Thirty-two-passenger Avalon Angkor is a comfortable, modern vessel with a classic, almost "African Queen" vibe created with the help of lots of teak. It was purpose-built in Vietnam in 2012 for Avalon Waterways to cruise on the main and backwaters of the Mekong and Tonle Sap in Southeast Asia.
Exploring along the rivers takes up a major portion of Avalon's cruise vacation tours between Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which typically combine river cruising with land stays.
Avalon Angkor is an intimate vessel. The riverboat has just two passenger decks, each housing cabins. The second deck also features two outdoor sitting areas. One is at the aft for the occasional moments of lazing about while the vessel motors between shore excursions. The other, in the middle, is used for group meetings and socializing during the cocktail hour before dinner. Forward is a well-windowed, enclosed, air-conditioned dining room that doubles as the location for the nightly movie and/or lectures.
Avalon Angkor is smaller (about 130 feet long) than most other riverboats on the Mekong, with a shallower draft (4 feet, 7 inches), so the captain can guide the boat close to rural sights along tributaries, such as temples, local land and floating markets, and villages. Do not be surprised when this riverboat is tied to a tree, or when the path from village to river is down an embankment where the steps have been hollowed out of the dirt because more permanent steps and docks would be swept away with the next spring's floods.
The shallow draft also allows Avalon Angkor to float across muddy Tonle Sap Lake during the summer and fall trips, moving the vessel close to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where passengers are lodged during tours of Angkor Wat and its associated ruins. Most riverboats, needing more water beneath them, do not cross the lake and, instead, tie up on the Tonle Sap River while passengers make the trip between riverboat and a Siem Reap hotel by bus -- a ride of up to seven hours. (Passengers on all riverboats, including Avalon Angkor, ride the bus during the lake's lowest season, January through March.)
The river voyage is a bit of an adventure, but it's made easier by Avalon Angkor's accommodating staff. They line the occasional dirt embankment paths, offering steady arms. They stand ready with fresh fruit juice and cold, wet towels when passengers return from explorations. There are no massage facilities, but on one trip when an older female passenger skipped a tour because her legs hurt, a young crewmember promptly brought out a healing ointment and massaged her legs, saying he would do the same for his grandmother.
The cruise director (an employee of Avalon Waterways) and the guides (who are not) are keys to the experience. The guides are all locals, and many have personal tales to tell of their lives and their family histories in this war-torn part of the world. The cruise director stays with each group of passengers throughout the tour, starting and ending at top-class hotels in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. He participates in each shore excursion, all of which are included in the cruise tour rate, and he also provides guidance for free time in the cities.
All of the public "rooms" are on the top deck. The open-air lounge in the middle of the ship -- the venue for cocktail gatherings at 6 p.m. nightly -- has fans providing cooling breezes and comfortable seating areas that feature wicker sofas, club chairs, and plushy, cushioned, wooden lounge chairs. A second open-air lounge is located at the aft. The tiny purser's office doubles as a sundry shop (with just a few items) and has a 24-hour coffee station. There are no other public rooms.
The boat offers free Wi-Fi, but often it is not available, especially in rural Cambodia. The Internet connection is strongest near the purser's station. For those who like to see the officers at work, the ship has an open bridge policy.
As you move about the polished teak decks, be aware they can get a bit slippery when damp.
Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the boat.
A gong rings to announce the beginning of meals. Passengers' hands are spritzed with sanitizer as they enter the dining room, which is set up with tables for six, laid with white tablecloths. The tables line the outside walls; in the middle is a buffet table, which offers salads, soup and desserts at lunch and dinner. Fruit, cereal and bread are provided at breakfast. Seating is open.
Lunch and dinner times are announced each day, depending on shore excursions. Breakfast runs from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m.
At the tables, waiters take appetizer and entree orders. For lunch and dinner, three main entrees always include one Western and one Asian dish. You might find yourself choosing between local dishes like Fish Amok (fish curry) or Beef Bourguignon. Some dinners are themed; examples include Mekong fisherman's and French colonial themes. At lunch, there's always a sandwich choice, and, at breakfast, there were eggs and hot items in addition to the cold buffet. Waiters work to please, and cooks -- including an onboard chef -- pay attention to passenger dietary restrictions (vegetarian, gluten-free, no pork, no seasoning) if requests are made in advance to Avalon Waterways. A passenger who requests hot chilies once might find a dish with chilies at each meal. Dark Vietnamese coffee is featured; the tea selection includes such favorites as Earl Grey, green tea and ginger tea.
Menus are printed and delivered to each cabin, along with the daily activities newsletter, so you can see in advance what's in store. A printout is also displayed in a case outside the dining room.
Avalon Angkor carries a storehouse of fresh bottled water for drinking, washing vegetables, cooking and making ice.
Soda, beer, wine, coffee, tea and local spirits are included, available from the Purser who has a desk at the center of the riverboat, or from a waiter in the dining room. Imported alcohol incurs a charge; for example, Jack Daniels is a reasonable $4 per drink. Each night, bartenders mix up a complimentary cocktail of the day, typically sweet and with a name like Mekong Sunrise. At dinner, a house white (Chardonnay) and house red (Syrah/Malbec blend) are served free of charge. You can pay $22 to $38 if you want a better bottle; the brief wine list includes selections from Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy and Chile. The boat also stocks a Tattinger Brut ($60).
The 16 teak-walled cabins are all outsides, located on two decks. They measure 172 square feet each and feature floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors with louvers that open onto the open-air passageway that links cabins on each side of the vessel. Cabins all look similar, though the best are in front, with extra windows facing forward.
In each cabin, beds can be configured into two twins or one queen and come with duvets, Egyptian cotton linens, and decorative gold and brown silk pillows. There are two reading lights, but there's not enough light to brighten the cabin at night (something the line has been working to fix). Two-drawer cabinets are built into each side of the bed, with two large drawers under the bed, as well as room to store soft-sided suitcases. The closet comes with 10 wooden hangers. A writing desk has a stool, and a Phillips hair dryer is located in the drawer. Electricity is 230 volts, which means you'll need a converter. (The ship stocks a few if you forget.)
Cabin amenities include bathrobes and slippers, an alarm clock, an in-room safe, individual climate control, wicker water bottle holders, a hair dryer and two dozen bottles of free water (more if needed). You are advised with a posted sign not to drink water from the sink faucet in your cabin. A laundry bag and laundry list are provided; you'll pay $1.75 for a T-shirt to be washed; there is no dry-cleaning.
All cabins have a private bathrooms with tiled, teak-doored showers equipped with shower gel and shampoo dispensers. Bath amenities also include small round soaps and hotel-size bottles of lotion and conditioner -- plus an amenities kit with a comb, cotton swabs, a sewing kit, a nail file and a shower cap.
Cabins are air-conditioned. When you're not inside, keep the lights out and doors closed to prevent an invasion of mosquitoes. There is bug spray provided under the sink in each stateroom.
Gratuities are included in cruise fares for services during meals and land stays (including porter tips for one piece of luggage per person). Gratuities for the Cruise Director, local hosts, local guides, driver and ship's crew are not included and are discretionary. Avalon recommends $5 to $7 per person, per day, for the Cruise Director; $3 to $5 per person, per day, for the local guide; and $5 to $7 per person, per day, for the crew. All transactions aboard the riverboat are in U.S. dollars.
|Fitness and Recreation|
There is no pool, spa area or fitness room aboard, though one exercise bike is on the deck. Passengers will find reasonably priced spa services available in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.
This trip would be appropriate only for older children, given the small group setting and need to constantly mingle with adults. Avalon does not accept children younger than age 8.
Avalon Waterways appeals to English-speaking passengers in the 55-plus age range, though Southeast Asia river trips tend to draw a younger, more energetic group of cruisers who are well-traveled and relatively mobile. Though strenuous hikes are few and short -- Avalon provides transportation for those who do not feel up to them -- daily walks to villages, religious sites and markets require significant energy, as do walks in Angkor Wat and its associated ruins.
The ship is casual at all times, though most passengers put on fresh shirts or blouses for dinner. The soles of passengers' shoes are cleaned as they board at the end of shore excursions (for health reasons and to preserve the teak decks), and some passengers do not put them on again until it's time to go ashore the next morning. The river can be cool at night (bring a jacket or wrap), and it can be mighty warm during the day, depending on the season. You might want to wear long sleeves and pants in the evenings to discourage insects; bring bug repellent. Also bring rain gear and a sun hat, and dress in layers for walking ashore. You will need long pants and tops that cover shoulders for some shore excursions.
Most nights a movie is shown in the dining room (on a pull-down screen) after dinner, with the titles reflecting the cruising locale. Think "Good Morning Vietnam" and "The Killing Fields." Also in the dining room, the Cambodian crew entertains with lectures on such things as the many uses for scarves -- a demonstration full of giggles -- as well as dancing demonstrations (traditional and classic rock). One night, a group from a local orphanage comes onboard to perform both traditional dances and hip-hop. Another night, the cruise director leads passengers in a post-dinner sing-along.
All passengers move as a group on shore excursions, which range from tours and lectures at the Angkor ruins (passengers are each provided with a picture ID entrance ticket that otherwise sells for $40) to a contest of bargaining (in Vietnamese) for a few goods in a local food market. Shore excursions are led by a knowledgeable local guide. They're designed to allow passengers to see the major sites, and they're planned to beat the rush of later arriving tours. There are no optional tours for an extra fee, but there are opportunities to explore further on your own.
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