To the guest, travelling with Uniworld on its Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong river cruise itinerary is a luxurious and seamlessly enjoyable experience, where new wonders are revealed each day and everything seems to ‘just happen’ with minimal effort. But behind the scenes, achieving that 5-star result involves more than you might expect, and delivers positive results not only for the guests, but for the people and the economies of the countries visited as I discovered. Vietnam and Cambodia are countries with recently troubled histories, as well as magnificent ancient temples and culture. That leads to complex bureaucracy and, in many cases, corruption – obtaining approvals for almost anything can be challenging, time consuming and expensive. To ensure the best experience for their guests, Uniworld have tackled this in a very positive and creative way.
The approach touches on many aspects of interactions with people and businesses in both Vietnam and Cambodia, it is all about delivering value to everyone, rather than simply ‘expecting cooperation’. Some things will seem obvious – like sourcing as much as possible of the food and alcohols used on the ship, the River Orchid, from local vendors in each city or township along the way. This does involve some carefully planned and negotiated selection, to ensure that the kitchen can deal with potential food intolerances, and still provide a uniquely Asian food experience for the guests. In addition, it absolutely ensures that locals look forward to the visits of the ship, and work actively to make available the sort of produce that the ship requires.
There are other local impacts like the support of the traditional cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh, whose livelihood is threatened more and more by motorised rickshaws, to the extent that they now largely depend on the fares from ship passengers. Temples and villages are happy to welcome visitors, who bring a welcome infusion of funds through purchase of crafts and gifts, and donations to local charities. Uniworld works tirelessly to ensure that it is able to present the experience to their guests in a culturally sensitive and enriching way. Guests are provided with extensive detail about the places that they will visit, by highly experienced local guides, who have personally come to know the villagers.
Guests are met with smiles, and blessings, photo opportunities are willingly provided, and guests are welcomed into the homes of villagers, who are happy to demonstrate their way of life. In Hanoi, Siem Reap and Ho Chi minh City, local businesses also benefit – from carefully selected, unique local restaurants to which guests are taken for amazing meals, to transport providers and local attractions – all receiving an infusion of traveller dollars, delivered in a friendly and trouble-free way.
Uniworld are very active in contributing education and growth in Cambodia, where the past troubles have left the country with a population which is, mostly, under 25 years of age. There are many orphans in the country, and many situations where families struggle to provide adequate education for children. Uniworld supports orphanages, and charity schools, which are designed to provide children with training in various life skills and vocations, as well as in the English language. Whilst Cambodians would have good cause to be bitter about their history, and potentially to resent the Western world, they are an overwhelmingly positive people, who, while wishing to preserve their heritage, also believe that their children should learn English, as they see this as the doorway to opportunity in the global arena. Tiny children smile shyly, and greet Uniworld guests in English, delighted to have a chance to practice. The ‘Future of Khmer Children Organization’ runs a free school for underprivileged children, in Siem Reap, which teaches children Khmer and English language, and many vocational skills, one of which is sewing. From this school, Uniworld buys high quality embroidered bath robes, which are provided to every guest as a gift that they take home.
Guests are taken to visit the school, can meet the children, see the robes, and many other items being made, and have the opportunity to also choose to support the school, through either ongoing sponsorship, or through the ‘Pack for a Purpose’ program, which encourages guests to bring much needed supplies with them, to donate to the school. Uniworld also donates materials from the ship, which are surplus to needs, and money, to the school. Near Phnom Penh, there is an orphanage, the Cambodian Light Children Association, which, apart from teaching the children English, and general life skills, is also a traditional performance school, working to maintain and preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage, by teaching the children traditional dance and music. Children from the orphanage’s performance troupe perform on the ship for guests, and some staff on the ship were originally residents of the orphanage. Uniworld donates money to the orphanage and encourages guests to also support it.
Of the many ways that Uniworld improves the experience for guests and locals, the one which stood out most to me was the relationships that they have with the local guides. The same guides are used repeatedly, and each guide stays with the tour for the entire time that the tour is in the country. The relationship has gone past simply business, and has become one of lasting friendship and respect. On my cruise, our guide in Cambodia was wonderful, and was with us, regardless of the fact that his wife was expecting their second child any day. We all cheered when he received a text message with a photo of his new daughter, as we stood on the steps of the silver temple in Phnom Penh.
He was due to leave us the following day, as the ship would cross into Vietnam, and he would normally have been taking a very uncomfortable twelve hour bus trip back to his home near Siem Reap. Uniworld chose to arrange for him to fly home instead, at their expense, to get him back to his family much sooner. It is approaches like this that make travelling with Uniworld an absolute pleasure, and which demonstrate how touring operations in other countries should be done.