Isabel Conway joins up with G Adventures to sample their Mekong River Encompassed cruise taking in Cambodia and Vietnam. Never one to shy from an adventure, Isabel has plenty to report home about.
There’s something surreal about wobbling between manic traffic, livestock and ever darting, waving children in the middle of a bustling town deep in Cambodia whose market stall traders point and laugh at a passable female impersonation of the late Benny Hill on a mountain bike.
South East Asian traffic is hairy by any standard. Believe me viewing waves of zipping motor scooters from the vantage point of your handlebars brings a whole new meaning to the will to survive. Yet get out there in the middle of the mayhem in Kampong Chhnang – centuries ago the coastal gateway between China and India – as I recently did and there’s a surprising logic to the organized chaos.
Fortunately, It turns out to be far less scary than visualized from inside the tour bus. We’ve already travelled for days by riverboat, plying the mighty coffee coloured Mekong River, visiting temples whose monks have imparted blessings which may explain umpteen collisions I am now avoiding!.
Taking a 15 km round cycle trip, starting from this busy fishing port via its colourful crowded local market is one of numerous stand out moments on our eventful G Adventures Mekong River journey through parts of Vietnam and Cambodia that’s full of authentic immersive experiences along the way.
We’re pedalling now past the grandiose local HQ of the Cambodian People’s Party, roadside stalls piled with bright orange coloured maize drying in the sun, hawkers flogging motorcycle parts, assorted cooking utensils, exotic fruit and vegetables and makeshift cafes advertising Tiger beer.
Long lashed Brahmin calves meet us on the outskirts where the emerald green rice paddies fan out. Abundant foliage explodes everywhere– a benefit of visiting in the rainy season, despite frequent sudden downpours – providing a lush backdrop here and along the Mekong riverbank with some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
The harsh realities of life are ever present in these remote parts of Cambodia. Stopping to visit a cottage industry barefoot women are hard at work in a brick factory. A tiny child squats on a mountain of greasy clay while its mother repetitively shovels heavy clots into the brick mould on a clanking assembly line. The stacked bricks are then taken by hand cart to long snake like kilns by an elderly toothless woman bent almost double under her load.
The Kampong Chhnang area is full of potteries and G Adventures gives financial assistance for building materials and other essentials to family based cottage industries. our well informed efficient CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Ronnie takes us to meet a woman who has been making pots since childhood.
The potter uses her hands to mould the pots, beating them laboriously into shape with a paddle like tool. A middle man pays her 75 cents a pot. He only turns up after she has made several hundred and he sells them on for between $4 and $5 each to wholesale buyers in China, Ronnie translates. “Most of her income is spent on the education of her children because she wants them to have a better life”.
Amid poverty and hardship there is also much hope and laughter with insights into Cambodian friendliness and resourcefulness throughout our Mekong River Encompassed travels.
Thankfully, at our next stop off outside Kampong Chhnang a local sugar palm farmer offers tastings of his super strong palm wine. Most of us – by now passengers have nicely bonded sharing our riverboat sun deck and restaurant space for almost a week – are game for a mid- morning (diluted) nip. A few accept his offer to dress up as sugar palm farmers for photo opportunities and the youngest passengers are already climbing a palm tree.
Mr Om Sary (71)epitomizes that for some age is a mere number shinning up to the top of one of his seventy plus tall Thnot (sugar palm) trees, crossing between them with the agility of a circus performer. The trees are tapped twice daily and containers of sap collected to be turned into wine and a fudge like caramel coloured sugar substance.
The myriad uses of this variety of palm tree includes using the wood to carve souvenirs and make hats, while the bark and fronds make good building material. His good humour belies a life of back breaking toil, and like most people you meet he has stories about the terror and tyranny of Pol Pot’s unspeakably evil Khmer Rouge regime. We stroll over to a canopy to admire the latest member of his clan Mr Sary’s 14 day old grandson and the proud mother.
Visiting Choeung Ek, 10 miles south east of Phnom Penh, the most visited of the hundreds of Cambodian Killing Fields is an essential though intensely harrowing and heart breaking lesson about Pol Pot’s genocidal regime that annihilated millions, wiping out almost an entire generation, displacing families everywhere. The scars it left are all but healed now – Cambodians will tell you“we forgive because we must and move on but we shall not forget” as the country forges it’s aspirations to be an Asian baby tiger.
The clouds are suitably dark and there’s a backdrop of cocks crowing in the neighbourhood while visiting the notorious detention centre known as S-21 in old town Phnom Penh – mind bogglingly sickening evidence of the barbarity Pol Pot and his followers inflicted on up to 20,000 internees from whom only seven including three babies survived.
Norng Chanphal (47) was aged nine when he was saved by the Vietnamese soldiers who drove out the Khmer Rouge uncovering unspeakable horror here. He tells me how he managed to hide in kitchens with his younger brother. Norng, a gently spoken man sits under a tree in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng (S-21 museum) clutching a bulky manuscript. It is his story and he wants to have it published, detailing what he saw and experienced, he says, gratefully accepting any donations that come his way.
My ten day tour has begun in Ho Chi Minh city with a night at the historic somewhat frayed around the edges Continental, the first hotel built in Saigon back in 1880 where Graham Greene stayed while writing the Quiet American and HQ to The Herald Tribune, Time magazine and foreign correspondents during the Vietnam war.
There was no expectation from me to find much left from the French Colonial period, never mind the American occupation. But if you look there are reminders, from Art Nouveau stucco embellished shop fronts and wrought iron balconies to The Opera House and main Post office along with districts advertising ‘massage hotels’ in dodgy neighbourhoods that prospered with the arrival of the US military during the Vietnam War.
The most popular trip out of the city is by bus to the famous Cu Chi tunnels dug by the Viet Cong and covering hundreds of km where thousands hid themselves out of range of American shelling resulting in much disease and death. Other highlights not to be missed include the War Remnants and Ho Chi Minh City museums and for visitors wanting to complete the war memories tour the Reunification Palace.
Transferred to the cruise pier in Ho Chi Minh City I join the G Adventures Riverboat Toum Tiou 11 – a Cambodian built 14 cabin classic comfortable vessel. Our voyage will be filled with interesting stops and excursions, presided over by Carlos our smiling efficient Filipino riverboat hotel manager. Nothing is too much trouble for him and the always smiling crew.
Paddling through a network of canals, oxcart and cycle rickshaw rides, visits to floating villages, floating markets and magnificent temples are among the activities.
Afterwards on my way home, the ever changing panorama of life along the Mekong is a powerful memory.
From afar it resembles a Constable scene. Come closer and timber buildings are on stilts, farmers wear coolie hats, children who jump up and down are waving from sampans and orchards and barges are weighted down with coconuts, guavas, dragon fruit and prickly Rambutans.
Other Cambodia highlights are visits to chaotic charming Phnom Penh and after saying a nostalgic farewell to our G Adventures riverboat an overnight stay in touristically interesting Siem Reap with its dirt cheap restaurants and bars overflowing with bloggers and vloggers enjoying the nomadic ‘I gave up my job to travel’ lifestyle.
Everyone descends to visit one of the greatest wonders of the world, stupendous Temples of Angkor that are “even better than the superlatives” as Lonely Planet aptly observes.
Our last night on a truly memorable journey is spent at luxury Angkor Resort hotel enjoying a traditional meal of fantastic Khmer food at the New Hope Vocational Training restaurant, an initiative kick started by G Adventures to help orphans and disadvantaged members of the community in Siem Reap. What better way to end than the 4 am wake up call to hurry and catch Angkor Wat’s glorious sunrise in the company of local guide Rum with his dazzling smile, catchy life story and infectious optimism that pretty much sums up this part of the world.
All images (c) Isabel Conway
Tell me more about cruising the Mekong River
Isabel was a guest of G Adventures on its 10- day ‘Mekong River Encompassed’ itinerary priced from £1,449 pp. This includes accommodation (7 nights on board the Toum Tiou II Riverboat and two nights in hotels) most main meals, transportation, a chief experience officer (CEO) and local guides throughout. This trip also operates in reverse and can be broken down into smaller segments Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh (priced from £879 pp) and Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (priced from £649 pp) and vice versa. Prices do not include flights. For more information or to book please call 03442722040 in the UK or visit www.gadventures.co.uk
Isabel sampled Thai Airways International award winning Business Class in both directions from London Heathrow. Thai Airways International (THAI) flies twice daily to Bangkok from London Heathrow and operates the only non-stop A380 service between the cities. Return flights to Phnom Penh from £716.37 return Oct. THAI constantly has special promotions so check out the website for latest deals. See www.thaiairways.co.uk Tel: 08445610911