A first encounter with small-scale cruising on the Mekong with Scenic can teach you that the road less travelled is best found on water.

Modern travel is designed for the apprehensive. With the aid of apps, curated experiences and v-logs, pre-planning has gone granular. You can watch a video of a four-kilometre walk through an airport in agonising real-time and never get lost. Allergies. Weather. Prices. Language. Sorted.

The best cruises add to this sense of security with seductive and elaborately thoughtful itineraries you can pore over for weeks before you join your ship. I have to admit that before cruising the Mekong with Scenic, I crammed. Obsessively. Freeze framing on buffets and boardwalks from the promo video.

Despite extensive childhood adventures through the Golden Triangle with my hippie parents, I had softened. Terribly. So, I was nervous about mosquitoes, deep-fried tarantula, Apocalypse Now flashbacks and temple etiquette, in that order. Happily, all that fuss fell away when I walked across the gangplank of Scenic Spirit in My Tho. And stepping into an adventure I could never have predicted.

The tour

The Luxury Mekong & Temple Discovery tour with Scenic is seven nights on the river. And it’s flanked by ground touring and five-star stays on either side. This cruise can commence from either Cambodia or Vietnam and the embarkation point changes the experience considerably.

Mine began in Ho Chi Minh City with a slow sizzle build up to the quiet glory of Siem Reap. Hopping on a Vespa tour of the city by night first up puts you in the swim of an urban river with very, very few traffic lights to set the tone. I rolled with it. Scenic keeps the pace brisk and the briefings minimal, so inside a curated experience was treasured wriggle room. In the quiet of morning I wanted to see Saigon waking up.

So I snuck in a shaved iced coffee on the street outside The Caravelle Hotel. I then crossed a big boulevard (alone!) to scoop up five pairs of hand-embroidered pyjamas at the legendary thread-masters Kim Puong. Trawling for Onitsuka Tigers at the baby-scaled Saigon Centre mall was a guilty pleasure, as this was supposed to be a spiritual odyssey. It’s okay – I used them to climb Angkor Wat.

So how about the Mekong? On first impression, it looked like a vast cup of milky Earl Grey tea. Depicted in way too many war movies as a lake of fire, the river is in fact more like a poetic superhighway that starts at the mouth of the Tibetan Plateau. It then releases in southern Vietnam parallel to the capital. The patina of history is best revealed in the waterfront shacks and old-school villages hard to reach by road.

Vietnamese woman carrying fruits for sale in Hoi An town, Vietnam.
Vietnamese woman carrying fruits for sale in Hoi An town

The accommodation

Being ensconced in the Scenic Spirit on the Mekong is immersive opulence. Suites on board, each cabin is assigned a personal (and treasured) butler, a vast picture window and a private balcony that can either open to the silky air of the river or not. Modelled on the compact lines of a super yacht, the interior design of the Scenic Spirit is functional and well-proportioned. There is a walk-in wardrobe, spa-worthy rain shower and a bed that rises to meet the sun rising through a picture window that opens all the way down. Over the next week, this window becomes my point of communion after jam-packed days.

The Scenic staff on the Mekong

The attentive and affectionate staff on board, including my personal butler, defer with stealthy discretion. By day one they know I like raw chilli, coriander and lime at every meal. And follow the Veuve-soaked nights with extra ginger-infused health juices served in tiny bottles on a crest of ice.

We slice through the water in a black lacquered sampan to a rice field in Cai Lay. We then take tea in a mint green French colonial mansion; nibble petit-fours and enjoy veteran performers play Delta blues on one-string guitars. All the excursions are elective and small, so you make friends fast. My lot are mainly British. They are hungry for the authentic intimacy of a day of punting low through floating markets and haggling on foot.

The staff on the Scenic Spirit
The staff on the Scenic Spirit

The onboard experience sailing on the Mekong with Scenic

Although Scenic does not suggest a dress code I notice that my favourites, Sally and Tony, are Indiana Jones by day and Bridget Jones by night. They swap out combat pants and cameras for heels and sequins at sunset. The mixture of tramping respectfully through small schools and nunneries by day and dancing madly under the moon by the pool was just right. In a strange way, “looking” at Vietnam from the water and eye-level vessel-to-vessel makes me feel less intrusive.

And I feel more bonded to everyone we met. Peering into what looked like rusted iron dollhouses perched on stilts, and raffia-roofed barge-homes, we are met by waves of genuine smiles that washed through us all in waves. When we step back onto Scenic Spirit to cool towels mocktails and butlers ready to clean our sneakers, a street market buffet is laid out like a luxe parallel universe.

The food

Food on Scenic Spirit is both an event and an unfolding cultural map. The young Burmese chef Oka Wibawa and his incredible team have a theatrical storytelling approach to cuisine. The first-night gala dinner is French infused, with sabayon, jus, baked duck, pate amuse bouche and sophisticated citrus-based dessert. Breakfasts are split between the steak -and-eggs crew. And the spa-driven, with an array of astonishing fruit and baked treats that change each day.

Mindful of the dreaded “cruise gain”, portions are elegant and the menu gradually lightens after several big night feasts. Local produce, local food and constructive local initiatives for education and ecology are all carefully selected by Scenic. So by proxy each passenger is giving back. Crossing the border at night from Vietnam into Cambodia, we party while watching a dragon-dance performance. When I notice the troupe return to their village on the river in a small boat as we sail on, I feel touched by their dedication.

A duck leg on a plate with carrots and a person sprinkling herbs on the dish
One of the dishes onboard the Scenic Spirit

In Cambodia

The Khmer people have rebuilt an astonishing and vibrant culture from the ashes of tyranny in the mid-1970s. In Phnom Penh, the bright young chef who conducted my private cooking lesson was one of the children of the infamous city dump. Plucked from poverty by a French NGO, she is now one of the city’s best and makes a mean green mango salad. In The National Museum of Cambodia, my guide is a quiet intellectual with a passion for architecture and antiquities. In front of an epic 13th century Buddha, we share a rivetted silence and a gratitude for the art that survived a senseless purge.

Coming back on deck loaded down with shopping and petals became ritual. My butler laughs when I gradually feminise all the slate grey décor with sarongs, ginger flowers and street-market ceramics. As my suite is on the same level as the plunge pool, a morning swim shapes the day. Wellness on Scenic Spirit on the Mekongis taken seriously. And many clever cruisers go for restorative coconut facials to glow up for dinner. The spa offering on board is stocked with Bodia products. It’s an all-botanical range made in Cambodia (with a flagship store in Siem Reap). And the best hack is to book your entire week with treatments.

The end of the cruise

One of the worries of a first-time cruiser is a fear of slow time. Yet the momentum of this journey is like a novel I don’t want to finish. I found myself jumping up at dawn waving both hands in the silky air hungry for the next port. Finally landing in Siem Reap is bittersweet. But here was the sacred temple that some of the crew have tattooed on their arms. As dramatic arcs go, seeing Angkor Wat at dawn the next day is a peak. Such is its majesty that Scenic has us see the 162-hectare compound from a hot-air balloon. Then an afternoon tour, then a dawn viewing – and each time is intense.

The hotels

Staying at the exquisitely restored Raffles Hotel, I am told that Jackie Onassis approached Angkor astride an elephant during her famous visit in 1967. With a World-Heritage order in place for no high-rises in Siem Reap, our epiphany would look much the same as hers. Angkor is vast but, better still, it is in use. On the days we visit, young families are all clad in traditional silks, fresh flowers and golden bracelets. And children run through corridors studded by seated buddhas and carved with trees and Amsaras. Climbing the central tower on a steep ladder leads me to a heart-stopping view. And a surge of energy no guide can prepare you for. For just a few minutes, the world is made of spun gold. A bespoke breakfast on the river and a laser light show in a 10th-century Hindu temple follow, but actually nothing could top this.

Taking the slow lane to Cambodia reshaped my ideas about travel. The best pilgrimage is the one you don’t know you are taking until you arrive.