Dark clouds—the last of the year’s monsoons—stack overhead as our skiff shreds the watery main street of northern Cambodia’s Chong Kneas, an exuberantly painted floating village of makeshift houses, grocery barges and at least one bobbing Catholic church, a prim pale blue amid the oranges and umbers. As we round a final bend into the Tonle Sap, a lake swollen to the size of Delaware by the fall rains, the Aqua Mekong heaves into view, a wall of twinkling lights, surreal in the sunset, an unmoored vision of urban cool.
“This isn’t a cruise ship,” proclaims Aqua Expeditions founder and CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro once we are aboard, “but a world-class boutique hotel with settings that change every day.” And they don’t stint on the welcome. We are greeted that first day, as we will be every time we reboard, by a flock of uniformed crew members proffering trays of fruit juices and tonging up frozen towels against the tropical heat. There are 40 of them tending to no more than 40 guests on this small ship, with its walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, muted earth tones and no-concession-to-the-surroundings amenities.
Do you demand a pelting rainforest shower with instant hot water on a remote Mekong estuary? Or your menu pre- pared by David Thompson, whose Nahm in Bangkok was named the best restaurant in Asia in the 2014 San Pellegrino awards? Or perhaps a far-off-the-grid high-speed Wi-Fi connection? (Admittedly, Galli Zugaro is still tinkering with that last one.) But our late October trip was, after all, the Aqua Mekong’s first week on the river—this a four-night leg from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh—with paying customers. (Rates for a four-night trip begin at $4,420 per person, double occupancy, all inclusive.)
Six years earlier, I had seen the charismatic, cosmopolitan Galli Zugaro in a very different setting when he launched the first of his two game-changing Aqua Expeditions boats in Peru. It had been a gruelling, cash-haemorrhaging process to get that first luxury ship onto the Amazon with a suitable crew and itinerary. One can only imagine the dinner table conversation at the Galli Zugaro household when he broached his next dream: Uprooting his comfortably ensconced family from Lima, relocating them to Singapore, then heading off himself to scour the shipyards of Vietnam and reboot the whole process from scratch.
The slow float downriver from the medieval capital of Angkor, outside Siem Reap, to the modern capital, can be seen as the figurative procession of Cambodian history itself. It is a long and—so it seems to an outsider—mostly tragic past to have produced such welcoming, open-hearted people. At the ruins of Angkor, you are embed- ded in the grand-scale flowering of Khmer culture between the 9th and 15th centuries.
That vast, wealthy empire crumbled rather suddenly in a perfect storm of natural and political disasters, and was sacked in 1431 by a group from Thailand.
But the watershed catastrophe of Khmer history was self-inflicted. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge controlled the country for only four years in the late 1970s, yet wiped out an estimated one-quarter of Cambodia’s entire population, displaced countless others and retreated into the jungle to wage nearly 20 more years of guerrilla war that—along with a decade of occupation by the Vietnamese—left behind a traumatised nation.
A generation later, the great charm and beauty of today’s Cambodia is still shaded by these events. As the Aqua Mekong’s skiffs deliver you to villages far in the flooded hinterlands, you feel the far-reaching economic repercussions in a society with a scant toehold, or none at all, in the 21st century.
For passengers on the posh ship, it creates an Inside the Hull/Outside the Hull dichotomy that may be more or less disquieting depending on how attuned you are to other cultures’ versions of joy and satisfaction.
Once you’ve put the spectacle of Angkor Wat behind and embarked on the waterways, there isn’t a single showstopper excursion on the Cambodian leg of the trip. Rather, the Aqua Mekong provides a layered accumulation of moments, people, textures of life. We spent a morning tooling about a vast, flooded bird sanctuary on the Tonle Sap, its population of snake-necked Oriental Darters, fish eagles and Indian Shags on the rebound thanks to recently stepped-up enforcement from rangers like those we visit living high above the water on a platform in the mangrove branches. By boat, bicycle and tuk-tuk, we also visit silk weavers working bewilderingly complex hand looms, potters for whom a wheel would be an unwelcome dose of modern frippery and a village of silversmiths stoking forge fires in clay ovens. You can hear their hammering far away
up the river.
Beaching the skiffs at the river town of Koh Oknha Tey, we climb a muddy red clay bank to drop in on an English class at the local elementary school. We each choose a child to read with—or rather the children choose us—and pore over the colouring books and primers these honour students have been awarded as prizes. At the end, they sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. We sing and dance, badly, “The Hokey Pokey”. Later, we dock at a floating temple and receive the monks’ benediction for our onward journey. We putter through prosperous-seeming stilt villages, their broad main streets under 20 feet of water during this season (and bone-dry by spring), the heavy air pungent with charcoal fires and wafting layers of smoky, elemental fishy funkiness from the fermenting fish paste each family bottles to see it through the dry months.
South of the Tonle Sap, the view outside your stateroom window changes from green, jungly banks to jostling towns, with temple spires or the occasional gold-domed mosque rising from a throng of makeshift dwellings, each seeming to lean upon the next. North of the capital, the river becomes thronged with clouds of sampans and barges and narrow, brightly painted wooden fishing boats with raised prows and sterns.
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(This story appears in the Mar-Apr 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)