The Scenic Spirit wasn't my first Mekong River cruise, but it's the only time I've done the classic Southeast Asia route ensconced in a suite with a pair of floor-to-ceiling windows that opened at the push of a button.
As much as there was to see outside of the boat — fishermen on skiffs dropping nets, squat cargo barges with evil eye wards painted on their bows and "floating" villages of wooden huts on stilts — the 68-passenger Scenic Spirit is a boat that draws you in.
The interior of the 2-year-old ship includes posh suites with walk-in closets and sitting areas, a two-room spa with a steam room, a generous-size lounge and bar and a restaurant with banquettes and clusters of tables for two, four and six.
Ancient faces look on across time at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
The Scenic Spirit plies the standard seven-night route on the Mekong River and tributaries between points near Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It's packaged with a three-night stay in Siem Reap — at the charming, old-world Park Hyatt Siem Reap — to see the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat and the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor Thom.
Besides typical excursions, Scenic thrives on offering memorable enrichment experiences as part of its all-inclusive cruise tours. In Siem Reap there were several — a magical dinner and traditional apsara dance performance amid the candle-lit ruins of an Angkor temple, sunrise at Angkor Wat followed by breakfast at a nearby monastery and a performance of the Phare Cambodian Circus, an impressive mashup of acrobatics, theater, music, storytelling and slapstick.
Most days we had a choice of two or three excursions in the morning and afternoon. Onboard the Scenic Spirit, tours began after a generous East-meets-West breakfast buffet in the Crystal restaurant, including an omelet station and local fare from noodles to dim sum and exotic fruits. Another round of exploring was offered after lunching on local favorites like crispy Khmer crepes, green mango salad and Vietnamese pho noodle soup as well as burgers and other Western staples.
Some excursions involved traveling by speedboat, affording close-up views of river life — kids waving from the doorways of wooden huts and women washing clothes.
The Wat Hanchey pagoda and monastery awaits at the end of a 330-step climb. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna
Other tours started with a walk down the gangway, up the muddy riverbanks and right into a village. We reached the hilltop Wat Hanchey pagoda and monastery by climbing 330 steps (or hopping in a van) to take in the eclectic architecture and meet a resident monk. Another memorable outing was to the old Cambodian capital of Oudong to participate in a private blessing ceremony at a massive golden pagoda and monastery.
A handful of excursions focused on local trades, including a tour of a rubber-processing factory and a tuk-tuk ride to a primitive silk-weaving operation.
Midcruise, we spent two days docked in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a chaotic mix of modern high-rises and crumbling French colonial buildings, to visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, solemn reminders of the country's genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Other tours focused on the gilded, late 19th-century Royal Palace and high tea at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Traditional open-air markets packed with cheap T-shirts and handicrafts were another draw, as were the ubiquitous and cheap massage outlets.
Crossing over into the more prosperous, densely populated and bustling Vietnamese side of the Mekong, a market stroll was offered in Sa Dec, complete with the pungent smells and jarring sights of freshly skinned and splayed frogs, writhing fish, blobs of bloody meat and heaps of local greens.
Excellent local guides from both Cambodia and Vietnam traveled with us, sharing not only history and facts but their personal stories, as well. They spoke of relatives who had died during the genocide and the years when learning or speaking English was forbidden.
After a day of touring under the hot Mekong sun, the guides mingled with passengers in the Spirit Bar before they headed to dinner. A la carte menus offered several choices for each course, with highlights including seafood Laksa noodle soup, smoked duck breast with turmeric sticky rice, amok fish (sea bass with coconut paste) and John Dory with crabmeat and mashed potatoes. The complimentary wine choices were excellent.
When we weren't eating or ashore, people lounged in their posh suites, hit the gym with its three cardio machines or took a dip in the pool. Others hung out on the open top deck, walking laps or joining a morning exercise class. Evenings were taken up with port talks, cocktails, trivia games, movies and dance parties on deck.
My happy place was the Spirit's spa. I signed up for three excellent and inexpensive massages that helped me reach my onboard nirvana. Now that's a river cruise.
Scenic's 11-day Luxury Mekong and Temple Discovery Cruise package includes a seven-night cruise and three hotel nights and starts at $4,395 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include drinks, meals, excursions and a handful of special enrichment experiences.