CAM­BO­DIA UP CLOSE

Society Magazine - - Travel - By Andrew Evans

As one of the fastest grow­ing tourism destinations in South­east Asia, Cam­bo­dia’s rich her­itage, cul­ture and nat­u­ral re­sources of­fer a full range of cul­ture and eco-tourism sites that are both dy­namic and sus­tain­able. Read on and find out more

Life is not stay­ing still,” Vuthy spoke softly to me, like a kind older brother. “It is mov­ing from one place to the next.”

I fol­lowed his rhyth­mic breath­ing — in, out — in­hal­ing the lo­tus air and un­tan­gling my own breath from the out­side breeze, flow­ing in through the open tem­ple doors.

“When we let some­thing go, that is the ul­ti­mate peace,” Vuthy con­tin­ued, his eyes half-closed in con­cen­tra­tion. Like the monks around us, his head was shaved, but he was dressed in khaki — my guide on the river. He’d been a monk be­fore; his in­struc­tion was real. Our morn­ing med­i­ta­tion was a spon­ta­neous de­tour from the rote tourist path in Oudong, a golden com­plex of pointed tem­ples and the for­mer cap­i­tal of the King­dom of Cam­bo­dia.

All of the mon­u­ments and fan­fare, the be­he­moth stat­ues, the many thou­sands of golden Bud­dhas sit­ting silently in un­seen rooms — all of it pointed to these mo­ments of seren­ity. My monk-turnedguide did not want to merely show me the sights; he wanted me to un­der­stand them.

Bare­foot, we climbed the 400 stone steps to the high­est white mar­ble stupa en­cas­ing the Bud­dha’s relics. Bold stat­ues of the mythical three-headed ele­phant

Erawan guard the shrine, and from this high­est point, I could see miles across the flat squares of green to the shim­mer­ing com­plex­ity of the Mekong, an un­wind­ing bun­dle of twisted rivers.

Our mo­ment of peace ended with a band of long-tailed macaques in­vad­ing the shrine, snatch­ing up all the holy of­fer­ings and shov­ing the food into their pouty pink mouths. The Bud­dhist pil­grims only laughed while the small­est baby mon­keys licked the sticky rice off their tiny fin­gers be­fore dash­ing home into the for­est.

We made our way back to the ship, chat­ting with mar­ket ven­dors along the way, sip­ping sug­ar­cane and munch­ing palm fruit — Vuthy stepped in to in­ter­pret and in­dulge all my cu­rios­ity. He in­sisted that I touch, taste and smell ev­ery­thing. He wanted me to travel mind­fully.

Most peo­ple hear “cruise” and think of some high-rise ship crammed with thou­sands of pas­sen­gers that drifts away from Florida for a week of bad buf­fets and for­get­table ports lined with T-shirt shops. My Mekong cruise was the to­tal op­po­site — un­rushed, calm and au­then­tic — an ac­tive and in­ti­mate dis­cov­ery of the land, peo­ple, na­ture and cul­ture of Cam­bo­dia. Smaller num­bers, a flex­i­ble itin­er­ary and the right ship make all the dif­fer­ence.

Low and lean, the Aqua Mekong — one of two ships be­long­ing to Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions, a cruise line launched a decade ago on the Ama­zon River — was cus­tom-built for this spe­cific wa­ter­way in South­east Asia. The ves­sel fea­tures just 20 cab­ins, each with floor-to-ceil­ing glass walls that re­veal ev­ery sec­ond of scenery you pass.

Ev­ery morn­ing on my bal­cony, sip­ping my sun­rise espresso, I watched the river wake up. Fish­er­men cast their nets like fire­works, chas­ing the sil­ver fish that dis­ap­peared like sparks be­neath the rip­ples. Lit­tle kids rubbed their eyes in their house­boat ham­mocks, and like a rush-hour high­way, the river grew busy with boats, whin­ing and whirring mo­tors fer­ry­ing peo­ple and an­i­mals up and down the mighty Mekong.

CRUIS­ING CAM­BO­DIA

No longer a spec­ta­tor sport for tourists of a cer­tain age, river cruis­ing can be an im­mer­sive, ac­tive form of travel — an ideal way to ex­plore South­east Asia’s Mekong River in Cam­bo­dia.

Af­ter break­fast, we ten­dered to the clos­est shore and watched our ship van­ish up­river. Un­teth­ered and in­de­pen­dent, we mounted our bikes and took off into pock­ets of dark jun­gle, where lofty bam­boo and sturdy palms of­fered a canopy of shade. Swerv­ing deeper into the coun­try­side, we passed ba­nana groves, fields of pink flow­er­ing gin­ger, and farm­ers work­ing in their fields.

Ped­al­ing be­tween the emer­ald rice pad­dies felt mag­i­cal. White but­ter­flies floated up from the path, bas­kets of black se­same seeds dried in the sun and the air car­ried the scent of wild jas­mine. Dodg­ing roost­ers, sleeping dogs and ox carts, I gazed up into stilt houses painted red and blue and caught a glimpse of another life. Old men mended their fish­ing nets an inch at a time. Women dyed cloth and wove sleeping mats from river reeds. Another fam­ily shelled soy­beans by hand.

“You al­ways see more when you’re bik­ing,” ex­plained Vuthy, and he was right. I had been to Cam­bo­dia twice be­fore, but I had missed all of this. Most tourists never leave the ma­jor cities, yet the rivers are the heart of the coun­try, swelling up with the sea­sonal mon­soon, feed­ing the fer­tile delta. The wa­ter ex­tended for miles on ei­ther side, and only on my bike did I be­gin to un­der­stand the im­men­sity of the Mekong with its ev­er­shift­ing shore­line. Some­times the bike path ended in wa­ter, but we only needed to ring a small brass bell and a ferry ar­rived to take us across to the other side.

Travel should never be a spec­ta­tor sport, and ex­plor­ing a des­ti­na­tion by bike gives you the free­dom to stop and see. When we met a man build­ing a fish­ing boat in his front yard, I stopped and loaded him with ques­tions. Smooth­ing the wood beams with a plane, he ex­plained how he water­proofed the hull with tar­like pitch — us­ing tech­niques that seem as old as this river. We saw silk be­ing spun from silk­worms, bricks and clay pots be­ing made by hand, palm sugar be­ing tapped from the tallest trees.

When a lady sum­moned us to her lo­tus fields, we ditched our bikes and trudged out into the knee-deep wa­ter where we sniffed the pink blos­soms and helped har­vest the ed­i­ble pods. A young farmer gifted me a wood ap­ple from his tree, and when school let out, a band of young stu­dents joined us on their bikes un­til we reached their vil­lage and they peeled off for home.

In four days, I clocked 55 miles by bike. This was my first cruise where I burned more calo­ries than I ate. No mat­ter the amaz­ing fish curry steamed in ba­nana leaf or the ten­der pork sa­tay and the ba­nana frit­ters with co­conut ice cream — ev­ery lux­u­ri­ous meal on board was fol­lowed by some ac­tive ex­plo­ration of the sur­round­ing area. If not by bike or on foot, then by kayak.

Pad­dling in the shal­lows, I ma­neu­vered my way through a mesh of house­boats at dusk. Tied up into “streets” of wa­tery pas­sage­ways, these ex­tended float­ing vil­lages are home to mostly Viet­namese fish­er­men.

In my solo kayak, I felt like a silent in­truder into this ut­terly dif­fer­ent place, drop­ping into a rarely seen world where peo­ple live on boats. Dogs barked at me from float­ing porches, women dunked their ba­bies into the river for a quick bath and men waved at me po­litely without break­ing their gaze from the soc­cer game on TV.

The laven­der light was fad­ing, with only a few pink dragon clouds left in the sky. Night was near, and so I pad­dled midriver, let­ting the faster cur­rent pull me back to­ward my own float­ing home, where I caught the hull with my hands, board­ing the Aqua Mekong just in time for din­ner. This was the kind of cruis­ing I loved, com­ing and go­ing, ebbing and flow­ing with the river it­self, be­cause like Vuthy told me, life is not stay­ing still.

Andrew Evans is a free­lance writer and au­thor of The Black Pen­guin.

Young monks chant in an­tic­i­pa­tion of their daily meal in­side one of the many tem­ples at Oudong, in cen­tral Cam­bo­dia.

A young man builds a boat from lo­cal tim­ber, hand-cut­ting each plank to fit the curved frame and ris­ing prow that is cus­tom­ary to fish­ing boats on the Mekong River in cen­tral Cam­bo­dia.

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