Mar­vels of the Mekong

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

You could spend days look­ing at the fine de­tails of the 12th-cen­tury Angkor Wat tem­ples. The UNESCO World Her­itage-listed reli­gious site is mag­nif­i­cent.

But we are in Siem Reap, Cam­bo­dia, on an­other mis­sion. We have a bus to catch and a ship to board.

The RV Mekong Pan­daw was built in 2002 and is a replica of the her­itage ships of the Ir­rawaddy Flotilla Com­pany (IFC). From the 1860s to 1940s in what was then Burma, the IFC op­er­ated more than 600 pad­dle steam­ers. They were built in Glasgow, dis­as­sem­bled for trans­porta­tion, then re­built in Ran­goon (now Yan­gon).

They sailed the Ir­rawaddy River, mov­ing lo­cals, colonists, sol­diers, rice, live­stock, fruit, veg­eta­bles, build­ing ma­te­ri­als, you name it, along what was a ver­i­ta­ble liq­uid high­way. The ves­sels were all scut­tled as the Ja­panese neared Ran­goon dur­ing World War II.

Af­ter a four-hour bus ride from Siem Reap we board at Kam­pong Cham in cen­tral Cam­bo­dia. We are to head south along the Mekong River for seven nights, five in Cam­bo­dia and two in Viet­nam.

The Mekong Pan­daw, 60m long and 10m wide, has pol­ished tim­ber decks and 24 cab­ins. Although not pad­dle-pow­ered, it is nonethe­less as evoca­tive and ro­man­tic as the river it­self.

The top deck is given over for loung­ing on sun-beds and there’s a billiards ta­ble and well-stocked bar where you can get a sun­rise cup of tea, the sun­downer cock­tail of the day and ice cream at any time. It is the place on the ship to let your mind drift. There is al­ways a breeze and it has the best view of the breadth of the mighty, brown Mekong and the life along its banks.

Air-con­di­tioned, tim­ber-lined en­suite cab­ins in a smart navy and white colour scheme em­body the old­world colo­nial charm of the pad­dle steam­ers. The smooth touch of wide wooden floor­boards makes it a plea­sure to go bare­foot or pad about softly in the tow­elling slip­pers pro­vided (shoes are taken away for thor­ough clean­ing af­ter each shore visit).

Slid­ing shut­tered doors let pas­sen­gers sleep with just nat­u­ral breezes waft­ing from the river, although ad­justable air-con­di­tion­ing is also pro­vided. It’s fun to sit at the dress­ing ta­ble brush­ing my hair and watch­ing the re­flected river in the mir­ror. It feels very Catherine Deneuve in In­do­chine: trop­i­cal linens, strands of pearls, gin and ton­ics, heat and dust. Ar­rayed across the next two decks are the spa­cious din­ing room and the Saloon Bar, dou­bling as a meet­ing room for talks and quizzes. (The Mekong is 4350km long in case you get that ques­tion.) The be­lowdecks realm houses the of­fices, gym, li­brary, spa ser­vices and movie room.

The days quickly fall into an easy sched­ule of morn­ing and af­ter­noon ex­cur­sions. Evenings in­clude screen­ings

RV Mekong Pan­daw, top; old-world cabin charm, above

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