Lake of Life: Cruising Tonlé Sap and the Mekong River
As the last brushstrokes of day fade on the horizon, darkness falls quickly on Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap, 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 and is by far the most luxurious way to experience Tonlé Sap and the mighty Mekong River, two waterways that are vital to Indochina. Combining the chic decor and personalised service of an inner-city boutique hotel with the cultural 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 the temples of Angkor, Cambodia’s main draw, across the ocean-like lake and down to the capital, Phnom Penh, whence the ship continues on the Mekong into Vietnam. This route and the many excursions along the way are explained by the ship’s team of Cambodian and Vietnamese guides during the first of the nightly briefings. In the comfort of the ship’s intimate lounge, with its wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and bespoke furniture, the guides map out our progress east and south across the vast expanse of Tonlé Sap as the captain raises the ship’s anchor beyond and we begin to cruise into the darkness.
The lake is perfect for expeditionary cruising. A vast, dumbbell-shaped body, it is a crucial ecosystem and home to more than a million people whose lives and livelihoods ebb and flow with the lake’s waters. During the wet season, when flood waters from the Himalayas expand Tonlé 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 2500 square kilometres, its villages return to the lake banks en masse and the waters of the Tonlé Sap reverse in a unique hydrodynamic phenomenon that can be seen from the ship.
Aqua Mekong is the newest vessel of Aqua Expeditions, now a three-ship expeditionary-cruising company owned by the Italian-American, Francesco Galli Zugaro. His passion for expeditionary cruising was forged during his years working with a cruise line in the Galápagos 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.
It was worth the wait. Designed by Saigon-based architect David Hodkinson and built in shipyards in Singapore, the 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 and modern without being flashy. The ship’s 20 suites — eight with private balconies — measure up at a surprising 30 square metres and are minimalist yet welcoming, with plush twin daybeds wreathing French door-styled windows, addictively good king-sized 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 both small-batch and inventive beverages, to the plunge pool perched above the bow and the intimate day spa. A crew ratio of 1:1 and a menu created by Michelin-starred 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 the unique aquatic landscape. Loaded with cameras and Aqua Thermos flasks — one of many green initiatives started by the company — we set off, bound for the flooded forests of the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, a fundamental component of the UNESCO-recognised Tonlé Sap Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses Cambodia’s Great Lake.
Regarded as the most important breeding ground in South East Asia for many threatened waterbird species, the sanctuary covers an impressive 312.8 square kilometres in the lake’s northwest corner and is the 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 wingspans 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 the bird numbers are at their 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 kampong of Khleang, children and adults glide through mirror-like waters on traditional longboats, 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 tree tops that reach over eight metres from the lake bed. Pure white herons burst from the foliage and into a vivid blue sky 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 — with a makeshift convoy of local boats in our wake — make a 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.
These excursions, combined with the comforts of the most modern ship on Asia’s rivers, make Aqua Expeditions’ offering unique. During the four-day all-inclusive itinerary, we visit floating and stilted communities, some thriving towns, others 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 Kaoh Oknha Tey, we visit a local school and take turns to donate stationery supplies and sing with the children, and among the palm plantations of Kampong Chhnang, we watch Angkorian pottery respun and sip palm nectar in the shade. It’s cultural immersion with creature comforts.
Of course, it’s no hardship returning each evening to the lounge and 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’s daily changing Aqua Mekong menu features a range of delectable dishes as sharing platters. These are laden 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 — 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 the cruise, even if a few passengers had their palates — and spice tolerances — tested. And then it’s back to the lounge, or one of two outdoor decks, to watch fishermen lure their catch with green fluro bar lights swaying in the evening breeze, and to listen as silence cascades across the Great Lake once more.