Marvels of the Mekong
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