Embark on an adventure that will open your eyes to local life in Cambodia and Vietnam with a fascinating yet relaxing river cruise down the mighty Mekong.
A young girl sitting cross-legged on a pile of T-shirts stretched one out for us to see at the market in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Emblazoned across the front was the slogan ‘I survived Cambodia’. Cambodia is still thought of as a war-ravaged country and tourists focus on the majestic crumbling ruins of Angkor Wat city and temple complex in Siem Reap. But the real beauty of Cambodia can be found along the river banks of the Tonle Sap and the Mekong where the theatre of daily life is played out as women wash clothes, men fix fishing nets and boats ferry people to work along the rivers.
Cambodia’s climate is hot all year round, but the best months to visit are the dry season between November and May – a perfect time to escape both the cold back home and the Mekong mosquitoes. Our cruise began in Siem Reap and a three-hour boat trip across the smooth, flat Tonle Sap Lake brought us to our vessel La Marguerite. This lake expands by up to five times its usual size in the monsoon season and provides food for over a million Cambodians. The flow of the Tonle Sap changes direction twice a year, thanks to the pushy, flooded Mekong forcing it to change direction in the rainy season.
Rising tides affect daily life and many houses are built on stilts so they can cope – in Kampong Chhnang, we toured a busy village that was entirely afloat. Small boats took us through the ‘streets’; past kids getting ready to go to their floating school and people washing dishes in the river. Floating gardens covered the open patios of the houses and TVs flickered in the background, each running off a rechargeable car battery. Kampong Chhnang is in a protected bay, reached through a narrow channel guarded by a bamboo gate, and 4,000 people – mainly Vietnamese immigrants – live on the river opposite the bustling town, which is famous for its chhang (clay pots). Many areas are renowned for their handicrafts; in nearby Chong Koh, beautiful village children sold armfuls of colourful krama (scarves) and we watched mothers weaving them on clacking looms in the undercroft of wooden houses.
Several vessels sail the route from Siem Reap down Tonle Sap to join the Mekong at Phnom Penh and travel to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. La Marguerite is the largest on the Mekong Delta, but carrying only 92 passengers, she’s still small enough to berth in the countryside or in the heart of bustling cities. La Marguerite’s luxury accommodation was a key factor in persuading my mother, Dotty, a first-time cruiser, to try a river trip. We both wanted to explore the region, but my backpacking days were over and the closest Dotty had been to South East Asia was seeing pictures in her geography books in school. When we found ourselves floating past houses on stilts and fisherman wearing conical hats she could see that not a lot had changed. “It’s just like my geography books,” she admitted as we sipped a cocktail on the sun deck, “but I never imagined I’d get to see it like this.”
Our twin cabin had more than enough room to swing a sun hat and our comfy chaise lounge and Juliet balcony were ideal for watching the world pass by. Bathrooms were decorated with patterned tiles and dark woods – a theme that continued throughout the vessel on the beautiful central staircase connecting the lounge bar and restaurant to the sun deck. On the top deck, a small swimming pool was the perfect way to cool off after an excursion. Food on board was a delicious combination of international favourites and local dishes, including regional specialties (although thankfully not the Cambodian snack of deep-fried spider) and juicy, exotic produce like the polka-dotted dragon fruit. In the evenings, guests chatted at the bar, watched a film in the lounge or were treated to local music and dancing.
Waking up in a new destination is one of the joys of cruising. Finding ourselves alongside Wat Hanchey was enough of an eye-opener to get us up and onto the muddy bank. Given the choice of a bike ride, 303 steps or an easy route, we opted for the latter and found ourselves making a sweaty climb through forest to reach the crumbling 8th century temple. The religious complex had stunning views of the river below and orange-robed Buddhist monks mingled with a high-flying gibbon among the brightly-coloured shrines.
Located farther downstream, the typical Cambodian village of Cheung Kok has received charity funding to open a craft co-op selling patterned krama and bracelets made of palm. Many people opted out of this afternoon excursion because it included a visit to an orphanage, but rather than sad scenes, we were greeted by smiling kids excited to show us their vegetable patch and art room. We had a gentle introduction to bustling capital Phnom Penh with visits to the Art Deco-style market and ornate Royal Palace, driving along wide boulevards past elephants tied up outside cafes. However even our friendly guide, Visoth, couldn’t prepare us for the emotional afternoon in the notorious Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, where thousands of Cambodians lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Nearly 9,000 skulls stood stacked 13-storeys high in a Buddhist memorial that towered over the tranquil fields. The only other remnants of the past were scraps of krama that poked through the dusty ground and shards of bone brought to the surface during the rainy season. Silence descended on the coach as we made our way back to Phnom Penh and Visoth told us about his father, a government worker, who is one of only six Cambodians that survived the detention centres. Back in Phnom Penh we visited ‘S-21’, the former high school that had been used as an execution camp during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Not everybody could face the excursion and those of us who had were glad of the next day on the river to relax. As we passed across the border into Vietnam, the stilted houses were replaced by more industrial buildings. Cambodia quietly weaves a magic spell, but Vietnam has a more dynamic feel. Our first stop at Tan Chan involved a whistle-stop tour of silk and rattan mat factories as we perched on open rickshaws pulled by cyclists through bustling backstreets. Street traders on motorbikes piled high with fruit whizzed by as we were taken into the countryside to see silk dyed with berries drying in the sun.
In Sa Dec, beehive-like kilns stood smoking on the riverbank. A boat took us to see the workers cutting up bricks and loading them to bake over rice husk fires. On our way to a sweet factory in Cai Be, we passed traders at a floating market balancing on sampans piled high with juicy melons and fresh flowers. Inside the ‘factory’, a girl slowly stirred a wok full of palm sugar.
There was disappointment that we had to finish our journey by coach from My Tho to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, as the locals still call it) because inclement weather stopped us going into the South China Sea. However, the coach saved us having to attempt to cross the road through a sea of motorbikes and took us through the red-and-gold flashes of Chinatown to Reunification Palace, where communist tanks stormed the gates in 1975 and ended the Vietnam War. Saigon comes alive at night with the buzz from millions of motorcycles around Ben Thanh market and the vibrant street of Dong Khoi – a favourite with well-off tourists looking for upmarket hotels.
In just over a week, we saw all aspects of daily life in these two countries and had reached places that would have proved a real challenge had we been travelling independently. We left feeling very privileged that we’d had a taste of local life. We hadn’t just survived Cambodia and Vietnam, we’d fallen in love with them.
WE SAILED WITH: Indochina Sails/AMA Waterways Ship La Marguerite
RATING: Five star (Berlitz)
DURATION: Seven nights or as part of a 15-day tour with AMA Waterways.
CROWD: Adventurous travellers looking for a luxury option.
WHATS INCLUDED: A seven-night Mekong cruise can be booked from £898 per person (excluding flights), including all meals on board, unlimited local beer and house spirits with meals and a daily sightseeing programme.
NEED TO KNOW: It’s best to buy your Vietnam visa well in advance from the Vietnamese Embassy. Buy your Cambodian visa at the airport for $20, but take passport pictures with you.
DAY 1 Ho Chi Minh City
Embarkation plus a welcome dinner.
DAY 2 Cai Be
Junk trip to floating market. Candy-making workshop.
DAY 3 Sa Dec
Walking tour to Fujian temple and local market.
DAY 4 Tan Chau
Channel cruise, fish farm, mat-making workshop and silk-colouring workshop. Border crossing.
DAY 5 Phnom Penh
City tour. Royal Palace and National Museum visit. Killing Fields excursion.
DAY 6 Kampong Cham
Excursion to Wat Hanchey. Excursion to Wat Nokor. Eco-village visit.
DAY 7 Kampong Chhnang
Local boat excursion to floating village. Leisure visit to local market.
DAY 8 Tonle Sap Lake – Siem Reap
TO BOOK: AMA Waterways, tel: 0808 223 5009; www.amawaterways.com.