From floating markets to teeming cities a cruise on Southeast Asia’s longest river provides treasured memories.
As we sat cross-legged in front of two chanting monks the heady scent of jasmine blossom filled the air in Vipassana Dhura, the largest Buddhist monastery in Cambodia. Suddenly the buds and blossoms began falling on our heads as the saffron-robed monks scattered them over the congregation to complete a traditional blessing ceremony.
We were in Oudong, the former Cambodian capital and royal stronghold until 1865, which is dotted with tranquil monasteries and stupas – Buddhist religious monuments – and ageless landscapes of fields ploughed by oxen. The animals are prized by their owners as valuable investments and a reliable four-legged workforce and later we took an oxcart ride through a small village lined with roadside stalls where colourful vegetables were sold alongside petrol syphoned into old fizzy drink bottles.
These memorable snapshots of daily life were among many authentic experiences as we travelled 416 miles through Vietnam and Cambodia on the 2,700-mile Mekong. This stretch of Southeast Asia’s longest river is a wonderful way to experience part of the old French-Indochina where elegant colonial buildings rub shoulders with patisseries selling baguettes and other culinary throwbacks of the bygone era and visiting rural areas where time stands still.
Ho Chi Minh City
Our journey with AmaWaterways began in cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many, with a city tour taking in the striking Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel, of the Parisian tower fame. Here we learned the rules of crossing the road (which also apply in Cambodia) as we faced non-stop lanes of oncoming motorcycles and the occasional car. Pedestrian crossings are, our guide informed us, merely a ‘suggestion’ and mostly ignored. The secret is to take a deep breath, step out slowly, keep walking and resist the urge to make a run for the other side. It works! Drivers are accustomed to steering around unhurried pedestrians and you can spot newbie visitors as the ones glued to the kerb waiting for an opening that never comes.
Out in the countryside days tick by at a much more leisurely pace dictated by the surroundings. Nowhere is this more evident than the mighty Mekong where weather and water levels influence the rhythm of the lives of people living in houses raised on wooden stilts along its banks and, in some cases, homes on the water.
There were days when AmaDara anchored in the river amidst water hyacinths and small local boats took us on excursions through the ever-changing panorama of sights lining the banks. We sailed through Ca Be’s floating market where food and other wares were hoisted up boats’ masts to act as shop signs for the goods being sold on board. We passed large wooden vessels with penetrating red eyes painted on their bows, an age-old custom to scare off monsters once believed to lurk in the depths.
Later, in the riverside town of Sa Dec we followed our guide through the jam-packed market where the sight of rats and other more challenging foods are not for the feint-hearted. Afterwards we sipped a cup of fragrant jasmine tea in the wonderful old colonial home of Huynh Thuy Le, who inspired the semi-biographical novel The Lover by French author Marguerite Duras.
Crossing the border at the town of Chau Doc, we moved from Vietnam to the slower pace of life in Cambodia where there is a constant reminder that the Mekong is a working waterway for locals. Countless fishing boats and small vessels criss-crossed our path, often transporting children to and from school, and we only saw a handful of other hotel boats during the entire trip, which created a real sense of adventure.
Spluttering tuk-tuks variously took us to silk making workshops, where we bought jewel bright scarves for a fraction of the cost at home, and villages where our inquisitive eyes and ever-clicking cameras where met with smiles from people cooking, washing and going about their daily routines. Children ran out to wave to us and in a village school we met eloquent youngsters who told us of their ambitions to become teachers, doctors and authors. Begging is not prevalent and our guides discouraged us from giving money and gifts to children; instead we took notebooks and pens to the school.
Everywhere we went – from rural communities to gatecrashing a waterfront dawn yoga class in the modern Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh – we were struck by people’s friendliness and ready, welcoming smiles. Even those with seemingly nothing seemed happy and contented. It made for some thought-provoking conversations on western world values.
The affable atmosphere continued back on board the 124-passenger AmaDara where the charming staff remembered our names and favourite drinks within a couple of days. With its gleaming wooden decks and cabins – every one with a balcony – the colonial-style ship boasting a panoramic lounge, gym and massage room provided every comfort to relax and watch the world float by. The food – buffet breakfast and lunch with an a la carte served dinner – was fantastic, with a choice of Asian and western dishes (chopsticks available but optional!). And the intimate Chef’s Table restaurant, at the back of the ship, can be booked at no extra charge. The sun deck has a pool and al fresco bar and if you’re feeling energetic you can join daily exercise classes. Entertainment included a delightful performance of Khmer dancing, typified by the girls’ elegant hand movements.
Siem Reap is gateway to the 12th century temples of Angkor that form the world’s largest religious site and it’s well worth booking the land-based extension to see them. They include imposing Angkor Thom, where 172 faces of Buddha are carved into the towers, and mysterious Ta Prohm, surrounded by jungle and with huge tree roots now entwined through the buildings.
It is impossible not to be drawn in by the spirituality of the gentle, friendly people who have tiny golden homes in every village and outside many houses to provide shelter to religious spirits. I returned home feeling truly blessed, in every sense of the word, to have embarked on such a remarkable and totally unforgettable journey.
Call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 to find out more about our Charms of the Mekong 2023 Exclusive Offer on a 13 night tour including flights, excursions, all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, and an open bar with local beer, house-brand spirits and soft drinks throughout the day during the seven nights nights on AmaDara, plus two nights in Ho Chi Minh City and two nights in Siem Reap.