Me­an­der along the Mekong

All aboard a com­fort­able cruiser on itin­er­ar­ies in Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PETER NEED­HAM

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.