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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Cruising the Mekong River

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Royal Palace

Relaxed on deck chairs, cool drinks in our hands, we are mesmerized by the sunset over the Mekong River: this afternoon marks the sensational beginning of our seven-day cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam.

Transformed to a burnished gold, the river glows, its glassy surface rippled by passing watercraft. It’s like a scene from a movie. Fade to black.

In early February, the Mekong River is at its lowest point, so we’ve ridden a bus from Siem Reap to our Cambodian departure point. Already experienced travellers, we’ve spent our first three days in Siem Reap, touring the stunning sprawl of ancient Angkor Wat.

En route, we pull into a market town – this is a “happy house” or rest stop – that specializes in varieties of insect cuisine that our Cambodian guide jokingly calls “KFC” (Khmer Fried Crickets). As we peruse dishes of edible silkworms and live tarantulas, a young entrepreneur dashes up to my surprised husband.  “I know you. You’re from the Israeli bus!” In fact, there is an Israeli bus, but we aren’t on it.

Finally we settle in comfort aboard the Avalon Angkor, with 21 fellow passengers. Along with old-fashioned pampering and tasteful wood surroundings, we enjoy the lack of hustle and bustle. Despite its newness, the boat has an aura of colonial days. Attentive service flows like the river, and fresh, exquisitely prepared food highlights our days.

During the week ahead daily tours will include excursions to craft-making villages (jewelry, silk), hillside pagodas, bustling market towns and fabled cities like Phnom Penh and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We sample most of the tours, but a few travellers choose to stay on our beautiful boat, enjoying the passing scene: brightly painted houseboats, fishermen casting their nets, cows getting a bath by the river’s edge, cheerful waves from passing river folk.

We’re novice cruise people – one of us wears a preventative motion sickness patch, although it turns out the river is silky smooth. Although we’ve visited Cambodia before, at last we’ve stumbled onto the ideal way to sample both Cambodian and Vietnamese cultures. With views uninterrupted by highrise buildings, we pass rice paddies, jungle, towns and villages almost untouched by time.

And our fellow passengers are so interesting – a woman sculptor from Washington, an internist from California, a Connecticut lawyer with a wicked sense of humour, a New Zealander preparing to run the Boston Marathon – that we look forward to our end-of-day conversations almost as much as we do to our sightseeing. Each traveller has a tale to tell.

One afternoon our dynamic cruise director asks me if I’ve heard of an American actor named “Frances.” Eyes wide, I ask, “Frances McDormand”? He nods. It seems that the Oscar-winning actor and her family (her husband is Joel, one of the legendary Coen brothers), rented this boat last year, stocked the library with books and created a movie-viewing room out of the bar.

 We too are treated to movies. After dinner, a place-related or historically themed film is shown: The Killing Fields, Good Morning Vietnam, and others. Most focus on Indochina’s colonial legacy, which, as we know, ended badly.

One film that we can’t be shown is the X-rated The Lover, based on French writer Margeurite Duras’ novel about her teenaged affair with an older Chinese man. When we reach Sa Dec, a town just outside Saigon (the name everyone still uses), we visit her lover’s house, where photos of his arranged marriage to a ‘suitable’ woman face photos of Duras on the opposite wall. This star-crossed love story between East and West draws fans who stay overnight in the house, now run as a bread and breakfast.

Intrigued by the romance of old Indochina, we forgo the trip to the infamous Viet Cong tunnels outside Saigon. Instead we visit Cholon, the Chinese quarter where the lovers in the novel would meet on steamy afternoons. Our most impressive discovery in Cholon is Thien Hua, a Chinese temple with lively painted ceramic sculptures. In an anteroom hangs a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, separated, it seems, from the temple’s timeless focus on chanting prayers amid the swirling smoke created by giant coils of incense.

By the time we reach Saigon, we’ve experienced life on the river, a life much more traditional than we had expected. We’ve wandered through villages of stilted houses, returned smiles with a farmer resting in a hammock, his Brahmin cow nearby; seen women clad in their finest garb walking to a village wedding; brought supplies to an outdoor school where English is being taught; sung Wheels on the Bus with the children.

Communication in English with these young students was a challenge, so I offered the 10-year-old boy beside me a chance to try out my camera. He loved it. We both grinned when, following my directions, he pushed a button to erase a photo, then said, “delete.” In perfect English.

Sometimes we’ve wished we too could press “delete” on the all-too-recent brutalities in this region: the walls of photos of the soon-to-be-murdered at Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, The Killing Fields outside the city, the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Yet the grandeur of the past is proudly celebrated: Cambodia’s Royal Palace with its ancient art, Phnom Penh’s Le Royal Hotel with its photos of a radiant Jacquie Kennedy visiting in the 1960s. For true romantics, there’s the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), now a hip Phnom Penh bar and restaurant, where rifle-toting journalists famously filed their stories during the war years.

But mostly we’re struck by the people of rural Southeast Asia; their endless welcomes and easy friendliness. Our river memories will endure: the hilltop town with a fine Buddhist compound, where saffron-clad young monks pray with visitors, where statuary of every type (including giant plaster fruits) decorate the grounds, where a monkey and his owner rest under a cashew tree, where a gazebo is perched above the river – experiences like this light up our afternoons.

Back on board the ship at night, we enjoy meals cooked by our young Cambodian chef, staying up one night to watch Catherine Deneuve prowling her rubber plantation while losing her daughter to her younger lover in Indochine. Other entertainments feature youthful students of classical Cambodian dance – once considered a lost art – that come aboard to dazzle us with their newly acquired skills.

Our chef carves fruit into flowers. One night everyone provides a “national” entertainment for fellow passengers; these run the gamut from two Hawaiian ladies’ graceful songs with island hand movements to our Canadian contingent performing – you guessed it – The Hockey Song.

We end our trip at a deluxe hotel in Saigon, having travelled the timeless Mekong into the modern world:  masses of motorcycle traffic, American chain stores and Vietnamese silk boutiques. Our Saigon highlight is a night at the French-built Opera House, where a musical/acrobatic troupe dazzles its audience with a high-energy portrait of the country’s transition from country to city life. It’s a brilliant performance. Only afterward do we realize there’s been not a single mention of war.

Information: Avalon Waterways is one of the world’s leading river cruise companies, and features a host of itineraries, including, for the first time in 2015, Myanmar/Burma. The company is known for its new and intimate ships, generous inclusions and first-class cuisine. www.avalonwaterways.ca, call 1800-268-3636 or see your travel agent.

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