From the moment you embark, I don’t want you to feel like you are on a cruise ship, but like you are in a world- class boutique hotel,” says Francesco Galli Zugaro, who launched the Aqua Mekong last autumn, the third of his trio of diminutive deluxe vessels that cruise the remotest outreaches of the Peruvian Amazon – and now Vietnam and Cambodia. Galli Zugaro travelled to Africa, India and China in search of another great river for his latest floating palace, before alighting on the Mekong and moving his family from Lima to Singapore so he could oversee the custom ship’s construction.
The boxy, 62.5m river cruiser sails three-, four- and seven-night itineraries between Saigon, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on the placid currents of the famed waterway as well as the Tonle Sap River and Tonle Sap Lake. With just 40 guests and a matching number of crew, Aqua Mekong offers a privileged perspective on some of the globe’s most remote wonders, all from within a chic, contemporary atmosphere and accompanied by five-star service and the toothsome Thai delicacies of Michelin-starred Executive Chef David Thompson of Bangkok’s award-winning Nahm restaurant.
“I see this as the Machu Picchu of Southeast Asia,” says Galli Zugaro over drinks in the Observation Deck lounge, where guests gather for cocktails and conversation. The ship is anchored a short boat ride from the port at Siem Reap, near the historic capital of the Khmer empire and home to the kingdom’s magnificent 12th-century temples at Angkor. Through walls of windows on each side of the wide room, darkness descends over the silvery waters of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater expanse in Southeast Asia which swells during monsoon season to submerge the surrounding flood plain under as much as ten metres of water.
For dinner, Thompson’s team has prepared a Mediterranean menu that includes cauliflower salad with hazelnuts and herbs, raw courgette with raisins and smoked capers, and aubergine with pesto, plus a choice of grilled river fish or slow- roasted lamb shoulder. Modern Mediterranean dishes alternate with Thompson’s vibrant curries, noodle dishes and other Thai and local specialities for each meal.
“I didn’t think food should take premier place,” explains the wry, tousled Thompson. “It really is about the cruise and being in an enjoyable environment. I thought the food should be like someone affluent with a cook in a nice kitchen cooking for a home.”
Architect David Hodkinson of Vietnam’s Noor Design created the subdued, modern interiors using local wood and stone with Indochine touches that reflect the surroundings, which provide an ever- changing backdrop through spans of floor-to-ceiling glass. Four of the 20 cabins – each measuring 30 square metres – connect for families, and eight of them feature outdoor balconies where guests can enjoy a nightcap under a starry sky. A spa, fitness room, screening room, game room, sundeck and swimming pool offer opportunities for diversion and indulgence between excursions.
Each morning and afternoon, guests can hop onto skiffs for what Galli Zugaro describes as “soft adventures”. A trip to the 22,000ha Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve explores the flooded forest sanctuary. “You will be surprised how some areas are quite similar to the Amazon,” notes Galli Zugaro. “Obviously, they eat anything that moves here, so there’s no big wildlife.”
Many of Aqua Mekong’s excursions have a cultural angle, enriched by four Cambodian and Vietnamese guides. A tour through the floating village of Moat Khla glides past floating gas stations, convenience stores, schools and stilted houses painted bright red, green and blue. The waterways bustle and villagers smile and wave as they zip by in river canoes outfitted with noisy long- tail motors spouting frothy rooster-tails in their wakes.
Aqua Mekong’s fleet of bicycles offers a more immersive experience as guests pedal through verdant landscapes with rice paddies and slender sugar palms. In the villages, children run to the road, greeting allcomers with singsongy “Hallos”. Land excursions also include insider glimpses into pottery, metalsmithing and silk- weaving workshops, as well as the opportunity to visit schools brimming with eager kids who love showing off their English skills. “Two years ago we took a trip on the Mekong, and the itinerary we put together here is 80 percent different,” says Galli Zugaro with pride. “There are ten or 12 other ships, but no one is doing it our way.”
Date visited: March 2015