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750km Mekong voyage – Slow boat to Siem Reap

Author: John M.
Date of Trip: April 2006

I have always avoided cruises. My memory of my younger days, when I was on the hippy trail from London to Istanbul and suffered seasickness on five to nine hour ferry trips to the Greek islands has always been hard to dismiss.

So when I decided to celebrate my 60th birthday by becoming a geriatric back packer in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was astonished to find, while surfing the internet, a luxury 750-kilometre river cruise over seven nights from the Mekong River delta in Vietnam to Cambodia’s Siem Reap, location of the magnificent and ancient 1,000-year-old Angkor temples.

The temptation was too great. I booked, knowing that seasickness would be only a remote possibility! And the end result was one of the most pampered yet exciting holidays I have had in some 35 countries over a period spanning more than 30 years.

The cruise is operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which early last century was immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his poem “Road to Mandalay.” The company, established by a Scotsman in 1865, operated more than 600 vessels along the Burmese river systems, with some of ships being as large as 120-metres in length and licensed to carry up to 4,000 passengers– often including royalty and viceroys. Sadly, the entire fleet was scuppered in 1942 after the Japanese invaded Burma and the allies feared the enemy might use the vessels for transporting troops and equipment.

However, in 1995 the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was revived by Paul Strachan, a modern day Scot with a strong sense of history and tradition. He constructed replica vessels to recreate the halcyon days of the original fleet– but with facilities unheard of on South Asian passenger river vessels of more than 50 years. Today, the fleet of four old world-style yet exceptionally modern and well equipped ships offer a high degree of understated luxury that would have astonished those who journeyed aboard any of the original Irrawaddy fleet in the 1800’s.

Initially, Strachan limited the cruises to the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in Myanmar (previously known as Burma), but in 2002 he added the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers in Vietnam and Cambodia. This has provided a memorable 7-night voyage along two of South East Asia’s most important rivers and the region’s largest freshwater lake, giving passengers to get off the beaten track, yet to do so in luxury and safety, often visiting remote villages rarely visited by tourists.

The route is sailed by the RV Mekong Pandaw and the RV Tonle Pandaw, and carry up to 68 passengers each. Cruises range in price per stateroom from $3,480AUS to $2,760AUS for two people sharing, and $2,450AUS to $1,380AUS for single use of a twin cabin, depending on which deck you are. The lower the deck the lower price– yet even lower deck staterooms are exceptional in their fit-outs, and are actually more specious and cooler than the more expensive main and upper deck staterooms.

The voyage is great value when you look at the inclusions: Accommodation in plush staterooms, three gourmet-style meals a day, soft drink and locally made beer and bottled water, and tea, coffee and tisanes. Also included are professionally guided on-shore excursions (generally two a day) and port dues.

The only additional costs are laundry, imported alcohol and onboard souvenirs, plus visas. Passengers also pay their own pre and post cruise hotel fees, and international and domestic flights.

The cruises are a blend soft adventure and a generous taste of Indo China culture as the vessels pass through scenery that changes hourly from riverside villages through to rice paddies, floating and land-based markets, fish farms, cities and large towns, temples, boat building yards and an endless examples of river lifestyle from men washing their herds of water buffalo through to children bathing, people irrigating crops and families doing their laundry.

The RV Mekong Pandaw’s 34 large twin staterooms are lined in teak decorated with brass fittings, and ooze style and class. They include extremely comfortable twin bunks, private ensuite bathroom and toilet, wardrobes and cupboards, writing bureau, air conditioning, hair dryer, toiletries and power points for recharging items such as digital cameras.

The upper and main deck staterooms each have large windows and comfortable twin whicker armchairs on the external companionway outside each cabin. The lower deck staterooms are a little larger, and have brass-framed portholes– initially somewhat eerie when you realise that from the chest down, you are below the river level.

Meals are served in a bright and airy dining room featuring panoramic windows, and food is exceptional. There is no set seating, so passengers tend to mix easily, with the option of meeting new people at each meal sitting.

Breakfast is a hot American buffet, but with additional Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes, plus fresh fruit, cereals and juices.

Lunch is also buffet-style of salads and cold meats, but always with an additional hot dish such as baked whole sea bass, phat Thai, beef lok lak or soup.

The evening meal is more formal, and people dress more elegantly than the shorts and T-shirts that are perfectly acceptable by day, although there is no need for a jacket and tie. Dinners are three or four course mouth-watering gourmet meals and generally reflect the local region through which the vessel is cruising. Typical is a Vietnamese appetizer followed by sweet and sour fish soup, stuffed squid, fried beef with five spices, sautéed spinach with crispy shallots and pineapple fried rice, pumpkin custard, coffee and a selection of cheeses.

We also had Cambodian and Myanmar gourmet meals and some western-style meals. With advance notification several days before embarking, the crew will cater for special diets (once the voyage starts, no local food is purchased along the way, as the chefs only use hygienic raw products from reputable outlets in Saigon and Siem Reap).

Wines, served with lunch and dinner, are French, American and Australian, and very reasonably priced– generally less than what one would pay in an up market Australian restaurant. There is also an excellent range of imported beers.

On my cruise, the other passengers were mainly Americans and Britons, a smattering of Europeans and a few Australians. This was, I was told, is a fairly typical mix.

The beauty of the voyage is that, by day, the cruise vessel becomes a mother ship or base for the extremely well-planned daily excursions– a place to retire to for relaxation once the on-shore 35C heat and the humidity become too much. However, there is no obligation to participate in the excursions. The RV Mekong Pandaw, like its sister ships, has an expansive 60 metre sundeck with ample shading, comfortable sun lounges and whicker chairs, and an all-day complimentary tea, coffee, bottled water and soft drink station.

Over the eight days we visited many remote villages and temples along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, explored backwaters and canals, as well as well-known places such as Phnom Penh. Each day blended easily into the next and a chronological list of the activities would simply compartmentalize a voyage that was as a varied as it was fascinating.

Shore excursions ranged from passengers transferring to up to four comfortable but much smaller vessels and voyaging down tributaries to places such as the Mekong Delta’s floating markets through to stopping at villages to watch rice paper, popcorn and snake wine being made, admiring weaving demonstrations, enjoying rickshaw rides, and touring markets in the large towns and cities including Phnom Penh and Chau Doc.

Most are highly entertaining and educational, although in Phnom Penh most passengers are quickly brought down to earth by a visit to the grim S21 Detention Centre where the Khmer Rouge, acting under orders from the despot Pol Pot, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent Cambodians. The night prior to berthing at the Phnom Penh wharf the award winning film “The Killing Fields” is screened in the RV Mekong’s saloon bar, and this shows passengers some of the butchery that occurred under Pol Pot’s regime of terror. The emotion of visiting S21 is compounded by subsequently taking a short bus journey bus to “The Killing Fields” outside Phnom Penh and seeing the mass graves of hundreds of the some up to two million people believed exterminated by Pol Pot’s followers. Central to the field is a towering glass memorial, or stupa, containing hundreds of skulls and the sad remnants of the clothing their skeletons were wearing when selected mass graves were opened. Even today one only has to scuff the dirt paths with one’s shoe to expose human bone. And if that is not enough to break the heart of the toughest of tourists, there is a sign alongside a large tree which describes the trunk as the one that the Khmer Rouge used when grabbing children by their feet and swinging their heads against it, before unceremoniously tossing the small bodies into the adjacent mass grave.

As the days progressed, one could be forgiven for regarding the RV Mekong Pandaw as a second, albeit temporary, home because of the brilliant service, ambience and affable nature of the other passengers. Most were retired and in their 60’s and older, but still very active and enthusiastic. I met many talented people who had worked in a range of fields including a BBC and two German television producers, two cinematographers, several high ranking ex-British and American Army officers, computer software engineers, Americans who worked in the aerospace industry, scientists, journalists, a puppeteer and one of Australia leading theatre producers.

The physical nature of the on-shore excursions tended toincrease as we acclimatized to the heat and humidity and became more confident. However, helping hands always assisted passengers to embark and disembark from the small vessels that took us along tributaries and canals where the RV Mekong Pandaw was unable to navigate. Steady gangplanks with handrails were provided when the excursion was merely stepping from the vessel to the riverbank.

We also visited a number of temples and wats, all of which provided wonderful photographic material. The excursions were significantly enhanced by the guides, who all spoke excellent English. Although I admit to feeling somewhat “templed” out towards the end of the voyage.

The final day provided perhaps the most dramatic. Because the water level was low across the 100 km long Lake Tonle– the biggest expanse of fresh water in South East Asia– the 57 passengers were transferred near Kampong Chhnang to a massive high-powered speedboat in order toorder to reach our final destination of Siem Reap.

This is not always necessary, but because I was on the last voyage of the 2005-2006 season, I had been warned in advance that this might be the case due to the lake’s dry season water level. In fact, for part of the year the lake is only about one to one and half metres deep with an area of 2,700 square km. However, during the monsoon, the Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake with the Mekong, reverses its flow due to the massive torrent of water flowing down the Mekong and actually flows uphill! This increases Lake Tonle Sap’s area to up to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine metres, inundating nearby fields and forests. It provides a perfect breeding ground for fish and makes the Tonle Sap ecosystem one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world.

The speedboat leg was an uncomfortable yet adventurous grand finale to a cruise that, while perhaps totally different to an ocean voyage or, in my case a Greek ferry!

Reflecting on the voyage, there were no downsides– despite my sometimes hard-to-please nature. The staterooms were perfect, the food a gastronomic delight, the sun deck was highly relaxing, and the excursions were varied and fascinating.

It is a tribute to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s commitment to service, fine food and wine, and luxury accommodation that a large percentage of its passengers are repeats. For that reason alone, bookings fill quickly with some passengers on my cruise admitting they had tried for up to five years to gain a berth for a cruise on the date of their choosing.

A word of warning: This may not be a cruise for young people unless they put together a group of 4-6 couples. The ships are not party vessels, and most people are in their cabins by 9.30 pm.

In addition to its Myanmar cruises, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is currently negotiating to include the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh and India.

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