Cruise the Far East: Vietnam and Cambodia on a slow boat down the mighty Mekong

By Amy Watkins

The morning mist rises off the Cambodian town of Kampong Chhnang as the kids wait for their 'bus', mum cleans up breakfast dishes in front of daytime TV and dad gets ready for work. Not really unusual sights: but they are among 4,000 people bobbing in this floating village on the Tonle Sap River.

Sampans groaning with ripe melons float by on their way to the busy quayside market, while the children clamber into a boat to take them to their floating school and the men repair fishing nets ready for the day ahead. The women use the river as a washing-up bowl; behind them a large TV hooked up to a car battery flickers on the open deck.

Waterways in Cambodia are still the lifeblood of the country. Chugging past us, fishermen tug nets into dangerously low-looking boats, while women scrub clothes and their children squeal with laughter and jump from the muddy banks, waving at us.

Our journey began in the big wet heart of Cambodia on the Tonle Sap Lake, skimming across it in a speedboat from Siem Reap to join our cruise vessel La Marguerite on the main river. The Tonle Sap is the only river in the world that flows both ways - in monsoon season the rising Mekong forces it to reverse its flow and increases the lake's size by five times, flooding farmland and licking the wooden houses that stand on stilts all along the riverbanks.

La Marguerite is the Mekong Delta's largest cruise vessel, carrying 92 passengers between the home of the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Built in the style of a colonial steamer, she features traditional Indo-Chinese patterns and dark woods throughout. The cabins have Juliet balconies, chaise longues and ample bathrooms to ensure a luxurious trip.

On the menu in the intimate restaurant are international favourites and regional dishes using river fish, fragrant curries and tropical treats such as polka-dotted dragon fruit and squidgy milk fruits.

An ornate central staircase leads to the sun deck, where we enjoyed a sundowner or cooled off in the pool. My mother and I, neither of us brave enough to backpack, agreed that this was definitely the best way to see the country.

An on-board shop sells souvenirs, but wait to buy handicrafts from villagers in places such as Chong Koh, which is famous for weaving. Children carried armfuls of traditional krama scarves as they followed us under knobbly jackfruit trees to watch ladies clanking away on looms underneath their wooden houses.

Nothing beats waking up in a new destination every day, and at Wat Hanchey I opened the curtains to see the hillside pagoda towering above us.

We took a slightly sweaty walk up through a forested area of Buddhist stupa memorials to the crumbling 8th Century temple. At the religious complex, orange-robed monks stood overlooking the Mekong while a worryingly extroverted gibbon swung among the colourful Hindu shrines.

Overconfident primates appear to be resident at temples in Cambodia. At Wat Nokor, a 12th Century Angkorian temple, a hissing monkey seemed annoyed that we were interrupting him as he sat eating a bag of rice on the floor of the modern temple built into the crumbling ruins.

After the tranquillity of the countryside, the capital Phnom Penh was a charmingly chaotic mix of ornate palaces, decaying 19th Century French architecture, wide boulevards and lively street cafes with the occasional elephant tethered up outside.

Straddling three rivers, Phnom Penh was where we left the Tonle Sap and joined the mighty Mekong. It was also the point where we left happy rural villages and entered the chilling world of Cambodia's past.

Our Cambodian guide Visoth had previously shown us uses for a krama by demonstrating how the scarf can be used as a sling, hat, bag and even a rice steamer. His words rung in my ears as we walked through the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, nine miles from Phnom Penh. Tufts of frayed krama poked out of the dusty ground alongside shards of bone and teeth brought to the surface by recent rain. Signs politely requested: 'Please do not walk on the mass graves'.

Towering over the eerily peaceful site was a Buddhist memorial, 13 storeys high and filled with 8,900 skulls arranged in order of age and gender. These were victims of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime that killed a fifth of the population between 1975 and 1979, while trying to force Cambodia back to an agricultural economy. Doctors, dancers, teachers and other intellectuals were forced to work in the fields and killed during the genocide.

Back in the city, a school was turned into Tong Sleng, the notorious 'Secure Prison 21', where even the innocent gymnastic bars became gallows. Today, torture devices still sit in empty rooms and haunting photographs of the victims stare out blankly from the walls.

Moving from the quiet reflective charm of Cambodia we crossed into Vietnam and the river banks became more built-up as warehouses and concrete Soviet-style flats replaced stilted houses. Communist Vietnam is following China, a major influence on the country, in a noisy and ambitious race to industrialise.

At Tan Chau we clambered on to rickshaws and wobbled through leafy backstreets, past ramshackle shops spilling out on to the road, to reach a Dickensian artificial silk factory where machines chomped aggressively at the fabric. It was a welcome relief to head out to the countryside to see silk being dyed black using berries and being laid out to dry in the sun.

Further downstream in Sa Dec, two beehive-like kilns poked up out of the riverbank and inside workers quietly cut wet clay tiles and loaded the kiln fires with rice husks to bake the bricks.

There was an altogether more appetising production line at the sweet factory where a girl stirred a pan of coconut milk until it caramelised into toffee and a wok popped rice kernels for cake bars.

Our final stop, Ho Chi Minh City on the South China Sea, was reached by bus because of forecast typhoons. Passing through bustling Cho Lon (Chinatown) we headed to the Reunification Palace where communist tanks stormed the gates in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.

Saigon, as locals still call it, comes alive at night. Dong Khoi was once a sleazy road where American GIs went for 'R&R', but it's now full of designer boutiques. At Ben Thanh night market, thousands of bikes streaked past with girls in miniskirts sitting sidesaddle on the back, whole families piled on to ancient Hondas and shoppers held groceries as they navigated the streets.

There are six million motorbikes in Saigon and only two ways to cross the road.

One is to run fast like the Vietnamese, but the best way is the Cambodian example. Keep your head held high, a smile on your face and always look forward, not back.

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