A River Runs Through It

Nick Wal­ton cruises Cam­bo­dia’s Tonle Sap Lake aboard the newly launched Aqua Mekong, a luxury river cruiser that prom­ises to take well-heeled ad­ven­tur­ers far from the tourist traps.

Maxx-M - - WHAT TO DO - Text and Pho­tos by Nick Wal­ton

It’s cock­tail hour and in the dimly lit lounge a bar­tender shakes up a storm as the last brush­strokes of day fade on the hori­zon. Dark­ness comes quickly on Cam­bo­dia’s Tonle Sap Lake, as if a gi­ant vac­uum has sucked up all the light, leav­ing only inky dark­ness punc­tu­ated by the bum­ble­bee sounds of fish­er­men’s long-tail boats as they head out on the night’s catch. It’s a breath­tak­ing tran­si­tion, en­joyed from a unique per­spec­tive. The beau­ti­fully styled Aqua Mekong river cruiser, which launched mid­way through Oc­to­ber, is by far the most lux­u­ri­ous way to ex­pe­ri­ence Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong River, two wa­ter­ways that are vi­tal to In­dochina. Com­bin­ing the chic dé­cor and per­son­alised ser­vice of an in­ner-city bou­tique ho­tel with the cul- tu­ral im­mer­sion that comes with life on the wa­ters of Cam­bo­dia, Aqua Mekong her­alds a new era in high-end tourism for one of In­dochina’s least vis­ited cor­ners. It’s the first night of our four-night itin­er­ary as we cruise from Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat, Cam­bo­dia’s tourism le­gacy, across the ocean-like lake and down to the cap­i­tal, Ph­nom Penh, from where the ship con­tin­ues on the Mekong into Viet­nam. The route and the many ex­cur­sions along the way are ex­plained by the ship’s team of Cam­bo­dian and Viet­namese guides dur­ing the first nightly brief­ing. In the com­fort of the ship’s in­ti­mate lounge, with its pol­ished wood floors, floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows and be­spoke fur­ni­ture, the guides map out our pro- gress east and south across the vast ex­panses of Tonle Sap as the cap­tain raises the ship’s an­chor and we begin to cruise into the dark­ness. Tonle Sap Lake is per­fect for ex­pe­di­tionary cruis­ing. A vast, dumb­bell-shaped body of wa­ter, it’s a cru­cial ecosys­tem and home to over a mil­lion peo­ple whose lives and liveli­hoods ebb and flow with the lake’s wa­ters. Dur­ing the wet sea­son, when flood­wa­ters from the Hi­malayas ex­pand Tonle Sap to 12,000 square kilo­me­tres, mak­ing it one of Asia’s largest fresh­wa­ter lakes, its float­ing fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties move to­gether into deeper wa­ter. Dur­ing the dry sea­son, when we visit, the lake shrinks to 2,500 square kilo­me­tres, its vil­lages re­turn­ing to the lake

Banks en Masse and the wa­ters of Tonle Sap Lake re­vers­ing in a unique hy­dro­dy­namic phe­nom­e­non that can be seen from the ship. Aqua Mekong is the new­est ves­sel of Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions, a two-ship ex­pe­di­tionary cruis­ing com­pany owned by Ital­ian-Amer­i­can Francesco Galli Zu­garo. His pas­sion for ex­pe­di­tionary cruis­ing was forged dur­ing years work­ing with a cruise line in the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands and his two South Amer­i­can ships ply the Peru­vian Ama­zon. Many of my fel­low guests, who num­ber just 27, have cruised on the Aqua Aria or Aqua Ama­zon, and have ea­gerly awaited the new ship’s ar­rival on the Mekong. She was worth the wait. De­signed by Saigon-based ar­chi­tect David Hod­kin­son and built in ship­yards in Sin­ga­pore, Aqua Mekong is the first five-star ves­sel on the Mekong, a river that’s in­creas­ingly sought af­ter by in­trepid trav­ellers. Dressed in the nat­u­ral tones of pol­ished wood and lo­cally sourced fab­rics, the Aqua Mekong is spa­cious, airy and mod­ern with­out be­ing flashy. The ship’s 20 De­sign Suites – eight of which fea­ture pri­vate bal­conies – weigh in at a sur­pris­ing 30 square

me­tres and are min­i­mal­ist yet wel­com­ing, with plush twin daybeds wreath­ing French door-styled win­dows, ad­dic­tively good king-size beds and walk-in rain showers. It’s also the lit­tle touches that go a long way, from the Ne­spresso cof­fee ma­chine and built-in USB con­nec­tiv­ity to the com­pli­men­tary wi-fi ser­vice and a triple-fold turn­down ser­vice that makes com­ing back from ex­cur­sions a dream. For the ul­ti­mate in­dul­gence, in­ter­con­nect­ing suites may be booked to­gether to cre­ate pri­vate living rooms and mul­ti­ple bed­rooms. De­spite its ex­pe­di­tionary cre­den­tials, mod­ern touches ex­tend through­out the Aqua Mekong, from the bar on the top deck, with its col­lec­tion of small-batch rums and in­ven­tive evening cock­tails, to the plunge pool perched above the bow and the in­ti­mate day spa. A crew ra­tio of 1:1 and a menu cre­ated by Miche­lin­starred chef David Thomp­son, who reg­u­larly joins the ship, en­sure this is no sim­ple river me­an­der. Early the next morn­ing, we de­part the ship on the mod­ern skiffs that had brought us from the pier out­side Siem Reap. Th­ese pow­er­ful ves­sels – the only ones of their kind on the lake – are a sig­na­ture of the Aqua ex­pe­ri­ence and of­fer guests a chance to ex­plore deep within this unique aquatic land­scape. Loaded with cam­eras and Aqua wa­ter ther­moses – one of many green ini­tia­tives cre­ated by the com­pany – we set off, bound for the flooded forests of the Prek Toal Bird Sanc­tu­ary, a fun­da­men­tal com­po­nent of the Unesco-recog­nised Tonle Sap Bio­sphere Re­serve that en­com­passes Cam­bo­dia’s Great Lake. Re­garded as the sin­gle most im­por­tant breed­ing ground in Southeast Asia for many threat­ened water­bird species, the sanc­tu­ary cov­ers an im­pres­sive 31,282 hectares in the lake’s north­west cor­ner and is the per­fect first ex­cur­sion for Aqua Mekong’s new­est guests. The com­pany has en­tered into a part­ner­ship with the sanc­tu­ary’s re­search sta­tion that al­lows the ship to use its own skiffs rather than the sta­tion’s rather du­bi­ous op­tions. The Mer­cury en­gines of the skiffs run al­most silently, and we cruise through the flooded land­scape with breaths caught as we spy flocks of great egrets and In­dian shags. Atop trees slowly dy­ing from their guano, Ori­en­tal darters pa­rade be­fore us, their out­stretched wings dry­ing in the sun, while squadrons of gi­ant pel­i­cans pa­trol above, their ex­pan­sive wingspan al­low­ing them to glide high above the flooded vista with ease. Un­der one large wa­ter-wreathed tree, we chat with three poach­ers-turned-rangers; the sanc­tu­ary is home to many en­dan­gered species, and hun­ters who once preyed on the mi­gra­tory vis­i­tors now pro­tect them at 36 ranger sta­tions. Armed with ri­fles and ra­dios, and perched in tree houses for days at a time, the rangers main­tain pas­sage through the sanc­tu­ary, guard­ing the many species pass­ing through the sub­merged forests, es­pe­cially dur­ing the dry sea­son when num­bers of birds are high­est. We keep one eye on the trees and an­other at their base in search of elu­sive Si­amese croc­o­diles. In the af­ter­noon, as the heat of the day be­gins to ebb, we set out again, this time bound for one of the lake’s many float­ing vil­lages. In the tiny vil­lage of Kam­pong Kh­leang, chil­dren and adults alike glide through mir­ror-like wa­ters on tra­di­tional long boats, leav­ing lin­ger­ing wakes that wash against homes perched on pon­toons. Fish farm­ing is a core busi­ness on the lake and each sim­ple home is at­tached to net­ted tanks of thrash­ing cat­fish. We head on, nav­i­gat­ing by line of sight and GPS through the labyrinth of tree­tops that reach over eight me­tres from the lakebed. Pure white herons burst from the fo­liage and into a sky that’s vivid blue as the float­ing vil­lage of Moat Kla emerges from a sea of green trees and re­flected clouds, ex­cited chil­dren rush­ing to door­ways and wav­ing fran­ti­cally as we, among the first for­eign­ers they’ve seen, cruise by. Dusk be­gins to stretch across the sky as our pair of skiffs, a makeshift con­voy of lo­cal boats in our wake, bee­line for the vil­lage’s tiny float­ing tem­ple, where a wiz­ened old monk and three novices greet us with a bless­ing chant that dances across the wa­ter. It’s noth­ing short of mag­i­cal. The in­clu­sive ex­cur­sions, com­bined with the com­forts of the most mod­ern ship on Asia’s rivers, make Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions unique. Dur­ing the four-day itin­er­ary, we visit float­ing and stilted com­muni- ties, some thriv­ing towns and in­ti­mate, iso­lated vil­lages; we visit fam­i­lies that have crafted sil­ver and silk for gen­er­a­tions, and are wel­comed into homes to ex­pe­ri­ence life on the lake first-hand. In Chnok Tru, I watch as mas­sive ice blocks are shred­ded at a float­ing ice fac­tory, and as homes and stores are formed into con­voys to be repo­si­tioned in deeper wa­ter. In tiny Koh Oknha Tey, we visit a lo­cal school and take turns to do­nate sta­tionery sup­plies and sing with the chil­dren, and amongst the palm plan­ta­tions of Kam­pong Chh­nang, we watch Angko­rian pot­tery re-spun and sip palm nec­tar in the shade. It’s cul­tural im­mer­sion with crea­ture com­forts. Of course, it’s no hard­ship re­turn­ing each evening to cock­tail hour in the lounge and David Thomp­son’s stunning cui­sine in the ship’s in­ti­mate dining room. Famed for be­ing awarded the first-ever Miche­lin star for a restau­rant serv­ing Southeast Asian cui­sine, at Nahm in Bangkok, Thomp­son serves up de­lec­ta­ble dishes on the Aqua Mekong as shar­ing plat­ters, the daily chang­ing menus laced with sig­na­ture favourites, from river prawns with tamarind and palm sugar served on be­tel leaves, to sticky ribs, green pa­paya salad and fiery co­conut laksa. Lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents, in­clud­ing Kh­mer Kam­pot black pep­per, Mekong River cat­fish and prawns, and fruit from the mar­kets of Siem Reap and Ph­nom Penh, en­sure bril­liant flavour com­bi­na­tions and in­sight­ful cui­sine through­out our cruise, even if a few pas­sen­gers had their palates – and spice tol­er­ance – tested. And then, each evening, it’s back to the lounge or one of two out­door decks, to watch fish­er­man lure their catch with green flo­res­cent bar lights that sway in the evening breeze, and to lis­ten as si­lence cas­cades across the Great Lake once more.

The Flight

Fly from Jakarta to Ph­nom Penh with Garuda In­done­sia www.garuda-in­done­sia.com

The Cruise

A four-night down­river itin­er­ary is priced from US$3,500 per per­son, in­clu­sive of all meals, se­lected bev­er­ages, trans­fers, ex­cur­sions and in­ter­net ac­cess. www.aqua­ex­pe­di­tions.com

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