Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is traveling on the Cambodia-Vietnam itinerary for Ama Waterways' new ship, the AmaLotus. Read her first dispatch here; her second dispatch follows.
There is always a sense of excitement and anticipation when boarding a brand-new ship, especially when that ship happens to have been built in Southeast Asia, a less predictable market than the well-established river cruise industry in Europe.
The ship, the 124-passenger AmaLotus -- Ama Waterways' second Mekong River investment after La Marguerite, which launched in 2009 -- is sailing its second inaugural cruise, from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, having just returned from a weeklong inaugural sailing in the reverse direction.
Just prior to the launch, Ama held a board meeting in Siem Reap, and several Ama executives, including company co-founders Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and Jimmy Murphy, were all coming onboard to see the fruit of months and months of planning and labor. And there was a subtle "fingers crossed everything goes well" feeling in the air.
After being transported on motorboats to the ship, dramatically docked in the middle of Tonle Sap Lake, we were invited for a welcome reception in the Saigon Bar and Lounge. Both the hotel manager's and cruise director's welcome speeches were executed with a hint of apology. The ship is newly built, they reminded everyone, and as is common with newbuilds, there are little tweaks and glitches that might need sorting out.
The cruise director, with his huge, bright smile, reminded us that while we may be accustomed to the upscale amenities of Western cruise ships and hotels, this is what he jokingly called "the Asian five-star experience."
And while what he meant was to be forgiving and patient with anything that didn't meet our standards, I took it to mean something else.
Yes, this is Asia, where maybe everything doesn't run as smoothly as in North America or Europe: The little glitches we were warned about included having to wait a few moments for the warm water in the cabins to kick in, and air-conditioning units that weren't pumping the coolest of air in some staterooms (a problem that, as I understand it, was resolved within the first day with a visit from the ship engineer).
But the "Asian five-star experience" also offers experiences you can't get anywhere else. From memorable moments -- whether it's flooding in Siem Reap or bumping along on the back of an ox cart through village backroads -- to the colorful flavors and fishing villages, any minor tweaks and adjustments being made here to bridge our five-star expectations with the Asian five-star experience is more than made up for in service and experience, amenities that quite frankly transcend any star rating.
And for all the humble apologies, the AmaLotus is a well-executed vessel with positive attributes (large, comfortable cabins; a welcoming pool and sundeck; solid, Asian-inspired cuisine) that largely outweigh any negatives (the ship's strong vibrations while sailing, for instance, a problem that is purportedly going to be addressed).