Tales of the …Mekong Riverbank
Cox & Kings’ Philip Hamilton-Grierson discovers plenty of unexpected characters as he sets sail along south-east Asia’s Mekong river.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a river cruise down the mighty Mekong, setting sail from the heart of Cambodia and following the river’s course to Vietnam, where it spills out into the South China Sea. You might anticipate the majestic temples at Angkor, locals working verdant paddy fields, a bowl of something noodly for lunch and the exotic calls of riverside birdlife. What you probably are not expecting is the uninhibited cackle of a pair of retired octogenarian Australian nurses, holding forth on the subject of the cattle-castrating talents of swagmen in the outback.
The anticipation of travel and the reality are very different experiences. The anticipation often focuses on one or two blow-your-socksoff moments, such as gazing on the Taj Mahal at sunrise or seeing the Great Wall snake its way into the distance. These simplistic mental snapshots may help us to decide on a destination, but it is the reality of travel – the countless surprises along the way – that feeds the appetite for exploring.
And so we embarked on a seven-night Mekong cruise aboard the Heritage Lines’ Jayavarman. Aside from these two Antipodean ladies – dedicating their later years to worldwide exploration, having been part of a syndicate that had cleaned up on the Queensland lotto – we joined an army of permanently amused and amusing fellow travellers. These included a pair of 40-something ladies from Geneva, a retired Dutch couple from Arnhem, a Canadian travel agent and her reluctantly travelling husband, an Israeli couple, and a family of four from Seattle. This disparate bunch were our companions at mealtimes, on excursions and for those unexpected encounters on deck and along corridors.
As we took our places for the first lunch, my wife and I were a touch wary when it became obvious from the table layouts that we would be sitting with fellow guests at mealtimes. One meal in, however, and it was clear the company on board was going to be as much of a pleasure as the sights and sounds along the Mekong. So colourful was this cast of characters, so rich was the variety of accents, so distinctive and caricatured were their national traits that at times it felt as if we were only a murder and a pyramid away from a remake of Death on the Nile.
By day we would learn about the lives of the village fishermen, meet local craftsmen, visit schools and see the legacy of the wars that have so recently blighted this corner of Eden. By night we were exposed to the fascinating contours of our fellow guests’ lives, including what it feels like to be stalked and chased by an emu, the pleasures of taking a swim in the Rhine during a lunchtime office-break in Basel, and that if you put a pair of French-speaking Swiss together with a pair of German-speaking Swiss, their common language is, helpfully, English.
Aside from the ever-entertaining company of this mini United Nations of fellow travellers, life aboard the Jayavarman voyage was a week of delights. The whole look and feel of the boat had the French-colonial style of a ‘golden age’ of travel. The 27 elegant cabins were big and airy enough not to feel remotely cramped and each had its own balcony from which to watch river life pass by. The crew were unfailingly friendly, helpful, enthusiastic and happy. Within an hour or two of boarding they had all put our names to our faces and were welcoming us gleefully by our Christian names at every opportunity. There was a very comfy lounge where talks were given and films shown in the evenings, a spacious open-sided bar area, an airy restaurant, a couple of rooms for spa treatments, and a roof-top sun deck (with pre-breakfast tai chi classes for those seeking fuller cultural immersion), complete with sizeable jacuzzi plunge pool.
All the meals were served on board and the food was excellent, both local and international. Personally, I like my chefs to be rotund and jovial, rather than sinewy and intense, and Andy, the Singaporean whose Cambodian team turned out superb dishes morning, noon and night, happily had the Friar Tuck form of a man who really enjoys his food. So did we.
Typically, each day included a couple of excursions. We visited ancient temples and gilded palaces, saw saffron-robed young Buddhist monks and conical-hatted ladies going about their business; we learned about silk weaving, Khmer-style pottery, rattan mat making, rice paper manufacturing, fruit growing and fish farming. We explored exuberant markets; travelled by ox-cart, sampan boat, tuk tuk, and cycle rickshaw. It was fascinating and, in the company of our eclectic fellow travellers, often extremely funny. There was one occasion to mark the end of our voyage when our collective good humour could have been tested when, to all our surprise, sunset drinks were served to disco beats on the riverbank, and the ever enthusiastic crew urged the recalcitrant revellers to join them in a non-ironic conga. But, what da ya know? As we reached the last dance, there was the reluctant Canadian and his wife, swaying cheek to cheek to The Lady in Red. He had ducked out of just about every excursion, but here he had found his cultural moment (admittedly a moment from about 35 years ago) and we all felt better for being there.
Back on board, the scenery was ever-changing. It was at its most beautiful in the heart of Cambodia near Tonlé Sap lake, where the river is narrow enough to see the life along the banks, watch fishing boats phutting past and hear the welcoming cries of local children. The pleasure of looking out on these scenes of lush greenery, lapping water and cloudless blue skies is akin to staring at a flame or the night sky: no square inch was specifically amazing but the whole effect was spell-binding. As the Tonlé Sap river nears Phnom Penh, where it meets the Mekong, it starts to widen, and by the time you reach the delta area in Vietnam it is a broad murky expanse, alive with vessels: fishermen, cargo boats, dredgers and floating market traders.
Given the recent geo-politics of the region, inevitably there were solemn moments. One of the most memorable aspects of this trip was the smiling positivity of the locals. Cambodia in particular feels like a country full of hope, devoid of cynicism or weariness. But to understand this positivity, you have to understand what it is a reaction against: the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge from 1974 to 1979 wiped out 2 million people – a quarter of the population. Visiting the ‘Killing Fields’ and the infamous S21 prison in Phnom Penh is harrowing, but to do so in the company of our wonderful guide, Mau, whose father, a teacher, was murdered by the regime and who only narrowly escaped the slaughter himself, is to get beyond the dates, the grim numbers and the complex politics of the books. Gaining some understanding of the human reality of survival, mourning and moving on, despite the scale of the barbarity, was a deeply humbling experience that touched us deeply.
Cambodia and southern Vietnam are abundant lands. The river is alive with fish, the annual flooding enriches the soil, luscious fruits drip from trees and paddies are bright green with rice. Progress stunted by wars, the people still lead largely simple, bucolic lives and the Mekong is their lifeblood, its ebb and flow creating the rhythm of their lives. Sadly, even as they have moved on from the horrors of the late 20th century, there is a looming cloud on their horizon, as Chinese damming upstream threatens fish stocks and water flow – in short, their very livelihoods.
For now, however, cruising down the Mekong is a magical experience. I can’t remember what I expected of it, but the reality was completely uplifting. We may have got lucky with our fellow travellers, but my guess is that if you throw almost any group of people of such diverse backgrounds onto a beautiful boat travelling through a timeless countryside populated by joyous local people, the ingredients are in place for a voyage of unpredictable pleasures.
Recommended Cox & Kings tour
A River Journey on the Mekong (Jayavarman)
14 Days & 12 Nights from £3,375
Explore one of the world’s great rivers on this 7-night Mekong cruise, passing small riverside villages and sleepy temples. These river cruisers are the ideal way to explore remote locations while retaining access to luxury accommodation. The journey can also be taken in reverse, either starting or finishing at the legendary Angkor temples. See more >
Learn more about…
The Mekong river at a glance
by Cox & Kings’ Far East expert Rathi Sivasothy
Find out the best times to explore the Mekong river, where to stay, what to eat and what to do. See more >