Mekong River cruise: a grand adventure

Brian Johnston takes to the Mekong on a grand adventure.

One of the joys of river cruising is its sense of movement. I like being on the go, travelling towards a never-reached horizon as the world passes by along the way. Our first two days in Ho Chi Minh City are packed with tours, but I only really get excited as our coach heads out past Chinatown's old warehouses towards our ship. 

Scenes pass beyond the windows. Bare-chested men haul sacks of rice from wooden barges that arrive along canals from the Mekong Delta. Once we would have been driving past fish farms. Now new apartment blocks and Honda dealerships have taken over, gradually giving way to roadside cafes where dusty dogs twitch.

An hour later, we rumble into My Tho and down an alley beside a brewery that produces Tiger and Foster beer. Our ship sits beyond rusty cranes on a latte-brown Mekong River afloat in rafts of tangled weed. It's a prosaic starting point for a fabulous journey north with Travelmarvel on the jaunty white ship La Marguerite. The sky is swollen with clouds, the breeze a fresh balm after city humidity. I stand on the  deck and admire the passing river traffic: barges of shipping containers, wooden rice boats, passenger ferries.

The Mekong, wide and fringed by rambutan and mango plantations, isn't a river to sail for its scenery. Flooding is frequent, and few towns venture towards the water's edge. Our stop next morning, Cai Be, is an exception. A floating market merges town with river, and its French colonial church seems to float on the water. Tropical mould blossoms on the church's plasterwork and sparrows flit through its arches, under which local schoolgirls practice their dancing.

Provincial Vietnamese towns provide a distraction of markets, silk and sweet factories and giggling children over the next two days, but the majority of the river journey is made in Cambodia. I'm surprised to find myself alone on deck as we sail into Phnom Penh in the early morning. The Mekong is bigger than ever, muddy and sullen, but the air is cool and clear. On the east bank a shantytown sags on stilts and fishermen cast nets from wooden boats. Opposite, construction cranes dot the horizon and glass-faced offices glint. We veer into the Tonle Sap River, past golden pagodas and locals practicing tai chi on the quay, and tie up in the heart of the city.

Our Cambodian guide Pisith is an elven fellow with big ears and watchful almond eyes. Phnom Penh is just a big village at heart, he says. Half a million of its residents – a quarter of its population – return to the countryside each year to help with the rice harvest. Practically everyone was born elsewhere. Indeed, the capital has a temporary air, and even the beautiful royal palace seems like a brightly-painted stage set. Later, we're let loose in the Central Market, sitting under a vast concrete dome that filters light like a mosque onto the dodgy bling of fake watches and cheap jewellery.

Our whole group turns out in the afternoon for a visit to the Killing Fields beyond the city, despite earlier debate about whether to go. Pisith has swayed some passengers' minds. "I want you to be a witness to our history," he says with dignity. He lost two uncles and his 13-year-old sister to the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime. Paradoxically, his personal stories make the visit more bearable, bringing humanity to what is otherwise pure horror. "Keep silent in solemn places," says a sign unnecessarily. Nobody speaks afterwards, but, over dinner, we all agree we're glad we went. 

Next day, as we sail further north, ferries cut across the river, crammed with people and bicycles. The riverbanks are increasingly built-up. Grand villas float by, then villages and golden-roofed temples. White Brahmin cows chew under banana trees. The river is murky, our Travelmarvel ship immaculate: the crew scrubs decks and railings with naval intensity. As we sail, we're entertained by a deft demonstration of napkin folding that produces rabbits and elephants, and later enjoy a tasting of strange-shaped but lip-smacking tropical fruits.

At Wat Hanchey we disembark and heave ourselves uphill to admire this ancient temple complex, an important centre of worship in the sixth and seventh centuries. A variety of Khmer architectural styles has since been added, an art-history lesson come to life. It's a colourful place of pink statues, yellow temples and blue dormitories. Kitschy 21st-century plasterwork pineapples and mangos decorate the abbot's garden. Young monks in orange robes slurp at coconuts, bald heads gleaming.

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Kampong Cham, Cambodia's second-largest city, is shabby and indolent. We tie up on a muddy riverbank below a crumbling quay, ropes strung to a handy tree, and lurch down the gangplank for our shore excursion. Our first stop is thirteenth-century Wat Nakor, where Buddhas smile from niches and white goats roam. Then it's on to Twin Holy Mountain, a macaque-haunted Buddhist temple complex built in the 1960s with plentiful kitsch and colour but no architectural merit. On the way back to our ship we stop off in town, near the vast mansion of the provincial governor. Beyond, rubbish is uncollected, footpaths broken, telegraph poles a fizzing tangle of electric wires.

Water levels are low, and Kampong Cham is as far up the Mekong as we can navigate. At other times, the ship might take an alternate route along the Tonle Sap River but, either way, a coach transfer brings passengers to Siem Reap, the final destination. We drive past emerald rice fields and distant blue hills. Buffalo wallow and kids splash. In ragged villages, locals wash their motorbikes, haul mangosteens and sell petrol from Pepsi bottles at makeshift stalls. As we pass through his hometown Kampong Kdei, Pisith points out his mother's house, sitting on stilts behind coconut trees, and regales us with stories of his childhood and previous incarnations as a teacher and driving instructor.

I'm glad I've made the journey in the northward direction, because Angkor Wat in the countryside beyond Siem Reap is the cruise highlight. That afternoon, after lunch at our hotel, we're already off to Bayon Temple for out first look at this vast complex. We pass tumbledown temple walls and roadside shacks selling iced water. Men loiter on taxi-motorbikes, fiddling with mobile phones. 

As we clamber out of the coach, parrots squawk in the trees, and monkeys scamper. Not a leaf is stirring, though storm clouds roil in the distance, a dramatic grey backdrop to the mossy-green architecture. In the heart of the temple, a shadowy corridor leads to a pitch-black space where candles flicker, illuminating the face of an attendant in white. Outside, big-eared Buddhas smile like the Mona Lisa.

Next morning, geckos are shadow-puppets on neon signs as our bus swings out of the hotel at 4:45am. We drive through countryside where the red taillights of tuk tuks, bringing sleepy backpackers to the sunrise views, waver through the dark like fireflies. As we walk across the bridge to Angkor Wat, the strung-out torches of wandering visitors are magical. The sky is cloud-filled and damp, however: no sunrise or lily-pond reflections today.

It doesn't matter, because Ta Prohm that afternoon is fabulous. It featured in Tomb Raider but, for someone of my generation, is pure Indiana Jones. The jungle has been hacked back from the tumbledown temple, but giant fig-tree roots still strangle its walls, and everything is moss-green and damp. Frogs croak. It's splendidly, wonderfully cliched: the mysterious orient, the bare-bosomed sculpted Hindu ladies, the jungle setting, the grinning brown locals padding along in their flip-flops. I've learned plenty on this trip, but sometimes you just have to give into the stereotypes, and rejoice.

ALL ABOARD

Travelmarvel's ship La Marguerite was launched in 2009 and initially used by APT. Colonial Vietnamese decor and abundant use of wood gives it considerable charm. There's a good library space, dining room and expansive lounge. Half the top deck is open-air space ideal for breezes and beer. On-board massages are outstanding. Dim lighting is the only annoyance.

Cabins are excellent. I'm in 201 (category A), surprisingly large. The highlight is the wonderful window seat for lounging with a view. The bathroom is surprisingly spacious, with a generous shower cubicle. Hop to it after a shore excursion, before the hot water runs out. 

Breakfast and lunch buffets don't have the variety of some river-cruise ships, but the quality is excellent and it's good to see Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes. Restaurant staff are a delight. 

Distances are short, resulting in peaceful nights at anchor. A lack of port facilities means you often stay mid-river and can't get off during free time. Passengers often disembark into smaller boats, or down a gangplank onto the muddy riverbank – an unexpected but not unpleasant flavour of expedition cruising.

The writer travelled as a guest of Travelmarvel. Follow his river-cruise blog at rivercruiseinsight.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 

vietnamtourism.com;

tourismcambodia.com.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies to Singapore from Sydney or Melbourne  and onwards to Ho Chi Minh City, with flights from  Siem Reap  to Singapore with partner Silk Air. Fares from $1350 including taxes and surcharges. Phone 13 10 11, see singaporeair.com.

CRUISING THERE

Travelmarvel's 12-day "Essential Vietnam and Cambodia" cruise is priced from $3695 per person, twin share. Book before 28 February 2015 and receive free return international flights, including taxes. Phone 1300 196 420, see travelmarvel.com.au.

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