were killed and buried by the Communist Party of Kampuchea during Khmer Rouge rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. 

A memorial stands at the Killing Fields in Choeung Ek, Cambodia. (Pax Global Media)

Our guides shared real-life annecdotes of horrific crimes as we slowly walked about the grounds, which, today, function as a memorial, where a stupa sits in the centre, holding thousands of human skulls that were exhumed from the earth in the 1980s.

It’s a graveyard, not a tourist attraction, and while the Killing Fields brought many in our group to tears – the atrocities that were committed are unspeakable – the visit was essential to understanding multi-dimensional Cambodia and its people.

The day was paired with a tour of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, which chronicles the Cambodian genocide.

From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, which was also a torture and execution centre.

Incredibly, one of Tuol Sleng’s twelve survivors, a man named Chum Mey, who was 48 years old when the Khmer Rouge arrested him in 1978, accusing him of spying, greeted us at the end of our tour, and to sign copies of his autobiographical book, Survivor.

Tuol Sleng survivor Chum Mey meets with museum visitors. (Pax Global Media)

Mey, now in his nineties, graciously took questions, sharing first-hand accounts about his time spent in one of the world’s most horrifying prisons.

It was a tough day, but an important day. Not only were we able to pay our respects to lives lost, but we could also honour the Cambodia that exists today with greater compassion and understanding.

Travel, when done respectfully, makes this process possible.

Temple crawl 

The cruise concluded in Siem Reap, where Ama leads post-cruise visits to the famous Angkor Wat, an ancient temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Temples, in both Vietnam and Cambodia, had a way of communicating meaningful takeaways on the Mekong.

The AmaDara has just 62 staterooms. (Pax Global Media)

In Kampong Cham, for example, the UNESCO-stamped Wat Nokor, a temple complex built with sandstone and laterite walls in the 11th century, was proof that intricate craftsmanship, no matter how ancient, can stand the test of time.

Vanna, a tour guide in Cambodia, explaining local traditions to Ama guests at Wat Nokor.  (Pax Global Media)

But it was a moment at the vast Buddhist monastery in Oudong that brought it all home.

Surrounded by ancient temples and stupas, we removed our shoes and sat in on a ceremony, where two monks chanted in unison while tossing jasmine petals on us.

Monks bless visitors at the monastery in Oudong, Cambodia. (Pax Global Media)

The ritual, said to bring good fortune for the coming year, left many of us feeling blessed. 

And grateful, for travel. The ultimate blessing.

What was it like exploring the Mekong with AmaWaterways? Watch PAX's exclusive re-cap reel!

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