It was just 10 years ago that the first overnight passenger vessel christened the Mekong River for the Western market, touching off a decade of accelerating growth. Next year, at least nine ships will ply the Mekong, offering a wealth of itineraries along a waterway that flows directly through the heart of some of Southeast Asia's most desirable destinations.
"I'm always looking for potential rivers," Rudi Schreiner, president of Ama Waterways, said in a September interview onboard the inaugural sailing of the company's second Mekong ship, the 124-passenger AmaLotus. "And there were several rivers always on my mind. The Mekong was one of those rivers."
Schreiner was introduced to the river in 2007, when he and his daughter traveled to Vietnam and took a Mekong cruise on Pandaw River Cruises' 66-passenger Tonle Pandaw. He fell in love with the destination.
"We had a wonderful time in the towns" up and down the river, Schneider recalled. "I loved the itinerary."
The classic Mekong river cruise sails a route from Siem Reap, Cambodia, across Tonle Sap Lake, through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and onto Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Many itineraries also include a flight to Hanoi for an overnight cruise through Halong Bay.
Schreiner decided he wanted to build his own vessel, "something along the lines of our European ships," so he partnered with a Hanoi-based shipbuilder, Indochina Sails, which until then had specialized in junks that sail in Halong Bay. Together they launched the 92-passenger La Marguerite in 2009, touching off what would eventually become a flurry of interest in the destination.
The recent rush of Western cruise companies to the Mekong came as something of a surprise to the river cruise company that pioneered the waterway for the Western source market.
"We're all kind of surprised ... by how quickly it's taken place," said Tom Markwell, vice president of sales and marketing at Pandaw River Cruises. "The companies that are experiencing the real success with selling this are the Vikings and the Uniworlds and the Amas of the world, who have had past success [in Europe], and their customers are looking for something new. Other than building another ship on the Danube, what were they going to offer their customers?"
Markwell's surprises have been decidedly positive. As a pioneer on the Mekong, Pandaw has a solid foundation in what Western cruisers are looking for in a Southeast Asia product. As a result, the company has struck partnerships, either to charter existing ships or build new vessels, with many of the recently arrived river cruise operators that target the U.S. market.
Next year alone, for example, Viking will charter the Tonle Pandaw; Avalon Waterways will lease the 32-passenger Avalon Angkor, which will launch in September; and Uniworld River Cruises is partnering with Pandaw on a three-year charter of the 60-passenger River Saigon, which will launch in January. Moreover, Uniworld has already inked a second deal with Pandaw for an additional ship on the Mekong, the 60-passenger River Orchid, launching in January 2013.
The birth of the Mekong cruise
Many of the world's other great inland waterways, including the Amazon, Danube, Nile, Mississippi, Volga and Yangtze, have a history, ranging from a few decades to more than a century, of overnight cruise itineraries for Western passengers. Yet the Mekong has remained a relatively untouched frontier in river cruising.
That all began to change in 1995, when Pandaw River Cruises was founded by a Scotsman named Paul Strachan. His concept was to restore the Pandaw, an original Clyde-built steamer, and revive the river cruising legacy of the fabled Irrawaddy Flotilla Co., which in its heyday in the 1920s operated a fleet of more than 600 vessels that transported millions of passengers each year along the Irrawaddy River in what was then Burma.
The first ship Strachan's new company sailed on the Mekong, in 2001, was the 56-passenger Pandaw I, later renamed the Bengal Pandaw and repositioned to Myanmar, the former Burma. In 2003, the Tonle Pandaw and the 64-passenger Mekong Pandaw were introduced on the Mekong. In 2008, two more ships were brought onto the Mekong, the Indochina Pandaw and Orient Pandaw.
It wasn't until 2009 that Pandaw finally had some company on the Mekong. That was the year Ama Waterways partnered with Indochina Sails to launch La Marguerite, and Heritage Line, a Ho Chi Minh City-based company, entered the market with the 54-passenger Jayavarman.
To build the AmaLotus, Ama and Indochina Sails created a joint venture, Indochina Waterways, which owns the AmaLotus. (Ama does not have any stake in Indochina Sails, which owns the La Marguerite, but Schreiner said the company is looking into the possibility of retroactively acquiring partial ownership of the vessel.)
Heritage Line also launched a second ship in 2011, the 52-passenger Jahan.
Ama does not plan to introduce a new ship in 2012, but Schreiner said the company is looking into options for more vessels in 2013 and beyond.
As for Viking River Cruises, its charter of the Tonle Pandaw does not extend beyond 2012. But Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking, said, "Our plan in 2013 is to offer Viking passengers an even better experience than they had in 2012. ... Viking will be in Vietnam in 2013." Marnell said it was too early to elaborate further on what Viking's plans entail.
There is little mystery about why river cruise companies are suddenly so bullish on the Mekong: They can barely build ships fast enough to keep up with the demand.
"It's a great destination," Marnell said. "Sales for 2012 were fantastic. Quarter one and quarter two are already sold out."
Schreiner, too, said that on the Mekong, "the sailings are full."
Vietnam's and Cambodia's allure
The growing demand for the Mekong has been remarkable, in part, because the destinations it touches have matured.
"In the past few years, Vietnam and Cambodia are getting quite mainstream," Markwell said. "The infrastructure is there. Even five years ago, you didn't have the InterContinentals."
But there is another part to the story, as well: the healing of old war wounds.
Jim Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran who sailed on the inaugural AmaLotus cruise, has seen the changes firsthand, both in the infrastructure and in the psychology of people on two sides of a controversial war that whimpered to a tragic end in the 1970s.
Today, Anderson lives in Lakeway, Texas, with his wife, Joann, owner of the Joann's Travels agency. But from September 1965 to February 1966, he served in Vietnam, flying helicopters that transported troops into and out of Vietnam's central highlands.
He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1995, accompanied by Joann and a fellow veteran.
"We had been there during the war and wanted to see the country," he recalled. "We went to Saigon, and at that time they were not ready for tourists."
But by the time he and his veteran buddy "went back in '07 ... they were ready. The hotels were all updated, and it was nice."
Indeed, the major attractions, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Cambodia's sprawling temple complex at Angkor Wat and the nearby town of Siem Reap, have since become tourism touchpoints.
What has changed in recent years, Schreiner said, is the attention tourists have begun paying to the modern cultures and societies of the two countries.
"In the past, you flew into Siem Reap," he said. "Tourists came in just to see ancient ruins. They were not exposed to the daily life. They didn't care much about how people were living." He added, "I want to bring people in to see what today's life is. We see Angkor Wat also, but on the cruise we want people to see the fish farms, see the local communities."
Interestingly, it was that more intimate encounter with the countryside that struck a chord with Anderson on this trip on the AmaLotus.
"The experience of the riverboat was great because you got to see the little villages," he said. "It was nice to see the local people how they lived. ... It's just a lot more pleasant to go back now. It's a beautiful country."
While the allure of the destination is evident -- ancient temples; bustling, motorbike-clogged cities; charming floating fishing villages -- developing the river cruise market in Southeast Asia to meet the standards of river cruisers from the Western world is an ongoing challenge.
A major concern is the extreme fluctuation in water levels. While a problem on navigable rivers the world over, this proved to be particularly challenging in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, for example, when an abnormally heavy rainy season produced heavy flooding in parts of Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, making it difficult for ships to pass under a low bridge in Phnom Penh.
A key answer to such challenges is the design of the vessels themselves.
"A ship is a completely new project," Schreiner said. "It's like building a new car for the first time. ... Every country builds things differently. So, whenever it starts up, on the first ship you will run into problems. On the next ship, you will know what the first problems were, and you will be able to correct a good number of them. ... What I realized on the La Marguerite is that the product has great potential and that the partners are great to work with in delivering a quality product. That's what you never know when you start."
The main difference between the ships Ama Waterways and Pandaw are sailing on the Mekong, for instance, is that the Ama ships have interior hallways, and the Pandaw ships have wrap-around decks and exterior cabin entrances.
One can argue the advantages and disadvantages of both models. Ama says that interior hallways enable passengers to remain in the comfort of air-conditioned quarters, while Pandaw argues that they're not a good idea from a safety standpoint.
But the bottom line is that while the standard of river cruising is rapidly improving on the Mekong thanks to all the recent development, it has still not reached the sophistication of European river cruising.
The general consensus among passengers on the AmaLotus was that it was a great vessel, that the accommodations more than met their expectations, that the service was quite good.
But they also noted that this was still Southeast Asia, meaning that sometimes they were going to have to trek through some mud to get back to the ship or hop onto a wobbly chair to transfer from a speedboat back to the ship. While this is exactly the exotic charm and sense of place that travelers often seek, it is a marked difference from the experience of highly refined cruising on the rivers of Europe.
It's all part of "the Asian five-star experience," joked the cruise director onboard the AmaLotus.
As for the rise and fall of the river, though the water is a bit more plentiful right now than many in the region would like, it's the dry season that causes more problems for river cruise ships, whose drafts are constantly threatened by shallow waters and moving sandbars between November and April.
In cases where certain areas of the rivers or lake aren't navigable, alternate routes and modes of transportation must be used, ranging from taking speedboats across Tonle Sap Lake to motorcoaches.
Another serious concern as more and more river cruise ships enter remote areas that are completely new to the tourism economy is the question of how much and what constitutes responsible development.
"We don't want Avalon's 32-passenger vessel pulling up [to a remote village] at the same time as the 124-passenger AmaLotus," Markwell said. "At that point, there would be more passengers than villagers. That would be catastrophic.
"You have to keep in mind what you believe the market can bear," he added. "Right now on the Mekong, we've quickly built a foundation. Everyone has their ships. Everyone has their plans for 2012 and beyond. Everyone has to look at their booking trends before we all jump back onboard and keep building. We have to make sure that before we lay another keel that it's the right thing to do."
For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.