These days, it’s often Asia’s rivers, not its frantic cities, that provide the truly pleasurable moments. Book a cruise on the Aqua Mekong, for example, and your journey begins at Phnom Penh airport. You crawl through the Cambodian capital’s streets. A new speeding law has just come into force and the traffic police are visibly out and about, collecting bribes. On Russian Federation Boulevard, you pass a massive building – the Office of the Prime Minister – which supposedly echoes the Khmer architecture of Siem Reap but looks gloomingly Soviet. Opposite the gate to the port area, Hooters is opening its Phnom Penh branch and has a sign up, hiring girls. (Haven’t the Cambodians suffered enough?)
Two minutes out on the Mekong, however, and irritations melt into the current and are gone. There’s certainly plenty of space: the river’s about 4,350km long and runs through six countries. The Aqua Mekong plies between two of them, Cambodia and Vietnam, offering a variety of trips – upriver, downriver, high-water, low-water.
I am doing a three-nighter south to Ho Chi Minh City in July, the rainy season. The boat, which was built in 2014 and has only 20 suites, is half-full but it’s so spacious that even with 40 passengers, it wouldn’t feel packed to its stylish gunwhales.
Here’s how laid-back it is: there are no keys for your room (although paranoid guests can request one from housekeeping). No one has to dress for dinner. Everyone uses your first name, no matter how fiendishly Celtic it might be. I did my best to return the compliment with Phearak, Vandreth, Chantrea … as obliging a set of individuals as ever had to deal with meal-time finickiness. (Guests on board, having been asked in advance about dietary restrictions, variously shunned coconut milk, banana, gluten, alcohol.)
Despite such tinkering, the food – light, local, luscious – is truly delicious. That’s one of Aqua Mekong’s big selling points. David Thompson is the consulting chef: he’s an Australian awarded the first Michelin star given to a Thai restaurant, and he’s occasionally on board. But even in his absence, his influence flows mightily through the kitchen. I have about as much inclination for cooking as I have for spelunking but every meal is such an exercise in taste-happiness that I sign up for chef Sophal’s market tour – inspecting snakehead fish and tree frogs, inhaling spices, admiring the pedicures being administered next to obese sacks of rice – and follow it up with his cookery class.
Such expeditions are the real highlight of an Aqua Mekong cruise. Yes, the forward-facing infinity pool is charming (if tiny) and the indoor cinema is a hoot (a group of us watch Four Weddings and A Funeral one night, lolling on loungers while munching Michelin-worthy popcorn). But it’s the ship’s quartet of little skiffs that’s the stand-out. On one of those, you become part of the river’s skin. If you’ve ever looked down from the deck of a cruise ship and longed to get closer – even briefly – to the life that’s unfurling past, never to be reclaimed, then Aqua Mekong’s the vessel for you.
A three-day trip involves no loitering in Cambodia. By midnight on the first evening, we’ve dropped anchor at the border. Early the next morning, I watch an immigration official approach in his own skiff, as upright as an admiral with a briefcase, to return our passports so that we can cross the invisible dotted line. The river changes name at this point: to the Vietnamese, it’s called Nine Dragons (like our own Kowloon) and it becomes noticeably busier.
“Let’s go over and have a look,” Tuyen, our excellent guide, suggests, about some activity or other. Could more enticing words be heard when, like a dragonfly, you’re skimming the surface of a great Asian waterway? The large local boats have fiercely painted eyes on their prows but Tuyen is our eyes, and through him we see it all: the branches dipped in water to create fish traps, the mountains of reddish-brown sand that turn out to be rice husks, a Catholic convent glimpsed in an island jungle beneath towering thunderheads, as if we are flitting through the nave of a gigantic cathedral.
One morning, we step on board a fish farm. Men crouch over the threshing water, neighbours stand around in pyjamas, children take our photos (the role-reversal of the smartphone era).
“Probably in your supermarket you find these catfish!” says Tuyen. And, sure enough, fossicking about in a ParknShop freezer a week later, I’ll find them – chilly slabs that will suddenly call to mind a coffee-coloured river, with banks as freshly green as if someone had zipped up and down with a paintbrush every dawn.
Later, we call in on a village, sit under the longan trees, dine on tiny grilled perch and mounds of tropical fruit. In a bowl, there is a heap of what I thought were dusky bats: water chestnuts. Some of the ship’s crew magically appear to hand out cold towels and chilled drinks, so it isn’t exactly Heart of Darkness territory. Dogs and children skitter past.
After a while, two of the villagers sing for us in their home. I’m wary of here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier, interaction-lite situations, but the minute Uncle begins twanging on his one-stringed calabash (impressively wired for sound) and Auntie burst into song, it is apparent we are a useful excuse for some terrific karaoke. A gecko is sufficiently inspired to join in; another Uncle – Ho Chi Minh – beams down on us from his portrait on the wall.
Afterwards, we walk back through twilight fields of bak choi and sunflowers. Our vessel beckons from the river. There are temples, and floating markets, and coconut-candy factories – with handmade sweets, like mahjong tiles – to visit. My suite has a daybed on which, in the end, I spend exactly zero minutes: what with the spa, the cinema, the (small but surprisingly good) library, and all the corners on deck from which you can wave at the hooting river-traffic until your arms ache with travel exuberance, who wants to rest?
Aqua Mekong rates for a three-night itinerary start at US$3,660 per person (not including flights). For details, go to www.aquaexpeditions.com.