There are few greater pleasures than a journey by river through old Indochina, the former colonies and protectorates of the French in South-east Asia. Our eight-day voyage began in the Mekong Delta, 70km south of Vietnam’s commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.
The Mekong River rises on the Tibetan Plateau, gathers itself together and flows down through the Yunnan province of China to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam where, after 4800km, it disgorges itself into the South China Sea. We took the upstream journey and, after the Mekong meets the Tonlé Sap River in Cambodia, we travelled on to Siem Reap, gateway to the World Heritage-listed Khmer temples of Angkor Wat.
Our transport was the RV Jayavarman, a 189ft French colonial-style river cruiser built in 2009 with Khmer and Indochine features. Small scale and intimate, it’s very atmospheric – think brass, teak, rattan. There are 27 staterooms, each leading on to a French-style wrought-iron balcony from which the magic of the Mekong constantly unfolds.
Vignettes of river life lured us ashore and, drawn by the smiles and the warmth of the locals, we explored small villages and towns by any type of transport available, be it motor launch, sampan, rickshaw, trishaw or oxen cart.
We cast off from the port of My Tho in the Mekong Delta, sailing through regions where the river is several kilometres wide. There are more than 2000 fish farms in the delta. This is the seafood basket of Asia and the fertile, alluvial flatlands make this area Asia’s fruit-bowl and rice-bowl as well. All manner of items are exchanged here and a timeless rhythm of river life rolls on, as seen at Cai Be floating market, a huge waterborne emporium selling everything from foodstuffs to coffins, the latter produced in floating workshops and transported by waterway, in some cases right to the client’s riverside door.
From this bustling scene we moved on to the gentle pace of Binh Thanh Island. Here villagers are involved in the growing and processing of water hyacinths into natural fibre and rattan.
In another hamlet we visited an ancient house and observed how several generations of a Vietnamese family retained a penchant for French colonial style, right down to the formal arrangement of furniture, unchanged from a previous era.
Later, we explored Chau Doc, a border town. Local sampans glided us around its floating fish farms – each one a simple platform floating on a bamboo or plastic pipe frame with netted perimeter. Finally, a little fleet of trishaws whizzed us around the principal sights of the town until it was time to return to the Jayavarman and cross the border into Cambodia.
Border formalities were handled by the crew, while guests gathered for drinks or attended a cooking class. Food is a highlight on the Jayavarman’s voyage. The busy kitchen staff were always happy to whip up something in the way of Western food, but never have I seen such a tantalising array of regional delicacies – banana blossom, persimmon, rambutan, tamarind, water spinach and bitter melon, to name just a few. Not to mention the wide range of quality seafood and meat. With these ingredients at hand we sampled yet another aspect of the lands that we sailed through.
A typical day begins with tai-chi on the sundeck and breakfast in the Indochine Dining Hall followed by the onshore excursions. Every afternoon there was a ‘Special Teas Time’ in the Funnel Bar and most evenings after dinner the Henri Mouhot Lounge (named for the 19th-century French explorer credited with rediscovering the Angkor temples) was the venue for screenings of myth-encrusted movies such as Indochine, The Killing Fields, travel documentaries on Angkor Wat, and so on. These thoroughly immersed us in the many moods of Indochina.
One morning a post-breakfast briefing helped us untangle the complex history of this vibrant, but tragic nation. An hour later we were out on the streets and discovering the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, for ourselves.
Our tour began at the Royal Palace. We were told that the Throne Room was robbed of treasures in the crisis-ridden days of dictator Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. But it still looks stunning. The same goes for the Silver Pagoda, which managed to retain a floor paved with solid silver tiles – 500 all-up, each one weighing 1kg. The Silver Pagoda also holds a 90kg gold Buddha studded with 9584 diamonds – the largest weighing in at 25 carats.
Wandering through the Royal Palace complex, it’s impossible to ignore a grey-painted pavilion constructed in lacy French-style ironwork amidst all the yellow, gold and red of the traditional Khmer palace architecture. This was a gift from France, shipped over by Napoleon III in 1876. The French pavilion’s prominent position at the palace underscores Cambodia’s ties to France after King Norodom – caught between the flexing muscle of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam – signed a treaty of protection in 1863. Soon Cambodia was a virtual French colony.
In time, Phnom Penh gained its lovely riverside promenade, broad boulevards and gardens. In short, it acquired French chic. It’s still considered the most beautiful of all the old capitals of French Indochina.
The dark-yellow, central-domed 1930s Deco-style New Market also dates from the French era, as do the elegant Hotel Le Royal (now Raffles Le Royal) and the striking, rust-red National Museum, built in Khmer temple-style to house treasures retrieved by Henri Mouhot and other explorers and archaeologists. Among the top-notch Angkorian-era artifacts is a statue of the great Khmer king, Jayavarman VII, after whom our floating sanctuary is named.
Impressive stuff, but life wasn’t always gilt and glamour. Visitors to the National Museum once reeled from the acrid smell of two million bats that held joint tenancy with the artworks, until foreign finance came to the rescue. Even the airy corridors of Hotel Le Royal saw turbulent times after well-heeled globetrotters were displaced by war correspondents in the 1970s. Among them was Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning articles gave rise to the movie, The Killing Fields. Though filmed in Thailand, the action actually occurred at Hotel Le Royal, which definitely gives the place an extra edge today. We visited after major renovations – the hotel was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge rolled into town – but the Elephant Bar remains a favoured haunt of Phnom Penh visitors.
I slipped in for a drink after a tour of the Tuol Sleng Prison and Genocide Museum, followed by a tour of one of the Killing Fields on the outskirts of town, where so many perished under the Khmer Rouge regime. Understandably, some fellow passengers chose less confronting pursuits in such a pretty city.
We were a diverse group – Australians, Brits, French, Germans, Swiss – 54 in total, all well-travelled, all curious. And bewildered, as we attempted to reconcile the gentle nature of the people we encountered with the atrocities of their brutal civil war. Our guides, whose faces were inscribed with kindness, dignity and humour, seemed totally free of bitterness. Occasionally, though, a slow shake of a head spoke silent volumes.
The French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, watching the Khmer Apsara dance troupe perform in Paris, famously announced that it’s impossible to see human nature reaching such a level of perfection. They have given us everything antiquity could hold, he declared.
A century later, beneath a starry sky on board Jayavarman, we watched the Khmer Angels, a talented troupe of schoolchildren, perform the dance that traces its roots back a thousand years to the court of King Jayavarman and the Khmer Empire. It’s unlikely these dancers were aware of the words of the famous French sculptor, who praised and even sketched their predecessors.
Cambodians tend to look forward. Having seen off the French and the Khmer Rouge regime, they’re optimistic. They may face challenges, but they’re always keen to demonstrate progress.
We sailed on. When we reached the island of Chong Koh we made a stop at a silk weaving village to see artisans manufacturing products from their silk. We were only 25km from the capital, but it was another world.
Further upstream we sampled a true taste of rural Cambodia as we wandered amongst the rustic houses of a small farming community at Angkor Ban.
By evening Jayavarman was approaching Kampong Cham, a large city hurrying to catch up after years of devastation and neglect. Come morning we embarked on an excursion to Wat Hanchey, a 7th-century temple predating the great Angkor Wat.
And so the days flew by until it was time to leave the Mekong and glide into the Tonlé Sap River to complete our journey. The Tonlé Sap is a combined river and lake system, the latter being the largest freshwater lake in Asia and renowned for its birdlife. Our destination, Siem Reap, is located on the shores of this great lake and is in striking distance of Angkor Wat.
There’s no doubting that the French explorers and archaeologists were responsible for firing the imagination of the general public and making Siem Reap a key stop on the Indochina Grand Tour circuit. Travellers were fascinated with the tales of a city lying ruined in the jungle and, in the 1930s, the Grand Hotel d’Angkor was established. In addition to lodgings, guests were offered torch-lit Apsara dance performances at the temples. The journey there by elephant had already given way to the earliest form of motor tour after the Duc de Montpensier drove in from Saigon and – in one enormous act of arrogance – rounded off the journey by driving up Angkor Wat’s steps.
Today a sealed road leads from the Grand Hotel d’Angkor (also restored by Raffles). It took us to Angkor Wat in around 20 minutes. And when the temples take form in the dawn light they still manage to intrigue even the most intrepid among us. This is the largest temple complex in the world; a truly stunning sight, irrespective of the transport or the era. Its majesty was a perfect backdrop and provided a fitting finale to our eight-day Mekong voyage.
For more information, go to: www.indochinatravel.com.