Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is traveling on the Cambodia-Vietnam itinerary for Ama Waterways' new ship, the AmaLotus. Her fourth dispatch follows. Click to read her first, second and third dispatches.
Offering a luxury river cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia is a delicate balancing act between providing a comfortable experience for discerning clients and enabling those clients to experience the local colors and flavors of Southeast Asia.
For Ama Waterways, that has meant finding ways to bring components of Cambodian and Vietnamese culture onboard its two ships on the Mekong River -- the 92-passenger La Marguerite launched in 2009, and the newly launched 124-passenger AmaLotus -- while at the same time finding ways to bring Ama-quality standards to excursions off the ship.
On the vessels, the Southeast Asian experience manifests itself in elements such as decor, which features Indochine-inspired wood paneling, flooring and furnishings, as well as iconic photos of the region and Asian artwork. It also comes through in the cuisine, with Vietnamese pho being served alongside continental breakfast standards, and lunch and dinner almost always featuring local dishes such as Cambodian fish amok, Vietnamese banh mi, spring rolls and curry, in addition to Western or European options.
The staff, too, represents a potpourri of Asian countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, bringing onboard a sense of Asian hospitality. And even services such as massages, facials, nail treatments and a salon round out offerings people come to expect in this part of the world.
However, the more authentic and interactive cultural exploits occur off the ship, which presents another challenge: how to bring passengers closer to the countries they are traveling through, while still keeping things comfortable.
For one, Southeast Asia can be very hot and wet. For the unpredictable rains, Ama provides umbrellas and ponchos, and for the heat, provides water as well as cold towels and beverages upon return from the excursions.
The excursions themselves are also an effort in making sightseeing as pleasant as possible in situations that aren't always conducive to comfort. Whether it's traveling by motorboat or motorcoach to provide air-conditioning or a cool breeze, or scheduling excursions for earlier in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid the hottest hours, considerations are constantly made in that delicate balancing act between comfort and culture.
In its itineraries, Ama also includes excursions such as a rickshaw ride through a village in Vietnam, or an oxcart trip through a farming community in Cambodia, attempting to give passengers several avenues on which to encounter the local culture, all the while trying to make the journey getting there as easy on guests physically as possible.
Does it sometimes feel touristy? Yes. Does it at other times seem more genuine? Absolutely. Is it sometimes a bit hot or dodgy despite Ama's efforts? Yes. Does it always feel great to get onto an air-conditioned bus? One hundred percent.
You can't have it all, your creature comforts and your totally authentic travel experience. But Ama is trying to get you as close to that as possible.
And the end result is that whether on the ship or off, you never once forget where you are, with the added bonus of comfortable beds, air-conditioning and cereal, yogurt or eggs for breakfast if you're not ready for cultural immersion in the form of Vietnamese noodle soup at 7 in the morning.