Lessons in river life as the world floats by

Andrew Taylor gets an education in solo travel and the history of two countries while cruising mighty waterways of south-east Asia.

Drinking alcohol before noon tends to be frowned upon in polite company and Judy, a 76-year-old retiree from the Gold Coast, is a stickler for social niceties.

"It's after midday somewhere in the world," she says.

That somewhere is not on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, where the hands of the clock behind the Sun Deck bar edge towards 10.30am. But respecting one's elders is paramount in Asia, especially when they order you double measures of London Harpoon, a Vietnamese gin that costs $4.50 a bottle.

Consuelo, in contrast, chooses a nautical theme, drinking rum and colas between cigarettes and telling me how she survived cancer with the help of three Filipino saints.

Rule one for solo travellers: you'll never be lonely with morning drinkers and smokers.

It's my third day aboard the RV Amalotus, cruising between the ruins of Cambodia's Angkor and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

It doesn't take long for Judy and her niece Carmel to empty their glasses. "Like General MacArthur, we shall return," she tells barman Hutmi, who smiles politely.

Travelling with my parents was never this fun.

Of course, there's more to cruising the great waterways of south-east Asia than drinking with fellow guests. But the sparkling wine served with breakfast suggests morning libations are an integral part of our eight-day cruise.

Our journey starts in Siem Reap. My fellow travellers are mainly retired couples from Australia and New Zealand whose sense of adventure is let down only by stiff joints, which has the potential to make the many transfers between dry land and rocking boat dangerous.

But the ship's crew are ever ready to offer a steadying hand to passengers. No less enterprising is the mother who pulls up alongside our boat as we motor across Lake Tonle Sap to the boat while her toddler son stands precariously with a python draped around his shoulders, his eyes streaming from an infection or perhaps fear.

On-board, we gather in the ship's Saigon Lounge, which has gold-leaf storks fluttering across a mirrored wall, to meet the crew. Each one is introduced by cruise manager Minh and the ship's pianist, Rolly.

As we cruise across the lake, which is so vast that we lose sight of land, Minh tells us Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and we will see poverty throughout our journey. He suggests giving pencils and toothbrushes to children but cautions against handing out money, "Also, don't give them candies because dentists are very expensive."

Minh describes the next day's journey in an ox cart: "We call this the Cambodian BMW." The newly refurbished Amalotus has 62 cabins across four decks. My cabin on the upper deck is small but luxurious, with cyclone-force aircon, an en suite stocked with toiletries, bathrobes, a hair dryer and spacious wardrobe. The flat-screen television can be used to watch only DVDs, not TV.

My queen-size bed seems bigger than some of the floating houses we pass and is no doubt more comfortable. The balcony is an ideal place to soak up the daily rhythms of river life before becoming soaked in sweat from the relentless humidity.

Travelling solo can be a lonely experience, especially at mealtimes and with a boatload of couples. But my fellow sailors - retired academics, barristers, judges, businessmen and police officers, to name a few - are friendly, funny and appreciate not only the health benefits of drinking in the morning but of napping in the afternoon, too.

Life aboard the Amalotus follows a familiar pattern: a leisurely breakfast washed down with a glass, maybe two, of sparkling wine is followed by an excursion on noisy motor boats to capture a glimpse of rural river life.

One day we pass flooded farmland, marooned palm trees and houseboats neatly arranged to form floating villages populated by Vietnamese fishermen and their families.

Bed sheets flutter in the breeze as children swing in hammocks or watch TV powered by car batteries, while their mothers make foul-smelling fish paste or do laundry uncomfortably close to their floating toilet.

We dock briefly in dusty Kampong Chhnang, until recently submerged by floods from the strong monsoon, to wander through its market where the best bargain seems to be a 75ยข haircut.

Back on board, Phaly shares her personal experience of forced separation from her family, slave labour and starvation during the Khmer Rouge era. Another guide, Lay, demonstrates the versatility of the krama, a sarong-like garment that can be worn around the head or waist.

A three-course lunch is followed, somewhat inadvisably on a full stomach, by a trip in Minh's "Cambodian BMW" along potholed tracks through villages and past rice fields. Sitting downwind of an ox with flatulence adds to the flavour, if not comfort, of the experience.

The coaches that take us to the former royal capital of Oudong, home of Cambodia's biggest Buddhist monastery, are mercifully smoother and less smelly.

The serenity of Vipassana Dhura seems disturbed by the monks chanting and hurling jasmine flower buds at us like tiny missiles, but Phaly assures us they are "blessing" us with peace, health and happiness.

Unfortunately, their blessing does not extend to the silk saleswomen of Chong Koh the next day, who start screeching and spitting betel nuts in an argument over who will sell me a couple of cheap scarves. I hastily dispense a few dollar bills to both ladies to avoid bloodshed and slink back to the ship where Hutmi has the gin bottle ready to restore my spirits.

Downstairs, Rolly is singing Give Love on Christmas Day in a falsetto that would impress Freddie Mercury. With two wives, a girlfriend, six children and a songbook that includes the Vengaboys' Boom Boom Boom (Let's Go Back to My Room), Rolly is one of the boat's more intriguing characters.

But it's hard to top Judy, especially after she tells me she has three stepchildren back home.

"I'm a seedless raisin," she says. "Why bother having your own when they're already there?"

We dock for two nights in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's languid and surprisingly beautiful capital, with its French colonial buildings, delicate Khmer architecture and scooter traffic that veers away from suicidal.

Our guides, however, are not prepared to take any chances, holding up signs and stopping traffic as they lead us through the streets to Wat Phnom temple.

As we ascend the temple's superb staircase guarded by terracotta lions and two nagas - the mythical, multiheaded snakes that are a feature of Khmer temples - we're stopped by a man with two cages of finches. He offers to release two birds to bring us good luck - a bargain for $US1.

Hard graft, not luck, is required for Khmer boxing, with regular bouts fought at the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Stadium in the city's north. It's all very Rocky when I arrive, with nuggety Cambodian Stallones sparring and kicking the stuffing out of punching bags as grey clouds release an unseasonal downpour.

The rain washes away any chance of finding a tuk-tuk to take me to the Russian Market, a chaotic rabbit warren of cheap clothes and electronics, pirated DVDs and souvenirs of varying degrees of tackiness. The dinner gongs are tempting but I eventually settle on what I'm told are opium pipes.

More sombre is the next day's visit to the Choeung Ek killing field, one of 343 massacre sites across Cambodia and whose horrors can only be understated. In the shadow of the memorial stupa containing almost 9000 skulls, a sign in poor English reads: "Killing tree which executioners beat children."

After sunset I squire another guest, Janet, down Sisowath Quay, which runs along the Tonle Sap River to the Royal Palace, home to the bachelor King Sihamoni, for a drink at the verandah bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club. Outside, the riverfront is crowded with families, kids doing handstands or showing off their soccer skills and outdoor aerobics classes that put Fitness First members to shame.

Four rivers meet at Phnom Penh and the next day we cruise into the muddy waters of the Mekong towards the Vietnamese border.

The next day promises a full day of sailing and cabin fever, given the program includes a "towel- and napkin-folding demonstration" and Minh's Nasty Quiz, with questions such as: "Is it legal for a man in France to marry his widow's sister?"

Happily, Dukda's class on making Vietnamese rice-paper rolls is a welcome diversion, although the sous chef expresses surprise at how readily the men accept his invitation to show off their culinary skills.

"Normally, I only get the lady to come," he says.

When it hasn't been raided by the French, bombed by Americans or attacked by Khmer Rouge guerillas, the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam produces half the country's rice as well as a seafood basket or two of basa fish, catfish and prawns.

It's also part of a supposedly repressive country but our guide Kiet, whose father was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, has no qualms about rubbishing the communist government. The small children of Tan Chau aren't shy, either, wandering up to tap our beer bellies and give the women an appreciative slap on the hips.

Further on in Cai Be, which is home to a Gothic cathedral that looks like Notre Dame, we venture into a wholesale market. Scooters zoom through the crowded stalls, so we take refuge by the morning-glory stall.

Next door, the buxom watercress seller with hands the size of steaks tells our guide Mai, while staring at me, that she's sick of men looking at her but not taking her home.

Eyeing my terror, she steers us in the direction of a meat seller, whose specialties include caged snake and turtle and a tray of rats with their guts hanging out.

"Tastes like tender chicken," Mai reassures us, "but I don't eat them. My husband does."

Happily, the coconut candy we sample later doesn't look like gutted rodents or taste like KFC.

The thimbles of wine flavoured with snakes are as strong as a cobra's venom but cannot match the restorative properties of royal jelly, which include "sexual capability improvement, anti-skin ageing and facelifting", no less.

Cockroaches tough on teeth

Don't expect silver service from Phnom Penh's answer to the Soup Nazi as she sits outside the Central Market sending text messages and ignoring potential customers.

"No photos," she snarls, as we crowd around her tiny stall with its baskets of cockroaches, crickets large and small, frogs and tarantulas.

Having eaten within the hygienic surrounds of the Amalotus's Mekong Restaurant, I decide it's time to try the local flavours.

The small crickets are golden in colour, crunchy in texture and taste like salt and vinegar chips. The cockroaches are golden, too, but get stuck between my teeth like tabbouleh. While I'm trying to wash 'roach legs out of my mouth, a pregnant woman riffles through the tarantulas, popping the most succulent into her mouth.

Dark and plump like prunes, they look like a confectioner's Halloween treat but are too oily for my liking.

My fellow travellers are disgusted by my eight-legged meal so I bite off the tarantula's head away from their condemning eyes. It snaps off like the head of a gingerbread man and is chewy like a peanut.

After eating cockroaches and spiders, I'm hardly about to turn down the frogs, which lie splayed next to a basket of embryonic eggs, a delicacy of beak and feather that I definitely don't want near my mouth. Tandoori orange and stringy, the frog tastes like chicken.

The writer was a guest of APT.

Trip notes

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney to Phnom Penh, with a six-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur, from $506 one way. Other airlines flying to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap also involve stopovers. webjet.com.au.

Cruising there

APT's 12-day Vietnam and Cambodia highlights cruise and tour includes a seven-night Mekong River cruise, four nights' accommodation, excursions to Angkor Wat and the Cu Chi Tunnels, local wine with all on-board lunches and dinners, local beer, spirits and soft drink on the cruise and 30 meals. From $4295 a person, twin share, including return flights on Singapore Airlines. Departure dates for this package this year are June 23, July 28, August 11 and 18 and September 1. 1300 229 804, aptouring.com.au.

Need to know

A visa is required for Cambodia and can be obtained before travel from the Cambodian embassy or at ports of entry with two passport photos and $US20 ($19). A visa is also required for Vietnam and should be obtained before travel from the consulate-general with one passport photo and an application fee that varies. vietnamconsulate.org.au.