The Lost Civilisation: Sailing the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia
Laurence Mitchell joins a wonderous Travel Indochina Expedition cruise along the Mekong River, the finest way to explore the history and rich cultural heritage of Vietnam and Cambodia.
‘Ten million people; five million motorbikes’, announced my driver on the way in from the airport. Looking at the throng of speeding motorcycles jostling for position all around us, there seemed little reason to doubt him. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest metropolis, has it charms no doubt but when you have just flown halfway round the globe and are anticipating a peaceful cruise the city’s urban clamour comes as a boisterous introduction.
Getting away was easy enough though, and next day it seemed almost a shame to leave the city behind so soon as we made our way south along the freeway to My Tho, our embarkation point in the Mekong Delta. Awaiting us at the dock was the The Jahan, our floating home for the next week.
Even before boarding it was clear that The Jahan, a boutique river boat launched by the Heritage Line in 2011, was a classy vessel. Once aboard, the rigorous attention to detail lavished on the boat was plain to see: a lounge filled with hardwood carvings and comfortable furniture, and subtle flourishes such as intricate brass doorstops and luxurious cotton bedding in the spacious staterooms, each of which had its own private balcony.
This was a state-of-the-art boat: while the decor may have been Raj colonial, the technology was unashamedly contemporary – vintage telephones juxtaposed alongside i-Pods and discretely tucked-away espresso machines.
We left My Tho behind to cruise overnight upstream to Cai Be. Rising early next morning to drink a cup of Darjeeling on deck, I watched the day unfold as a small group of passengers practised Tai Chi under the guidance of one of the crew. After a buffet breakfast, distinguished by delicious fresh tropical fruit – pineapple, melon, dragon fruit and papaya – we gathered in the lobby to board sampans to tour the floating market that the town is best known for: a colourful event in which circling sampans hawk goods to houseboat occupants, the traders selling everything from fruit and vegetables to clothes and household utensils.
Leaving the market behind to sail past Cai Be’s gothic cathedral, we put ashore at a nearby village to watch demonstrations of popcorn and rice paper making. The spectacle of seeing how cobra wine was made was not to everyone’s taste, though, and we could not help but notice that some of the bottles on sale contained fearsome looking scorpions too. ‘Vietnamese people say this wine is good for men’, pronounced our guide, smiling broadly, but no-one pressed him for further detail.
By the following morning we had almost reached the Cambodian border. Before leaving Vietnam behind we put ashore at Chau Doc, a riverside town of with a mixed population of Vietnamese, Chinese, Muslim Cham and Khmer. After visiting Chau Doc’s colourful Confucian temple and a crowded market pungent with smoked fish, we boarded sampans to visit a fish farm where untold numbers of catfish made the water boil with feeding frenzy whenever corn was given to them.
Cambodian customs were painless, and we passed the time whilst the boat was stationary enjoying a leisurely lunch and a tour of the ship with the tour director.
Formalities over, we continued overnight north into Cambodia to arrive in Phnom Penh early the next morning. Going ashore, a line of cyclos (bicycle taxis) was waiting to take us on a tour of the Cambodian capital. Smaller and quieter than Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh had undergone rapid development since the dark days of Pol Pot but pockets of elegant French colonial buildings still remained here and there.
Visits to the dazzling Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum were followed by lunch in a local restaurant before an afternoon devoted to Cambodia’s darker recent history. This entailed a visit the infamous Killing Fields and Phnom Penh’s dreaded S-21 prison where only a handful survived. The horror of this, one of the bleakest episodes in the modern era, was almost beyond imagination.
Spirits were raised with an outdoor barbecue and a performance of traditional Aspara dancing on deck that night. Having witnessed sinister reminders of the Khmer Rouge period earlier that same day it came as a relief to see a graceful and beautiful side of Khmer culture such as this. We left Phnom Penh before dawn next day to sail to Chong Koh, an isolated silk-weaving village and a place that clearly receives few outside visitors.
A visit to Angkor Ban followed, a traditional village of old wooden houses where concrete was still a rare commodity. As night fell, we progressed upriver towards Kampong Cham, reaching the 7th-century pre-Angkorian temple complex of Wat Hanchey early the following morning. The temple, situated on top of a hill overlooking the Mekong, proved to be a delightfully tranquil spot where the only sounds to disturb the peace were chanting monks and melodious ringing bells.
Kampong Cham may be the third largest city in Cambodia but to all appearances it seemed just another pleasant provincial town where everyday life revolved around the waterfront. Here, we visited Wat Nokor, a monastery complex built within the ruins of another pre-Ankorian temple, before calling in on an orphanage where Cambodian girls and boys were housed and educated. An austere but clearly caring place, it was gratifying to be able to buy handicrafts made by the children and make a modest contribution to the good work done here.
From Kampong Cham The Jahan turned around to head back in the direction of Phnom Penh. Kampong Chhang, where we arrived next morning, lies amidst marshland on the banks of the Tonle Sap River, a Mekong tributary. After the unwaveringly flat landscape of the past few days it was pleasing to discern hazy mountains in the distance for a change. Passing a stilt village populated by Vietnamese migrants on our approach to the landing, we went ashore to be bussed to a nearby village. Here, after a pottery demonstration, a smiling villager cheerfully showed us how palm wine was made – and gave us a free taste – before casually scaling the lofty trunk of a palm tree to collect more sap.
That afternoon, after passing through the narrow Chnok Tru Channel, we reached the southern shore of Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great lake. In the wet season it is possible to cross the lake almost as far as Siem Reap but in January the water was far too shallow to attempt this. Going ashore at the village of Kampong Tralach, a procession of ox-carts took us on an excursion into a lush countryside of lime-green paddy fields and stilted houses – a slow, bumpy means of transport but the charming scenery more than made up for the discomfort.
Our last night on the boat was celebrated with a farewell cocktail party that had both crew and guests dancing around the deck pool – a joyful occasion that was concluded with a sumptuous dinner.
Next morning we left The Jahan for the last time, walking through Koh Chen, a riverside silversmith village, before boarding the buses that would take us to Siem Reap, our final destination.
Siem Reap – or rather, nearby Angkor Wat – would be the pinnacle of our journey. This temple complex deserves every superlative routinely used to describe it: enormous in scale, overwhelming in its beauty, Angkor Wat is simply overwhelming, something that even hordes of fellow visitors cannot detract from.
Even so, it was pleasing to have travelled there mostly by water. Angkor Wat may be one jewel in Indochina’s crown, but the other is the Mekong.
Facts and figures
Cruise-line Heritage Line, tel: (848) 5412 3781, A9-02 Nam Thien 2, Ha Huy Tap Street, Phu My Hung, District 7, HCMC, Vietnam. Website: www.heritage-line.com.
Tour Company Travel Indochina is the leading expert in small group tours and tailor made trips across Asia. The company specialises in River cruises, wellness, family, romantic, luxury and off-the-beaten-track, authentic travel experiences.
Travel Indochina offers the The Lost Civilisation Mekong cruise between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia on two luxury river cruise boats, The Jahan and Jayavarman. This itinerary operates in both directions weekly throughout the year apart from mid April to May.
The Ship The Jahan, built 2011, is 70 metres long and 12.5 metres wide with four decks. 1000 tonnes gross tonnage and 10 knots cruising speed.
Accommodation: Maximum 26 passengers; 12 superior cabins, white wood furnishings, hand painted walls, outsized showers and a sofa with an all round river view; 8 Deluxe cabins with balcony, Indian theme, colonial-style furniture and queen size bed ; 4 signature suites, four-poster king beds and wooden treasure chest to store possessions; 2 Jacuzzi suites, lavishly furnished, balcony with hot tub.
Cruise Ship Facilities: Steam sauna, gymnasium, spa and beauty centre at Observatory, pool/Jacuzzi, large restaurant on pool deck, library and lounge with large sofas, sun beds with view on top of wheelhouse, funnel bar, lobby lounge, comfortable seating for movies and lectures, souvenir boutique.
Cruise ship Staff : Vietnamese and Cambodian crew of 40, the highest staff /passenger ratio on the Mekong River, with staff training given both locally and in Europe.
(The Jahan’s sister ship, the Jayavarman with 27 staterooms (14 superior, 11 deluxe, 2 signature) has been operating since 2009. Jayavarman is 57.8 metres long and 11.1 metres wide with 700 tonnes gross tonnage and a 10 knot cruising speed. On board facilities include a spa and beauty centre, sun deck, restaurant, bar, observatory and WiFi-enabled library).
Journey description The Lost Civilisation: a luxury cruise along the River Mekong between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia (the final stage by bus transfer). Ports of call include Cai Be, Chau Doc, Phnomh Penh, Kampong Cham and Tonle Sap Lake. Many small group excursions are made to Sites of interest along the way, including floating markets, Buddhist temples, fish farms, artisan villages, Phnom Penh historical sightseeing.
Cruise Duration Seven nights.
Cruise & Tour Itineraries The 12-day tour includes visits to Angkor Wat and the famous Cu Chi tunnels. These tours may be extended with a three-day tour on the Mekong Sun in Laos and a cruise from the Thai border to Luang Prabang and another at Vat Phou to provide a total itinerary of up to 22 days.
Guest profile Australian, American, British, German, predominantly 40+, single guests welcome.
When to Go All year, cooler and driest in high season, November to March.
Special Considerations Pack walking shoes, waterproofs in wet season, light cotton clothes, sun cream, swimming costume, small backpack, camera, binoculars. Dining dress code is informal /smart casual throughout.
What to buy Textiles, silverware, Khmer crafts.
Unique selling point First boutique-style river cruise liner, relaxed elegance and highly distinctive British-Indian colonial themed design. The Jahan has the largest staterooms and suites, offering floor to ceiling windows with sliding doors onto a private balcony; all have i-Pods, espresso machines and mini-bars; highest staff-passenger ratio on Indochina’s waterways. Early morning Tai Chi classes on sun deck, Khmer cooking classes, beauty salon and traditional Khmer entertainment. Onshore excursions utilise traditional modes of transport – ox-carts, cyclos and sampans. Private dinners may be booked at the Observatory, also private shore excursions with tour assistant.
Hotel Accommodation Ho Chi Minh City: Caravelle Hotel ; Siem Reap: RAffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor.
Planning your journey Visa for Vietnam may be obtained in advance at embassies. A visa on arrival at Ho Chi Minh Airport may also be obtained as long as an approval letter from a recognised agency is provided (www.vietnam-visa.com or www.myvietnamvisa.com). A photograph is required as well as the fee in dollars cash (currently $25). Visas for Cambodia are obtained at the river border and procedures are dealt with on board by the cruise staff.
Vietnam Tourism www.vietnamtourism-info.com, www.vietnamtourism.com. Cambodia tourism www.tourismcambodia.com., Pnomh Penh tourism http://www.phnompenh.gov.kh/phnom-penh-city-tourist-information-49.html.