Magic of the Meekong

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For many years, scores of Australians have waxed lyrical about their experience cruising the waterways of Europe. Spending a week slipping serenely from country to country, stopping daily to absorb the local customs and heritage, before stepping back on board their ‘floating hotel’ to relax in ell-appointed bedrooms or wine and dine in the ship’s restaurant, has been the stuff of many dream holidays.

Over the past few years, similar cruising adventures through Asia have become a reality. Whether winding your way down the Yangtze or lilting along the alluring Irrawaddy, discovering Asia has never been more engaging and exciting for the discerning traveller.

The mighty Mekong 

For many though, the ultimate river to absorb the best of South East Asia is the mighty Mekong. The world’s 12th longest river begins life in the mountains of South China and winds over 4,300 kilometres through five more countries:

Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, before flowing into the South China Sea.

The 14-day Avalon Waterways Fascinating Vietnam and Cambodia Mekong River cruise takes in some of the amazing highlights this historic region has to offer. After spending your first night in Bangkok, you fly into Siem Reap, Cambodia, on the second morning of your tour and straight away, the heat and humidity remind you that this is not a European tour. Fortunately, you don’t have to suffer it for too long as you are met by your local guide, who helps you into his air-conditioned bus for a short trip to your hotel.

Siem Reap, which translates directly to ‘Defeat of Siam’ (Thailand) in reference to the centuries-old conflict between the Thai and Khmer people, is a bustling township of about 180,000 and these days it is tourism that drives its economy. The main drag, Sivutha Street, offers a collection of delightful restaurants and bars, while a trip to the Psar Chas markets is worthwhile for delightful jewellery and colourful clothing.

But the main reason travellers come here is to visit the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, a 20-minute bus ride from Siem Reap. Even though the lines of tourists are long, and you wait for your turn to trundle through the tree-strewn ruins, one is constantly overwhelmed by the sense of history and emotional connect from bathing in the glorious atmosphere of a site built over 1000 years ago. Angkor literally breathes time into your soul, and is an amazing ‘bucket list’ experience.

On board

A couple more days in Siem Reap gives you the chance to re-adjust to the real world before you officially join your ship, which is waiting for you in the middle of Tonle Sap (great lake). Tonle Sap is an immense body of water, but is relatively shallow for the most part, therefore during the dry season, the lake is barely knee deep, so passengers embark on the other side of the lake from Siem Reap dock, two hours drive away. One of the great advantages of Avalon’s Angkor ship is that it is somewhat smaller and more ‘intimate’ than

other cruise ships on the Mekong. This, of course, ensures a ‘friendly feel’ on board, but also allows it to stay on the lake for longer during the dry season.

So after a short 15-minute ride on a wooden longboat, we clambered aboard our home for the next 10 days.

As soon as you climbed on board you felt as if you had stepped into another world. A glass of sparkling wine was placed in our hands as elegantly uniformed staff welcomed us aboard. Perfectly polished wooden floors, modern furnishing and a wonderful open floor plan made us feel instantly at home. Deck chairs line the upper viewing platform, where we gathered each evening for cocktails and canapes, before making our way to the indoor lounge to indulge in the delectable  four-course dinners. The nights were be spent chatting, watching movies and drinking fine wine over the gentle hum of the ship as it glided over the velvety waters of the river.

The locals

One of the major factors of this Mekong cruise is the chance to truly absorb how the local people live. The river is the lifeline and livelihood for many people and fishermen are a constant sight on the water where they almost defy gravity as they throw nets out over great expanses, not far from their humble houses that seem to slope somewhat dangerously down into the river.

Arranged stops see the ship pull up to a muddy embankment. Once again, for those who have cruised through Europe, this is a world away as a wooden gang-plank is thrown down as a passage to shore. This is true soft adventure and everyone seemed to embrace it. Day trips included an ox-cart ride past rice paddy farms, and on to a local village where a silversmith uses age-old techniques to turn pure silver into works of art, textile workers weave silk, and a tour of a local school shows how students in this part of the world truly embrace their education.

You learn that there are more temples in Cambodia than just Angkor Wat with a visit to Wat Hanschey, which dates back to the 8th century. It is a bit of a climb up to the temple’s location on the hilltop, but the view and the chance to be blessed by the local monks in a traditional water ceremony make it totally worthwhile.

Phnom Penh

Arriving in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on day eight of the tour jolts you back into city life. This is a thriving metropolis of over two million people and while it still has a colonial, French charm, there are all the sites and smells associated with big city living.  A day in Phnom Penh reveals the sordid history of this ancient city with a visit to the opulence of the Royal Palace and silver pagoda tempered with a sobering tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the very site where thousands of Cambodians were slaughtered by the Khmer  ouge regime in the 1970s. A trip to the Killing Fields the next day served as a stark reminder of the atrocities in the region in the not-too distant past and made us realise that everyone we had met on our trip had some connection to that time.

Back on board, these were talking points as the tour guides re-capped the day’s activities or you could retire to the lounge to take in movies, such as The Killing Fields that reinforced the history absorbed during the day trips. Crossing into Vietnam   The next day the Angkor crossed the border into Vietnam and docked at the town of Chau Doc, home of many different types of fish sauce, the staple of South East Asian cooking. Foodies got their fill with a visit to the local fish market and a dried goods market further up river, before learning how rice wine and traditional candies are made at the township of Sa Dec, which also has several types of fruit indigenous to the area.

On the 12th day of the trip we arrived at the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City and immediately we were struck by how modern and progressive it is compared with the villages we’d just visited. There’s a real hum and vibe to the city of over eight million and we began to appreciate its vitality on a guided walking tour that takes in Reunification Palace and the Ben Thanh Market, where we prepared our own lunch at a hands-on cooking class.

The next day we delved into war history with a visit to Ch Chi Tunnels, an extraordinary network of tunnels more than 190 kilometres in length that was used by the Viet Cong during the war before returning back to the ship for our last night on board. A special farewell dinner, hosted by the cruise director, was the perfect way to end our two week Mekong adventure as we toasted to new friends, great memories and a wonderful experience over yet another fantastic fresh feast on board our ‘floating hotel’.

Words Mark Hughes
Published Spring14

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