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Cruising the Mekong

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9 August 2011 by David Ward

Asia specialist, Dave Ward, talks about his recent trip - cruising down the Mekong in Cambodia on the luxurious Jayavarman.

Day 1: Phnom Penh

It's ten years since I last visited this part of the world, Phnom Penh seems barely to have changed. It still has the feeling of a frontier town and, while there are some new buildings and the streets hold a little more tarmac than before, much of its old charm still remains. I'm here for only one night before I head off up the Mekong River in search of a lesser-travelled Cambodia. A Cambodia of small riverside towns, of farming communities and traditional handicrafts, of ornate temples and bustling local markets and the floating villages of the Tonlé Sap, South East Asia's largest freshwater lake. My ultimate destination is Siem Reap, the postcard Cambodia of Angkor Wat and the heart of the Indochina tourist trail. In the meantime however, I have a city to explore and then a boat to catch.

room at Amanjaya

For my one night in Cambodia's capital I'll be staying at the stunning Amanjaya, a gorgeous hotel located in Sisowath Quay, right on the river, a stone's throw from the Royal Palace and just a short walk to the many bars, restaurants and cafes that line Phnom Penh's waterfront. I spend the evening exploring the city and enjoying the culinary delights of the fabulous Romdeng Restaurant, an NGO-run operation which helps former street kids gain valuable experience in the restaurant trade before ultimately helping them gain full time employment. Afterwards, I head back to my room to get some rest and look forward to the start of my Cambodian adventure.

Day 2: Jayavarman & Phnom Penh

After breakfast I take a transfer for the short journey to the river dock and the Jayavarman, a 27-cabin luxury Mekong cruise ship and my home for the next four nights. After a smooth check in and a quick hello to my fellow travellers, some of which have been on board all the way from the Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Minh, we head back out onto the streets of Phnom Penh to see some of the capital's highlights. The tour is well organised and brilliantly led by our local guide and full-time Jayavarman crew member, Mr Vanthy. We are taken to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the fascinating National Museum and also on a trip to the bustling Russian Market.

The afternoon allows a glimpse of Cambodia's troubled recent past with a trip to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng S21 prison, a former school used by the Khmer Rouge to interrogate suspects before transporting them to the Killing Fields on the outskirts of the city. While these past events are still very raw for many Cambodians, especially with the recent trials of high ranking Khmer Rouge officers, it is important to gain a sense of the horror that unfolded here and how the country is now emerging from its recent problems and is starting to look forward to a more promising future.

The evening sees a return to the boat and a sumptuous dinner, one of many over the next few days and one of the many highlights of the cruise. A superb mix of local Cambodian and Western cuisine is served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day, in the form of both buffets and à la carte dining.

Day 3: Chong Koh

The next morning I wake at about seven and we're already on the move. Having left Phnom Penh before sunrise we're now heading upstream along the Mekong, towards the villages of Chong Koh and Kampong Cham, which will be our stopover point for the night. As I sit down to ponder a breakfast selection of noodles, chilli, fresh fish, rice, eggs, hash browns, sausages, toast, coffee, tea, juice (the list goes on...) I discover that what I thought was an early rise has been put to shame by some of my travelling companions who have been awake since six enjoying the ship's daily complimentary Tai Chi session. Sipping on a third cup of coffee and contemplating an extra croissant, I promise myself that I'll join a Tai Chi class before the cruise is done.

At nine we dock at the small village of Chong Koh, for a one hour tour of this tiny Cambodian backwater, and are greeted by huge grins and enthusiastic waving from the locals. The main industry here is silk weaving and we're all actively encouraged, mainly by the kids, to buy some of the many products on offer. After some fierce haggling with a 13 year old I finally settle on a couple of Khmer style scarves, which I doubt I'll ever wear, but at least the money is going to a good cause. Lunch is taken on board and we continue upstream to Angkor Ban, a small farming community on the banks of the Mekong. Stepping off the boat here is really like stepping back in time. A series of small ornate temples and traditional stilted wooden houses conjure up a vision of a country seemingly unchanged in centuries.

Day 4: Wat Hanchey

The morning brings bright sunshine, another extravagant breakfast and another missed Tai Chi class. It also brings a new port of call and another fascinating insight into rural Cambodia. The seventh century pre-Angkorian temple of Wat Hanchey is at the northern most point of our Mekong cruise and is an undoubted highlight of the trip. A walk up the 303 steps to the top (motorbikes with riders are also on hand) offers spectacular views across the surrounding landscape and river below. The temples themselves are located at the top of the hill and the complex is still home to a fully functioning monastery. Buddhist monks in traditional orange robes lead prayers and younger novice monks can be seen studying at the monastery's school.

room on the Jayavarman

The afternoon sees a return to the cruise ship and a relaxing journey back south to Kampong Cham, a great time to make the most of my cabin's private balcony.  On arrival in Kampong Cham we leave the boat and head to the 12th century monastery at Wat Nokor, before visiting the Kampong Cham Orphanage, run by a local NGO. After a talk by the head of the orphanage we get the chance to meet some of the kids, have a look round, see some of their incredible art work and even have a quick game of football on the orphanage's playing field.

Day 5: Kampong Chhnang

This morning we arrive at the bustling town of Kampong Chhnang. After cruising all through the night, we have now left the Mekong and are on the Tonlé Sap River, the waterway leading to the Tonlé Sap Lake. We depart the cruise ship and a bus ride takes us to the Aundaung Russey Village on the outskirts of Kampong Chhnang, where Khmer pottery is still made in the traditional way. Shortly after we arrive at the village, we are straight into a tasting session of the local coconut wine, while the agile Mr Vanthy demonstrates how the coconuts are collected by shinning up to the top of a huge 30-foot palm without the aid of ropes. After a fascinating demonstration on the art of pottery making, we head back to the riverbank for a boat tour through the floating villages and markets - a truly remarkable insight into life on the Tonlé Sap.

After another spectacular lunch on board it's time for more relaxing before a sumptuous afternoon tea - I've never been so well fed before in my life! In the afternoon we pass through a very narrow stretch of river and it's now that the oranges, mysteriously purchased by the crew from the market at Kampong Chhnang, come into play. All of a sudden, as if from nowhere, the banks are lined with kids shouting and waving. Then, from above, an orange is launched from the top deck of the ship and the game is underway. Kids dive and swim towards the oranges, some landing just a few feet from the bank and some several meters depending on the skill of the thrower. This continues for a good 15 minutes before the supply of oranges is finally exhausted and the kids retire happy, back to their villages and homes. After the excitement is over we leave the boat for a relaxing ox cart ride through beautiful fields and rice paddies, to the village of Kampong Tralach, before returning to the boat for sunset cocktails, a farewell dinner and dancing with the crew.

Day 6: Siem Reap

sundeck on the Jayavarman

It's the final morning and we rise early, so early in fact that I think I will take part in the last Tai Chi class. However, I find, to my disappointment, that the final Tai Chi class was on the previous day, so instead, I spend the early part of the morning taking some photos of the sunrise over the riverside temple at Prek Kdam.

As I am here during the early part of the wet season and the water levels are still low, the Jayavarman is still running its low water programme. This means that we will have to take a bus the last leg of the journey to Siem Reap. We leave the Jayarvaman for the final time and board a comfortable bus that will take us to Siem Reap, about a five-hour drive away through rural Cambodia, arriving just in time for lunch. On the way we stop at the town of Skuon, famous for its local delicacy - fried Tarantulas. I decide to give this arachnid treat a miss, but some of my fellow passengers are more than happy to give it a go - brave or foolish, I'm not too sure.

Angkor Wat

The eating of Tarantulas, we learn, is only a recent phenomenon, originally stemming from the lack of food during the ruthless years of the Khmer Rouge regime, when many Cambodians died due to starvation. The 'tradition' however has survived today and has now become a sort of tourist attraction in its own right, maybe not to everyone's taste though. And so, after the last few days of intrigue, memorable encounters, superb food (bar the spiders) and some unforgettable luxury and service on board the Jayavarman, we finally arrive in Siem Reap, relaxed and ready to take in the majestic temples of Angkor.

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