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Mekong Serenity exterior docked in Kampong Cham (Photo: Jo Kessel)

Just Back from APT's Mekong Serenity: What We Love About this New Luxury River Cruise Ship

Mekong Serenity exterior docked in Kampong Cham (Photo: Jo Kessel)
Contributor
Jo Kessel

Last updated
Apr 18, 2024

Read time
7 min read

The launch of brand-new river cruise ship Mekong Serenity is an exciting time for the Australian luxury tour and river cruising operator APT. While the company has been sailing the Mekong River with sister brand AmaWaterways since 2012 (MS AmaLotus followed by MS AmaDara), Mekong Serenity is APT's first river cruise ship that it owns and has had built to its requirements.

Construction of this 88-passenger luxury five-deck vessel took place in Vietnam and the ship sails seven-night voyages between capital Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap in Cambodia.

We hopped onboard for a 15-day Vietnam & Cambodia Highlights fully-escorted tour that bookended the seven-night Mekong Serenity cruise with hotel stays: we enjoyed two nights in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at the start and finished with three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Here's what really stood out for us, both on the ship and off.

The Ship's Design, Cabins and Pool are Standout

Mekong Serenity reception area (Photo: APT)

From the outside the ship is boxy looking, but step onboard and it's really got the wow factor. Décor is designed to reflect the region and its glossy teak floors, panelling and sweeping spiral staircases are sumptuous.

Burnt orange padded walls add a splash of colour to staterooms which have excellent king-size beds, oversized showers and powerful wall-mounted hairdryers. And we loved the in-cabin gold kimonos provided (instead of towelling bath robes) and the fact that every passenger is entitled to two free items of laundry a day. This cruise has a busy itinerary and this perk really makes a difference.

Horizon pool on Mekong Serenity (Photo: APT)

Particularly striking is Mekong Serenity's beautiful Pool Deck, which has an artistic arrangement of fresh plants and flowers and a good assortment of seating. Despite this being the busiest daytime deck it was never a problem to find a sun bed or sofa and the pool was frequently empty. It's not massive, but big enough to swim laps – 100 lengths took half an hour – and is a pretty impressive size for a river ship. 

The best find of all is the sundeck. Perhaps it was the heat that kept guests away, but much of the time we had it to ourselves.  It's a lovely spot for some yoga at the end of the day (the gym has mats) and to watch the sunset – the red intensity of sun in this part of the world is mesmerising.

Food, Drinks & Service Are all Top Notch

A duck dish on Mekong Serenity (Photo: Jo Kessel)

Drinks are included on Mekong Serenity and the crew never held back on refilling glasses. Even cocktails with unappetizing names – such as the 'Rusty Nail' – slipped down nicely. A 'Rusty Nail', incidentally, comprises brandy, lemon and orange juice and is seriously good!

Everything that passed our lips was delicious, from omelettes and fruit at breakfast (the papaya and watermelon were sensational) to the waiter-served lunches and dinners. We couldn't always manage two three-course meals a day but the crew was happy to oblige with alternatives. One day they whipped up a stir-fry from the live chef 'Action Station' and delivered it to us by the pool for lunch. Another time they held back some soup (after we'd praised it vociferously) so we could have it again the next day. Service was personal and faultless.

Two other foodie touches really stood out. First off, nuts! Available at both bars 24/7 were glass jars of nuts which you self-serve into little bowls. Be warned, the wasabi peas are dangerously moreish with a spicy kick. Then there was the display table at the entrance to Lemongrass Restaurant. Presented on it before each meal (bar breakfast) was every dish and wine on the menu, alongside a list of their ingredients. We loved eying this up to decide what to order.

Guides & Excursions are Excellent, Though You're Free to Explore Independently

Jo Kessel at the ruins of Ta Promh in Siem Reap (Photo: Jo Kessel)

We were consistently impressed with the content and variety of excursions. Their pace is designed to show passengers life on the river without offering a schedule that's too punishing in the heat. The majority were half-day affairs (with guests divided into smaller groups) and every guest had a headset to tune into the guiding. We learned about the history, culture and way of life along the Mekong. A visit to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh is a must (if you can stomach it emotionally) to fully understand what this country has been through and how it is now re-emerging.

There's no pressure to do the excursions. You can stay on the ship or explore on your own. Independent exploration is definitely worth considering if you're keen to linger longer than if you're tied to a guided group. In Siem Reap we made the decision to visit the Ta Promh temple solo and didn't regret it. These incredibly photogenic ruins are famous for being where Angelina Jolie filmed scenes from "Tomb Raider" and we wanted extra time to soak it all up and take pictures.  

Jo Kessel on the world's longest bamboo bridge in Kampong Cham, Cambodia (Photo: Jo Kessel)

One place we wish we'd explored by ourselves is Kampong Cham, Cambodia, home to the engineering marvel that is world's longest bamboo bridge. It's dismantled during the wet season (it can't withstand the surges of the river) and is reconstructed in the dry season when tourists pay around a dollar to cross it on foot.  We stopped to admire it from afar at the end of a final excursion (and a few of us clambered down to walk a few meters of it) but time constraints prevented us from walking the whole way across, something we'd love to have tried. Perhaps APT might consider offering this as an excursion in the future. If not, it's definitely something to consider doing yourself.

The Bargain Massages are a Bonus

Jo Kessel receives a relaxing massage on Mekong Serenity (Photo: Jo Kessel)

Let's face it, most cruise ship spas are on the pricey side. Not this one. One look at the spa menu and our eyes were popping at how inexpensive the treatments were. A 30-minute neck and shoulders massage: $25. An hour aromatherapy massage: $45. Fancy a massage AND a manicure? That will set you back by $65. With prices like this it was no surprise that the spa booked up fast, especially when word got around that the massages were very good.

We managed to book a slot with Cambodian masseuse Pa Nha and her Khmer aromatherapy massage was just the right amount of pressure to be both relaxing and effective. Muscle knots (and there were many) were eased away by her magic hands. (NB: prices may change)  

Pre- and Post-Cruise Stays & APT's 'Freedom of Choice Sightseeing' are Real Highlights

Writer Jo Kessel practicing Tai Chi in Ho Chi Minh City (Photo: Jo Kessel)

APT's pre- and post-cruise hotel stays were excellent add-ons to the voyage and are worth paying extra for. Both the Park Hyatt in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and the Sofitel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, were five stars deluxe with stunning rooms, pools and impressive staff and cuisine.  

The 'Freedom of Choice Sightseeing' on offer (with something for all tastes) ended up being some of our trip highlights. In Siem Reap we picked a village bike tour; in Ho Chi Minh we opted for a Tai Chi masterclass. The latter was taught by a Master in a park where dozens of locals had come to exercise (though not with us) and was so inspirational that we're still practicing some of the moves back at home. Top tip: wear trainers or thin plimsolls.

Factor in Suitcase Space, Time & Budget for Shopping

There is plenty of opportunity for souvenir shopping on the Mekong (Photo: Jo Kessel)

This cruise is paradise for fans of shopping. Practically every stop has an opportunity to shop and most goods are superb value, though best prices will require some bartering. Scarfs, bags and drawstring elephant trousers are ubiquitous. Our top picks are the silk weaver's shop in the Vietnamese border town of Tan Chau as well as Cambodia's Oudong silversmith village – the girls selling on trays outside the workshop have some lovely bracelets and earrings. Phnom Penh's Central Market and Siem Reap's night market are also great for a splurge.    

Publish date April 17, 2024
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