Seeing Cambodia and Vietnam by river boat

The Phnom Penh Royal Palace.
The Phnom Penh Royal Palace.Kate Birtwell

I stood in the heavy heat on the first step of a gangway gazing up at the Mekong Princess, her white beauty sparkling in the equatorial sun. A trio of crew members in their impeccable whites stood ready to receive us. Gloved hands extended, hand-sanitizer bestowed, and flower-festooned trays of colorful drinks proffered, we had arrived.

The Princess is a luxury two-deck river cruise boat with 12 staterooms. Our small but lovely room, tricked out in brass and teak, had floor-to-ceiling glass doors that opened onto a little wrought iron balcony. I stepped out onto it to watch the lively coming and going of rusty barges, traditional sampans, and small cruise ships, but quickly retreated as a horde of mosquitoes descended.


The Princess’s amenities include an upper level lounge/bar and overstuffed chairs from which to enjoy the constantly changing river scenery. Cocktails made with local spirits such as Snake Whiskey entice the brave, while the less adventurous may opt for more conventional concoctions. Angkor Beer is a popular brew. Drinks, with the exception of wine, are complimentary.

Adjacent to the bar is an outdoor lounge deck. An artfully curved staircase leads down to the elegant dining room. There is a library with Wi-Fi, fitness center, spa and smoking area. The ship is beautifully decorated in the French colonial style.

There were 21 passengers, mainly American doctors and their wives, and our group of five, former business associates, now friends. They called us the plane people, not exactly correct as the business involved not planes but helicopters.

There are 28 staff and crew members on the Princess. They bowed to us whenever we passed. I sometimes bowed back, usually with a little laugh to let them know I realized I was doing it wrong.

Tim, our Cambodian culinary director, ruled the dining room with a wide smile and haunted eyes. Each day he produced a different synonym for wonderful when asked how he was doing. By turn he was amazing, fantastic, optimistic, A-1, and, somewhat off-trend, sexy.


A Vietnamese fishing boat.
A Vietnamese fishing boat.Kate Birtwell

The food on the Princess is created to be adored. Each delectable morsel is nudged, battered, or bullied into becoming part of a larger pastiche. Hence, a single steamed shrimp takes its place as the tail of a dragon; a simple banana leaf is carved into the charming sails and planked deck of a traditional vessel.

Vietnamese and Cambodian specialties are offered alongside western dishes. Pho, a clear broth with rice noodles, to which various items such as chilies, scallions, and cilantro are added, was a favorite. Dragon fruit, mangoes, passion fruit and jackfruit appeal with their gorgeous colors and many textured skins.

Dinners are more formal affairs with artfully designed menus and choices of local delicacies such as Amok, a sweet fish curry served in banana leaf bowls. Wine flows freely.

Kiet was our tour director. He is funny and smart and speaks very good English. He kept us going non-stop everyday. Is it because he’s a guy? He didn’t seem to get that we had to shower and change into our casually chic dinner outfits. And what about washing our hair? Plus, we were drenched with sweat as we wearily transferred back at the end of each day.

The seven-day journey of the Princess takes us from Kampong Chan in Cambodia into Vietnam and on down to the Mekong Delta. We visited villages, temples, and archeological sites.



Our first port of call was Angkor Ban. This village, high on a hill of hardened riverbed, is prosperous. A family welcomed us into their home. The houses are made of bamboo lashed together with twine and suspended on stilts. Spaces between the bamboo poles allow for air to flow. Sacred white cattle relax in the shade.

Down the dusty path is a one-room Catholic school. One of the older girls showed me her English primer opened to a page of a drawing of Cambodian school children. They are talking to each other about Angelina Jolie.

Our second day brought us to Phnom Penh. Sean, our Cambodian guide, showed us around that monumentally glittering city, “The Pearl Of Asia,” before we boarded a bus to the Killing Fields.

On the bus Sean related the history of that terrible time. There was fire in his eyes as he told us that the Khmer decreed that all educated people, artists, journalists, anyone who might pose a threat to the new regime must be expunged. This happened from 1975 to 1979. More than 1 million people were tortured and killed.

The Fields themselves convey the heartbreaking story in the violent topography of the very ground containing the mass graves. We walked along a boardwalk suspended over the field, necessary Sean said, because the ground is still strewn with bone fragments and teeth of innocents.

There are hundreds of people wandering the Fields but a stunned silence allows only the rustling of leaves and far-off cries of the seabirds to rend that solemn scene.


There is a very old, very wide tree that stands in the Fields. It is a chankiri tree. “This is the killing tree,” he told us. “This is where the infants and children of the victims were dashed against the trunk until dead so that they would not grow up and go looking for revenge.” He took a deep breath. “When my parents were arrested, tortured, and murdered because they were teachers, my grandparents hid me away so that this would not happen to me.”


“I do not hate Americans,” Kiet says softly, passionately. “I do not call it the American War.” I glanced around at our group, most of us Americans. We were standing in the dust of a street in a far-flung village in Vietnam. Motorbike riders beeped their horns as we stopped beside tin-roofed huts. Kiet took a swig of water, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and repeated, “I do not hate Americans.”

We went to the War Remnants Museum. We saw the pictures of terrified mothers bearing their children across the Mekong River to escape the bombing. We saw pictures of the mutilated bodies of Vietnamese and Americans alike.

“Look at this,” I said to my husband. “This village is exactly like the villages that we burned. These people are just like the people that we killed.”


Wide brimmed hats, mosquito spray, and sunscreen are a must in these backwoods. It is brutally hot, probably close to 100 degrees, and the humidity feels like 100 percent, too.

Each day we clambered from wave-rocked sampans onto rickety bamboo docks that were gateways to remote hamlets. Each afternoon we returned to the Princess, where our crew waited with hand-sanitizer, cold towels, and tangerine-colored drinks pierced by green bamboo straws. They cleaned the yellow dust that clung to our shoes.

On our last day in the delta, as the brown water of the Mekong gave way to blue and sparkling glimmers of the South China Sea, we entered a small inlet in the trees.

The boat glided noiselessly through the twists and turns of the mangroves, the nipa palms clacking in the wandering wind.

If you go . . .

Staterooms range from $850 per night for a 560-square-foot suite with private veranda to $580 per night for a 256-square-foot stateroom with a small balcony. There is a $200 night supplement for singles.

What’s included

Virtually everything. Three gourmet meals a day, drinks, tour guides, tours, chef’s demonstrations, local entertainment, gratuities, and transfer from Siem Reap.

Getting There

Cathay Pacific flies from Boston to Siem Reap, Cambodia, with one connection in Hong Kong, from about $1,250 for economy. Your seven-night itinerary on The Mekong Princess includes transfer by motorcoach from Siem Reap to the port of embarkation, Kampong Cham.

Where to stay

In Siem Reap we were enchanted by the open-air charm and Khmer-inspired setting of the Belmonde La Residence d’Angkor. Luscious landscaping, indoor-outdoor restaurants, fitness center, and pool made it the perfect getaway. You will want to stay at least one more night in Siem Reap so you can visit Angkor Wat.