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A guide to...Mekong river cruises

A mere trickle of melt water emerging from the parched landscape of the Tibetan plateau, the meagre source of the Mekong river belies the deluge that will eventually pour from its mouth into the South China Sea. Spilling through China’s Yunnan province, it reaches lush rainforests where its banks widen to create the boundaries between Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Thailand. It breaks through the heart of Cambodia before finally cracking across the floodplains of southern Vietnam, dispersing its riches before greeting the ocean.

And the riches it brings are many. The life-giving waters of the Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, support a biodiversity only bested by that of the Amazon basin. Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles, freshwater dolphins, giant freshwater stingrays and giant catfish are just a few of the exotic species that inhabit its basin. In terms of aquatic species alone it can beat even the Amazon, holding three times more species per unit area. For many centuries human populations have thrived on this, not to mention the nutrient-packed sediment providing ideal soils for rice farming. Traders, fishermen, farmers, monks – the history and diversity of the people living along its banks, spanning almost the length of the Indochinese peninsula, is culturally fascinating.

Navigating the falls, rapids and changing water levels of the Mekong to discover its countless treasures has never been easy. It wasn’t until the 1860s that French colonial explorers set up the French Mekong Expedition and succeeded in sailing as far as Yunnan. Even today, cruising these mighty waters feels like a voyage of discovery: the river provides the only means of access to remote reaches of countryside and rural communities where an antiquated way of life continues. The bonus is that you don’t have to suffer any of the discomfort of the early explorers.

Here we recommend four luxury cruise companies that offer a boutique river boat experience on the Mekong. All start with a tour of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam before leisurely cruising through the delta to the Angkor temples in Cambodia, with the option of travelling the route in reverse. Excursions and visits along the way vary but the real difference is in the style of boat and the ambience on board. All are small vessels providing an intimate and stylish cruising experience, but will you choose classic luxury, comfort without the frills, modern sophistication or traditional romance?

Lotus Cruises
Modern luxury combined with French colonial elegance is the hallmark of the Lotus brand. Their two small, sophisticated ships, the Mekong Navigator and the Mekong Jewel, each comprise just 34 sumptuous suites, ensuring an intimate experience coupled with highly personalised service. Both ships feature a stylish restaurant and bar serving regional and western dishes, a breezy sun deck, library, spa and fitness centre.

The Mekong Jewel is the latest addition with the added bonus of a private balcony in every suite, a jet pool on the sun deck and the chic Sapphire Sky Lounge serving cocktails. Add to this the carefully planned excursions with knowledgeable, English-speaking guides for a flawless Mekong river voyage.

Join the Mekong Journey, a luxury Lotus cruise exploring local life amid the myriad waterways of the Mekong delta in Vietnam before crossing into Cambodia for a city tour of Phnom Penh and the magical temples of Angkor.

Pandaw Cruises
With a little more of the intrepid about them, Pandaw still offer a boutique cruising experience but with less of the pampering. In fact, their big selling point is the informal, convivial atmosphere on board, along with their characterful fleet of small ships. Pandaw vessels are recreated colonial-era steamers, handcrafted in brass and teak with a shallow draft, enabling them to navigate the tricky variations in water level along the Mekong. Cabins continue with the colonial theme and, although decked out in contemporary comforts, do away with features such as minibars, telephones, televisions and internet access to enable a blissful escape from the modern world.

Dining on board a Pandaw ship is an authentic experience: tuck into local dishes cooked using exotic ingredients that are sourced locally. Excursions are also a little bolder than your average cruise. Explore local markets with the ship’s chef, visit Pandaw charity projects and local communities, venture into the jungle on speedboats and go on cyclo rides.

Join the Classic Mekong, reaching deep into the delta aboard one of Pandaw’s colonial steamers. Cross into Cambodia and take a rickshaw tour of Phnom Penh, followed by a detour cruise along the Tonlé river. Finish amid the magnificent temples of Angkor. 

Heritage Line Cruises

Heritage Line artfully design classic river vessels to recreate the romance of the golden era of travel. Mekong journeys are aboard either The Jahan or Jayavarman. The Jahan harks back to colonial British India with local artisans employed to design the authentic and elegant interiors of this 26-cabin ship. The Viceroy Dining Hall, East India Club lounge area, polished sun deck with jacuzzi and Apsara Spa all add to the indulgence.

The 27-cabin Jayavarman has a French colonial inspiration with Khmer and Vietnamese artwork expertly intertwined throughout. The ship also features a sun deck, jacuzzi and relaxing Apsara Spa as well as the classy Club 1930 Funnel Bar & Lounge and Indochine Dining Hall. Excursions from the ships are all tailored to ensure authentic experiences with an element of adventure while never cutting down on comfort.

Join A River Journey on the Mekong, travelling aboard either The Jahan or Jayavarman from Vietnam through to Cambodia. Visit remote communities, local artisans and important cultural sights en route including Vietnam War history in Phnom Penh and two full days to explore the Angkor temples.

Aqua Expeditions
Aqua Expeditions offer a more modern take on Mekong cruising with an emphasis on excursions that provide an authentic insight into the culture, wildlife and landscapes of the Mekong basin. Their vessel, the Aqua Mekong, features minimalist, polished interiors by award-winning architects Noor Design.

There are just 20 sleek and spacious cabins showcasing floor-length windows that drink in the river views with some opening out onto balconies. A top-notch dining experience awaits at the Dining Room with dishes created by Michelin-starred chef David Thompson. Watch daily life along the banks of the river from the vantage point of the Observation Deck or admire the sunset with a cocktail in hand at the Outdoor Lounge & Bar. In the heat of the day, the canopied plunge pool at the bow of the ship is the best spot to relax.

Further leisure facilities include a small spa and gym with panoramic windows, a library with games room and a screening room for private lectures, films and documentaries. Excursions are often by tender, enabling you to reach lesser-visited parts of the river while optional bike rides will take you even deeper into the delta.

Join the Aqua Expeditions Mekong River Cruise for a voyage of cultural discovery and outstanding natural beauty. Carefully tailored expeditions into the Mekong basin led by expert guides take you to floating markets and remote villages to visit traditional houses and artisans at work.

To discuss any of the above cruises in further detail, please call one of our specialist travel consultants.