Meander along the Mekong
All aboard a comfortable cruiser on itineraries in Cambodia and Vietnam
CROCODILES and ostriches on the Mekong River? I ponder for a moment and order the ostrich.
Such are the main dinner choices one evening aboard our river cruiser, Mekong Pandaw: prawn and crocodile satay, served with jasmine rice; or ostrich with Kampot pepper sauce and potato mash. We are cruising from Cambodia to Vietnam and menus are important, especially when you arrive back from an excursion ready to eat. The shore visits on this cruise take in a potpourri of temples, pagodas and markets — plus quirkier locations such as a fish farm and a brick factory, which turns out to be more interesting than it sounds. Transfers to attractions from the boat can be by foot (such as the 303 steps up to the pre-Angkorian temple of Wat Hanchey), ferry, cycle rickshaw or even ox cart, which proves more memorable than comfortable.
A group of enthusiastic children greets us by the riverside in the village of Kampong Tralach and conveys us joyously to waiting carts. Two oxen, a driver and a couple of passengers constitute the entire crew. Kids run alongside, practising their English and singing. The potholes are many. The trick, when taking photographs, is not to let your elbows touch the cart wheels, which are without tyres and seem to be rimmed with sandpaper.
From the high Tibetan plateau, the Mekong runs thousands of kilometres across China, Burma, Laos and Thailand. By the time it reaches Cambodia and Vietnam, the torrent flows chocolate brown. This section is the best for snapper and catfish farming (the fish are penned in huge wicker enclosures) and for river cruising. The most popular trips run in both directions between Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.
The river supports millions of people, though few in the luxury we are enjoying. Not that our vessel feels overly ritzy or opulent. Sixty metres long, with four decks and capacity for up to 64 passengers, Mekong Pandaw is smart, shipshape, comfortable and colonial.
Pandaw Cruises’ river vessels are styled after the steamers that chugged up and down the rivers of the British Empire in the Edwardian age. Rich in teak and brass, the ships have been enhanced with mod cons such as air-conditioning and hot showers; there are skilled chefs and varied menus. As well as ostrich and crocodile, there’s stuffed duck with orange sauce, beef lok lak and succulent salads. The cheeses run from brie and blue to a curious smoked Russian, rolled tight like a ball of string.
The cruise extends over seven nights and the highlight for most passengers is the stupendous Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, at the start or end of the cruise, depending on the direction of travel. At nearby Angkor Thom, with its inscrutably smiling, carved stone Khmer faces and its bridge of gods and demons, orchestras of landmine victims play traditional music discreetly on the footpaths. Elephants in fancy red coats provide rides for the weary and visitors seek new angles from which to photograph the giant tree roots threading sinuously through the ruined temple stonework.
Not all shore excursions are organised. On a spur-ofthe-moment, after-dark expedition with a handful of shipmates, I travel by tuk-tuk to Phnom Penh’s Street 51 entertainment district, where bars and nightclubs have curious names such as White Love, Heart of Darkness and, most memorably, The Drunken Sponge. Avoiding the others, we enter Heart of Darkness, where five blackclad security guards frisk us thoroughly, airport style, even removing bottles of water. We finally reach the ultraviolet-lit interior to find we are the only people there.
Back aboard, drinks are served on the top deck. It’s hard to run up a bar bill as beer and local spirits are free. Wine, however, is not.
To enjoy a captain’s-eye view of the river and its traffic, the sampans and big wooden freighters with eyes painted on the bows, head for the air-conditioned bar and library at the front of the ship, full of wicker chairs, blue cushions and marble-topped tables. This quiet space is perfect for absorbing the river’s moods as heavy rain roars and clumps of water hyacinth drift past.
At one point, the ship halts midstream as official boats from Cambodia and Vietnam arrive. We are crossing the border into Vietnam.
My shipmates are mostly Australian, including a band of Vietnam War veterans bound for the village of Long Tan to pay their respects to fallen comrades. Eighteen Australian soldiers died there in 1966, when 108 Anzacs fought a Viet Cong force estimated at between 1500 and 2500. Paul Tich Tyson, who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, has organised several trips to the battle site with veterans, but this is the first to incorporate a river cruise. Those aboard love the trip and are meeting fellow vets in Ho Chi Minh City for the pilgrimage to Long Tan.
That’s another advantage of the river cruise — it’s easy to add a stay, in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Saigon or elsewhere, to the beginning or end. Peter Needham was a guest of Vietnam Airlines and Pandaw Cruises.
The Pandaw riverboat cruises from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City