The Mekong is real life – its banks stacked with visual delights from floating villages and longboats to serene temples and orange-clad monks. JOY DODDS reports.
SOUTHEAST Asia’s longest river, the Mekong, rises in Tibet and flows through Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before draining into the South China Sea to the south of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
The Mekong delta bustles with river ships, fishing boats and sampans, villages and markets, a contrast to the serenity of the world’s largest temple and religious monument, Angkor Wat. While the vestiges of French colonialism have faded, it is the older culture that endures in the extensive array of ornate 12th-century stone structures and beehive-like towers built in the jungle near Siem Reap, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The scale and elaborateness of Angkor Wat and the massive strangler figs that have covered
it and the other temples for centuries
The region exudes a palpable positive ethos following the destructive years of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge which, with the culture and throbbing humanity ensuring that cruising the Mekong is utterly unforgettable.
River cruises travel between Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia, gateway to the Angkor region, and Ho Chi Minh City or Phnom Penh. The route is full of thriving cities, floating villages such as Kompong Luong, rural communities and their markets and endless rice paddies, pagodas and temples. From Siem Reap, ships cruise to the floating village of Chnok Trou , then via Kampong Chnang, Kompong Tralech, Koh Chen to Phnom Penh. Some proceed further on to Koh Dek Chau, Chau Doc, Vinh Long, Cai Be, My Theo, with Ho Chi Minh City the final port.
Most riverships on the Mekong are recently built and tastefully done replicas of “colonial” river steamers, with two decks of cabins, accommodating fewer than 100 passengers. Cabins are practical and comfortable, each having a river view, with increasing numbers of luxury additions. The sun deck is perfect for watching the changing vistas of paddy fields, temples and people.
Each day the Mekong cruiser docks with a day’s excursion by sampan, bus or foot. This may include an elephant ride at dawn, navigating narrow canals through the town of Sa Dec, visiting the floating houses of Chau Doc or absorbing the buzz of the street markets with their reasonably-priced handicrafts, silverware, silk and fashion goods. Pampering massages, for all of A$8, are another good investment.
Then there are the more sobering elements. In Vietnam, Cu Chi tunnels and the labyrinth of underground passages begun by the Viet Minh in 1948 and expanded by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War can be explored. In Cambodia, the full horror of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime is on display in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The memorial stupa is crammed with the skulls of men, women and children who were tortured and executed by the thousands. In Phnom Penh is Security Prison 21, the school transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a torture and interrogation centre.
Ho Chi Minh City has a real pulsating excitement to it with great restaurants and bars, street stalls, zippy Vespas everywhere and fascinating historic walking tours. The Genocide Museum is a truly sobering side to the city’s exciting modernistic edge.
A side-trip to Hanoi allows a visit to the famed One Pillar Pagoda, rebuilt many times since 1049 and the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university,
built in 1070.
Some of the best food in the world is another reason to linger in the Mekong River region after the cruise ends. From celebrity chef Luke Nguyen’s restaurant influence to the delicacies of the local stall holders, the seafood is mouth-watering, deliciously prepared with green mango and pickled papaya, and spiced with lemongrass and kaffir lime.
Scenic’s latest river cruise ship, “Scenic Spirit”, will launch on the Mekong River in January 2016. Travelling over eight days between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, it will take Mekong cruising to a new level of luxury. All 34 suites feature separate bedroom, living room and balcony making it the largest on the Mekong. With four dining venues, a la carte to casual dining, sun deck with open air cinema, butler service, pool and spa, expert guides, complimentary drinks, and a 1:1 guest-to-staff ratio, this ship takes luxury to a whole new level.
The 13-Day Treasures of the Mekong Cruise includes seven nights on board “Scenic Spirit”, a three-night stopover in Siem Reap, and a two-night stopover in Ho Chi Minh City.
See Scenic Tours 2016 Mekong River Cruise brochure.
From the top:
Ancient ruins of Angkor Wat;
People transport their goods in the Floating Market in
Nga Nam, Soc Trang ;
Pho or Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle with
beef or chicken on the table
Transportation handicraft product at Mekong Delta river, beauty, colorful scene of Vietnamese countryside at evening.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media