We set off from our hotel in Siem Reap at 8:30am for our five-and-a-half-hour bus trip to Kampong Chan, where we would board RV Amalotus. It’s a long drive through Cambodia’s countryside on the M1, which is a two-lane road. I always feel for the guides on these journeys. They’re supposed to tell us things about the country and he did his best, pointing out houses built on stilts to protect against wild animals and rising water, and indicating rubber plantations and the like. But to be honest, after a while it tends to go in one ear and out the other.
We made a major stop at what you might call a roadhouse situated near the long lake that starts near Siem Reap and feeds the Mekong. It was about the only place on the road that could accommodate buses and large numbers of people, and the place was crowded. The toilet facilities were adequate, if pretty basic. Inside, travellers could buy food, ice cream, cold drinks, souvenirs etc. We were warned to get back on the right coach – there would be more than one APT blue bus in the carpark because passengers from the Amalotus were going to Siem Reap. That also explains why the driver was taking his time rather than driving at the speed limit. Staff would be cleaning up and resetting everything for our arrival.
I suppose I was expecting the Amalotus to be moored at a wharf. She wasn’t. At this time of year, the river is low and we had to negotiate our way down a steep slope to a narrow gangway onto the ship while balancing our carry-on luggage. A number of our less mobile friends found the task somewhat daunting to say the least. Staff were on hand to help guide us across the gangway, no more than two at a time. On board we were a little too enthusiastically welcomed with a squirt of hand sanitiser, a cold towel, and a cold drink, all offered at the same time, while we juggled hand luggage. We were immediately ushered into the dining room for a late lunch, the hotel manager fending off any requests to go to rooms. (I suspect that was to give Housekeeping time to finish setting up.)
Lunch was excellent, with a wide selection of items on the buffet and extra choices on the menu which were served at the table. In fact, the food was excellent on the whole trip. Breakfast was also buffet style but eggs were always freshly-cooked to your liking – fried, poached, scrambled, omelette. Dinner was full service, with a good selection on the menu and a handful of staples (like Caesar salad) if nothing else appealed.
After lunch we found our room. It was nice, with anything you’d need as well as a narrow balcony so we could sit outside and admire the view – and use the two chairs for drying hand-washed knickers. (One of the nice features of this tour was that it included two pieces of laundry per cabin per day but we left that for our shirts and shorts, and hand washed smalls.) We did need to contact Housekeeping on our first day, though, because our bathroom sink was blocked and the floor hadn’t been cleaned behind the bathroom door.
APT had organised a short afternoon tour, a tuk-tuk ride to a nearby island (they drove over a bridge). Pete and I stayed on board and joined everybody else on the sundeck that evening for the rather perfunctory safety drill. After that it was time for a pre-dinner drink. On APT’s European cruises all alcohol except the absolute top of the range offerings were free. We’d assumed that was the case here, but the fine print (which we hadn’t read well enough) stated that ‘local spirits’ were free. One glass of the house whisky was enough to have me revert to house wine from then on.
As the ship sailed we noticed a Scenic vessel – moored at a wharf just around the corner from where the Amalotus had been tied up to the river bank. Interesting.
The following morning saw the Amalotus again tied up on the river bank with the towers of Phnom Penh visible in the distance. The two tours that day were a visit to Angkor Ban, a village of traditional stilted houses which the Khmer Rouge had not destroyed in their reign of terror. Later, passengers went to Oknhatey Island, known as silk island, to see the traditional process of silk weaving.
By this stage of the trip Pete and I felt the need to pace ourselves, so we stayed on board. It was entertaining just watching life on the river from up on the sun deck.
There was one highlight – I was on our little balcony late in the day when a local farmer brought his cows down for a drink and a bath. He stood in the water washing the calf. It all looked suitably bucolic – until the farmer started to hit one beast to get it out of the river.
The following day we’d be hitting the bright lights of the big city.