Cruising the Mekong through Cambodia

Temple torpor, pagoda paralysis, stupa stupor, Buddha burnout, monastery melancholia and culture catatonia can overcome tourists under the dead hand of a dud guide. A good one, on the other hand, will dramatically enhance the experience. 

It's fortunate then that our Cambodian guide, whose job is to lead us towards a better understanding of his country's spirituality and culture, is not merely enthusiastic, entertaining and patient, he's also a former Buddhist monk who "lost his way on The Way".

Mao Sokhem, 36, is our escort on the Cambodian leg of our Treasures of the Mekong cruise on the newly launched Scenic Spirit through Cambodia and Vietnam. 

His deep empathy with Buddhism comes from his six years living as a monk in a north-west Cambodian monastery that ended abruptly when he laid eyes on his future wife and "forgot how to chant".

In a sense, Mao's journey full of change, difficulty, striving and acceptance reflects the lives of many Cambodians who have dealt with hardship and suffering by drawing on their Buddhist faith, hard work, optimism and ability to forgive. 

All the more remarkable because, while Buddhism has existed in Cambodia since at least the fifth century, Pol Pot's 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge ideology tried to obliterate Buddhism, which Pol Pot declared "a reactionary religion".

After Pol Pot, fewer than 100 Khmer monks remained, many exiled in Vietnam. Monks were executed, temple-monasteries were used as prisons and images of the Buddha were desecrated.

Yet Buddhism survives – 95 per cent of Cambodians are Buddhist, which means that understanding the way of life is critical.

So Mao is the perfect guide to interpret our significant visits, including to the Hindu-Buddhist shrine at Wat Hanchey, Phnom Pros (man hill) and its Buddha Garden, Phnom Penh's National Museum and Cambodia's biggest monastery in Oudong, the former Khmer capital.

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We are not simply served up historical fact. Mao also interweaves personal anecdotes and explanations of contemporary traditions and beliefs. He shares the story of how his wife "killed his monkhood", but how he intends to return once his children are grown and educated, demonstrates the complex skill of tying a monk's saffron robe, speaks of the importance of community and the workings the dowry system.

He explains the intricacies of Sampeah – the Cambodian palms-together greeting – different positions of which denote different levels of respect (it's impolite not to return Sampeah). He gives a beautiful explanation of Buddhism itself and much more.     

After a welcome cocktail, Scenic Spirit sets sail, bound for Wat Hanchey, a hilltop pagoda, ever an important centre of worship and trading stop on the river route between the ancient cities of Thala Boravit and Angkor Borei.    

A group of us are cruise-only (seven nights), but others have already enjoyed Scenic's land-based activities, including Angkor Wat, ultimate expression of Khmer virtuosity.    

We wake to a glassy Mekong, fishermen casting their nets, Kampeng Sen cows grazing on the banks, monks chanting and the temperature already climbing into the thirties. 

The steep climb up to Wat Hanchey reveals Mekong views and is our introduction to the importance of monasteries in village life. Not just a place of worship and school for monks, it's a community compound for all occasions, welcoming everyone from indigent to elderly.    

Dating from before the glory days of the Khmer Kingdom, Wat Hanchey has an ancient firebrick Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, surrounded by more recent temples, pagodas, stupas, houses and statues. 

These buildings display traditional Khmer architecture, including snake-scale tiles, relief carvings of winged dragons and female forms, the revered seven-headed Naga cobra seen in statuary as well as coiled along balustrades. There's also a playful array of oversized fruit – a teaching tool for the village and Wat Hanchey's young monks.     

Mao has instigated a system whereby visitors can make a small contribution by buying $5 packs of exercise books and pens for the little saffron-robed monks.    

On our daily excursions, Mao details Khmer culture and the "way of life" that is Buddhism. A visit to the National Museum in Phnom Penh in its beautiful traditional terracotta structure is a visceral reminder of the sophistication of Khmer civilisation. The world's finest collection of Khmer sculpture spans a millennium. Don't miss the sublime late 12th-century Angkor Thom statue of a seated Jayavarman VII, head bowed slightly in meditation.    

Another highlight is our visit to Cambodia's biggest monastery on 40 hectares at Oudong, 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh, once Cambodia's capital. The twin-hilled Phnom Oudong is rich with historic Buddhist pagodas (many destroyed by the Khmer Rouge), one of which contains a Buddha relic – an eyebrow hair. 

We receive the monks' 15-minute chanted blessing in the colourful Theravada Buddhist prayer hall at the huge Kandal pagoda, showered with jasmine and water. 

The Cambodian generosity in the face of poor etiquette is evident when I trip, showing the soles of my feet to the monks, who merely laugh.

This is a world-renowned meditation centre. We can't visit the monks' accommodation but we're free to visit the nuns' homes and hear about their lives. 

We also pay our respects to the mummified remains of former head monk Sam Bunthoeun, who in 2003 at 47 was assassinated after he had supported a vote for monks, who then voted against ruling party Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party. 

We sail out of Cambodia into Vietnam, bursting with Mao-imparted knowledge. The other groups report that their guides are equally excellent, helping us to gain more than just a superficial understanding of these beguiling countries.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

scenic.com.au

CRUISING THERE

Treasures of the Mekong 13-Day cruise from $6535 per person twin share. Travel in 2017 and fly free return to South-East Asia, saving up to $3070 per couple. Business class upgrade from $2995 per person. Includes seven nights on board Scenic Spirit, visiting the colourful floating markets of Cai Be, the historic town of Sa Dec, and Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. Plus three nights in Siem Reap, Cambodia and two in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. See scenic.com.au

GETTING THERE

Vietnam Airlines fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City (eight hours and 45 minutes), then connect to Siem Reap (one hour). See vietnamairlines.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Scenic.

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