SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

A trip along the mighty Mekong River

WE ARE a novelty. The highlight in their day, their week or month. We hear their squeals of delight from the riverbank and gladly return their high-pitched "hello" and frantic waves.

They are the young Cambodian and Vietnamese children, curious to make a connection with the "odd-looking" mostly Western tourists aboard the unusual large vessel gliding up the river and into their everyday lives.

They want nothing but a smile, an acknowledgement. They are sometimes joined by mothers, fathers, grandparents or older siblings, and the odd dog, chook or cow.

The RV Mekong Pandaw has become a regular sight on the waterways, with her Classic Mekong upstream cruise and coach tour from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or downstream return voyage from Siem Reap, Cambodia. Over the 250km journey, passengers can always count on the greetings from these cherubs as we spend three, four or seven nights on the Mekong and Tonle rivers, canals and backwaters, peering into their backyards and fields, and visiting their villages.

With the help of local guides and crew, we learn much more than travel books, textbooks or websites could ever provide on these grassroots people and their history, religions, industries and commerce, their struggles and challenges and, in too many cases, their abject poverty. It is an eye-opener, to say the least.

Our excursions take us to industrious floating villages including a basa (catfish) farm where iceboxes, battery power and boiled water are the norm for many of the poor who spend their lives on the water. Beautifully woven scarves and tablecloths and handmade jewellery and snacks are among the delights at a Cham (Muslim) tribal village where we gatecrash a lively goal-kicking contest among teenage boys.

We see the French-Cambodian NGO Amica-sponsored ecotourism village called Choeung Kok near Kampong Cham where we have a glimpse of traditional Khmer life. We see the 600-strong villagers who were once only involved in rice production, weaving and fishing, now undertaking a diverse range of sustainable farming practices, arts and crafts.

Back onboard, we are spoilt for choice with Asian and western cuisine. (How about salmon pie with dill sauce or crocodile sate and samba sauce with coconut rice at lunch, roasted local river lobster with curry sauce or Indochinese braised duck with hot basil and corn rice at dinner?)

We lie back on a sun deck lounge and allow the changing tropical, rural, industrial and jungle scenery that has featured in cinematic masterpieces from The Lover to The Killing Fields and Good Morning Vietnam to envelope us.

Our amazing cultural experiences range from spring roll-making to folkloric Cambodian dance and Vietnamese traditional music/opera presentations onboard, and from rickshaw rides around Chau Doc and its market to a cyclo ride to Phnom Penh's Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.

Without television and only occasional internet but with a cinema and plenty of good books in the library, we find ourselves truly relaxing or having a good old-fashioned conversation face to face with fellow travellers.

But the children are what leave the lasting impressions on us. They sing for us like angels at Choeung Kok.

At a sunset party ashore, one toddler grabs the leg of an elderly English gentleman for comfort as if he were any village grandfather providing protection, while two others shake their hips and willingly take the hands of an Australian woman to dance to the western beat.

Of course, there are also the beggars well-drilled in the art of coaxing a few Vietnamese dong or US dollars from a visitor, but they are the exception to the bevy of smiling tiny faces. After travelling nearly 1000km by coach, ship, rickshaw, cyclo, sampan and foot, the joy on those children's faces and their playful curiosity are what stay with us long after we close our sliding cabin door for the last time and farewell our crew dockside at our final port.

The writer was a guest of Pandaw Cruises.

RV MEKONG PANDAW

Built: 2003 in Yangon, refit 2013

Length: 60m

Beam: 11m

Draft: 1.5m

Berths: 48 passengers

Accommodation: 18 upper deck and six main deck staterooms, all air-conditioned

Stateroom size: 15.8sq m (170 square feet), finished in teak and brass

Facilities include: air-conditioned main dining room; 24-hour hospitality bar; air-conditioned saloon bar; traditional South-East Asian spa treatments and therapies.

DEAL: As part of its 20th year anniversary celebrations, Pandaw is offering savings on sailings on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Burma, the Red River in Vietnam, the Mekong in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Hooghly rivers in India.

Visit http://www.pandaw.com.



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