Mekong River Cruise Review

By John Honeywell (Captain Greybeard) - Travel Writer.

Mekong River Boat

It was Lara Croft who introduced most of the western world to Angkor Wat, but she is not the only Tomb Raider to have plundered these Cambodian relics.

The temple complexes form the biggest religious monument in the world – lost to the jungle until rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 19th Century. They largely survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that killed off much of the population and brought the country to its knees in the 1970s and 80s but more recently they came under attack from bounty hunting invaders from Thailand.

Now the greatest threat comes from the millions of tourists who are allowed to climb over them pretty much at will.

The temples were built for Hindu worship and later converted for Buddhists by a Cambodian king who changed his country’s religion. Nowadays, visitors can ascend to the highest point of Angkor Wat earlier and join marauding macaques to clamber over the many faces of Bayon temple. A little further on, it’s fascinating to see how Ta Prohm – the real Tomb Raider temple – is being reclaimed once again by the jungle, with giant trees growing out of the stonework.

Ta Prohm

Before much longer, these intricately-carved sandstone structures will inevitably be roped off and the numbers of visitors will be restricted. A new visitor centre is under construction, and eco-friendly electric transport will soon replace the swarms of tuk-tuks that deliver many of Angkor’s two million visitors a year from their hotels and hostels in nearby Siem Reap.

For many passengers on a Mekong River cruise, a stay in the town’s luxury hotels is an essential part of the holiday. Just as important are extended stays in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, which perfectly bracket a week on the water.

Whichever way visitors experience it, the seven days travelling on the Mekong will pass in a blur of one-off experiences to be remembered for years.

For example, an overnight stay the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is full of contrasts. A heart-wrenching visit to the Killing Fields memorials could be followed by Happy Hour cocktails at Raffles Hotel or a $10 rub-down in a downtown massage parlour.

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh

Deeper into the jungle, guides will take guests to a fish farm and to an agricultural community where smiling women might be busy picking fiery chillis. Not too busy that they won’t have time to break off and pat the stomachs of the more portly male passengers, who can become Happy Buddhas for a day.

Locals Farming, Cambodia

Serene monks will offer blessings on a visit to their monastery, while elsewhere hard labour is the order of the day as workers in a brick factory cut clay to be fired in kilns which burn barrow-loads of rice husks.

A morning tour of a food market can be a challenging experience, too. Fruit and vegetables are piled high at the roadside and there are more varieties of fish than it’s possible to name. If some of the meat looks unrecognisable it’s probably best not to ask what animal it comes from. Strong stomachs will not be deterred from sampling the local KFC – Khmer Fried Crickets – or the deep-fried tarantulas.

Mekong Street Food

Passengers familiar with European river cruising will find their floating homes on the Mekong are a little different from the long, low vessels on the Rhine or the Danube. Here there is plenty of teak, bamboo and brass, with probably no more than about 30 cabins on each.

Local dancers will be brought in for entertainment at least one night of the cruise, and other entertainment will probably include showings of films such as The Killing Fields and The Quiet American.

By John Honeywell (Captain Greybeard) - Travel Writer.

View our selection of Mekong River Cruises online or call our team of river cruise experts on 0800 810 8220