Like neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia benefits economically from two types of cruise visitors – those who arrive via the ocean and those who fly in to cruise its rivers. However, it wasn’t until the past 18 months that the country really began to benefit from the cruise boom.
According to the country’s Ministry for Tourism, international visitors arriving via Cambodia’s waterways declined between 2010 and 2013, falling from 81,144 to 75,053.
This turned around in 2014 when the country welcomed 96,950 cruise visitors; almost 30 per cent more than the previous year. The sector continued to climb in 2015, with cruise arrivals reaching 45,425 between January and March; up 40.4 per cent on the same period in 2013.
Cruise now makes up about three and a half per cent of the total tourism share – a considerable jump from less than two per cent two years ago.
These figures are expected to reach new heights by the end of 2015, as new ships launch on Cambodia’s rivers and additional ocean vessels visit its shores.
The next 12 months
In ocean cruising, Star Cruises is sending its flagship SuperStar Virgo back to Southeast Asia during a 48-day itinerary, departing Hong Kong on November 13, 2015. Cambodia’s Sihanoukville will be one of the 20 ports visited.
In August, October and November 2015, Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas will make regular appearances at Sihanoukville before heading to Australia for her first cruise season based out of Brisbane.
Other ships that will sail regularly to and from Cambodia’s main port in the coming 12 months include Princess Cruises’ Dawn Princess, Sun Princess and Sapphire Princess; Regent’s Seven Seas Voyager of the Seas; Seabourn’s Sojourn; Aida Cruises’ AIDAbella; Cunard’s Queen Mary 2; and P&O Cruises’ newest vessel, Pacific Eden.
In river cruising, CroisiEurope has unveiled plans for its first Mekong-based ship, which is expected to set sail in time for the 2016/17 cruise season. The 60-passenger Apsara Princesse will sail between Angkor, Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Calls along the way will mostly be Cambodian ports: Siem Reap, Tonle Sap, Kampong Chhang, Kampong Tralach, Koh Chen and Phnom Penh.
Aqua Expeditions’ first Asia-based vessel Aqua Mekong also sails along the Mekong River between Vietnam and Cambodia.
Avalon Waterways took its first Suite Ship, Avalon Siem Reap, to Asia in March this year. The 36-guest vessel sails on 12-night itineraries between Cambodia and Vietnam and includes three nights in Siem Reap.
Other river cruise lines with a big presence in Cambodia are Pandaw Cruises, APT, Scenic, Uniworld and Travelmarvel.
Things to see and do
Although Sihanoukville is more than 200 kilometres southwest of Cambodia’s
capital Phnom Penh, it offers a variety of activities to keep cruise passengers entertained during port days.
There are two temples, Wat Krom and Wat Leu. One is on a small hill and the other on top of a mountain, overlooking the entire town.
Local beach, Sokha, offers snorkelling and scuba diving, and nearby Ream National Park is home to more than 150 species of animals.
A trip to Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without visiting the ancient Angkor Wat complex. It is the largest religious monument in the world, and one of the best preserved, and can take days to see in full. The original temples were built in the 12th century by Hindu Khmer King Suryavarman II and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to seeing the country’s bigger tourist spots, river cruisers can explore Cambodia’s smaller towns, which offer intimate exchanges with locals. For example, during Pandaw Cruises’ seven-day Classic Mekong cruise, guests visit Kampong Cham for silk-weaving lessons before stopping at the Peam Chi Kang to visit the monastery and school.
Top places to stay
The embarkation and disembarkation point for most Mekong river cruises in Cambodia, Phnom Penh offers a number of four- and five-star hotels. The four-and-a half-star Raffles Hotel Le Royal has a pool, fitness centre, bar, spa and free high-speed internet. The four-and-a-half star Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra offers similar amenities.
For a more unique experience, try the White Mansion Boutique Hotel, which was the historical residence of the American Embassy, right in the heart of the city. Also a four and a half star property, it has 30 rooms and was one of the winners in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice awards in 2015.
In Sihanoukville, the Deluxx Boutique Hotel is a 20-minute drive from the cruise port. The three-and-a-half star property offers rooms for families and individuals, with free internet. The four-star Independence Hotels, Resort & Spa, is about 10 minutes from the port and is ideal for families and couples.