On a recent 10-day cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong aboard the 690-passenger Azamara Journey, we stopped in Bangkok and I stepped off the ship just as the daytime heat was beginning to subside. Along with my boyfriend and about two dozen other passengers, I was transported by bus for an organized excursion at the edge of the Choa Phraya River, the central artery that runs through this massive city. It was dark by the time we boarded a traditional riverboat to commence a slow crawl, and I took in the skyscrapers and bankside temples, floodlit across their glittering golden roofs, while we mingled with cold local beer and fresh creamy wedges of coconut.
Midway through the river cruise, we were given a krathong, a small banana leaf boat decorated with candles and incense, to place in the river. The release of a krathong is intended to bring closure and perspective, and couples were expected to share a single krathong in the assumption that their fates and wishes are intertwined. "Many new couples wish to be together forever," deadpanned our guide over a loudspeaker. "Many couples already together for a long time wish for 'Please, no more than five more years.'"
When tourists are encouraged to engage in local rituals, the results are often hokey and forced. But as my boyfriend and I placed our krathong in the river, I closed my eyes and earnestly wished for good health and clarity. I had spent a week on-board the ship quaffing pina coladas by the pool and gorging on filet mignon – typical cruise fare. But my level of investment in this minor cultural experience surprised me. I watched, on tiptoes and with hands clutching the edge of the wooden boat, as the light current picked up our little banana boat and swept it down river. The flame held as it floated away and past the massive black, white and yellow billboards honouring Thailand's much-beloved dead king.
Cruising has long been dismissed as a superficial way to see a place, criticized for extremely brief stays in ports that offer barely enough time to take in the worst tourist traps – let alone partake in a cultural meaningful event. But cruise lines are now offering more and longer land excursions as part of a deeper, richer and more complete travel experience designed to enhance vacations and broaden the appeal of cruising. Spending time on land isn't incidental to a cruise itinerary; it can make or break a sailing. Where land meets sea, the cruising industry is increasingly trying to position itself as the best of both worlds – and simultaneously offering travellers better bang for their buck.
Several years ago, Azamara launched a Destination Immersion program – which means longer stays in port, more overnights and more nighttime touring options. The signature event associated with this direction is the AzAmazing Evening, a complimentary option introduced in 2013 and available to all passengers on every cruise. The event is intended to offer an insider experience, just the kind of activity you might miss if your ship stays in port only for the day. On my cruise, the AzAmazing option was a visit to a small village on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, where guests were treated to an evening of musical performance, including local instruments such as the moon lute and coconut fiddle, against a backdrop of dewed rice fields.
Increasingly, cruisers can also choose from extensive pre- and post-cruising itineraries, and also mid-cruise land excursions. In April, Un-Cruise Adventures added several week-long land itineraries to complement various sailings, and Lindblad now offers eight-night land itineraries, giving guests a more complete perspective on a destination. Windstar just announced that they will begin sailing to Asia in 2017, complete with pre-, post- and mid-cruise overnight land tours to destinations such as Luxor and Angkor Wat.
With many river cruise options, the actual time on the water now commonly represents only a portion of the overall itinerary offered to passengers. AMA Waterways bundles pre- and post- cruise hotel stays and trips sometimes include overland transportation, such as high-speed rail travel. Next spring, Scenic is launching cycling-focused tours to complement several European itineraries. Increasingly, the focus is on getting passengers off the boat and into the world.
While the possibility of truly "authentic" cruise travel is up for debate, there's no doubt that staying in port and venturing off-ship for even a single evening can offer a richer, more rounded impression of a place – particularly Bangkok, which has divergent day and night personas. After we stepped off the riverboat, my boyfriend and I walked through a busy portside flower market, where masses of purple orchids and white lotus blossoms had just arrived from fields across the country. We hopped in a tuk-tuk to head over to Patpong, Bangkok's red-light district.
The mostly pedestrian lanes were full of bars and restaurants selling supercheap drinks along with Western-friendly fare such as big plates of pad Thai noodles and even spaghetti bolognese. The ubiquitous massage parlours offer only the slightest veneer of cover for sex workers, many of whom were sitting outside, looking bored while awaiting clients. Western tourists trawl these alleys en masse; many were drunk, some were reluctant and at least one elderly visitor was showing his local male companion a lot of pictures on his iPhone.
We soon grew weary of Patpong, and headed back to the Azamara Journey for a welcome contrast. The recently refitted ship is decked on out in a fresh, sophisticated palette of cream and silver, peppered by contemporary art by the likes of Takashi Murakami and Roy Lichtenstein. I stopped off at one of the ship's bars to pick up an old-fashioned before climbing on deck to see the bright lights of Bangkok, which were closer than they seemed. After a day of eating street noodles and crispy roasted pork, of trawling local markets and making a wish on the Choa Phraya River, I was surprised by just how clearly the city was coming into focus.
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises. It did not review or approve this article.