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The Mekong: Mystic river

Sleepy and serene, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, lacing a lush green landscape of mangroves, languid backwaters and lost stories of human survival. Discover life on its banks aboard a cruise, from the laid-back ports of Cambodia to the compelling hubs of Vietnam

The Mekong: Mystic river
A family on a wooden boat, Mekong River, near Tan Chau, Vietnam. Image: Stuart Forster.

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After a couple of days exploring the exquisitely sculpted temples of ancient Angkor, isn’t there a risk that everything that follows will simply prove an anticlimax?

That unfounded traveller’s concern pops into my head as I bound along the gangplank of the RV Tonle, boarding the 38-stateroom cruise ship to spend the next seven nights on the Mekong River.

I’ll be cruising 270 miles, between Kampong Cham in Cambodia and the Vietnamese river port of My Tho, 30 miles upriver from the South China Sea and 46 miles by road from Ho Chi Minh City. Six days into this 48-strong group tour, which began in Hanoi, I’ve established I’m the only person that hasn’t yet been on a cruise. Being accustomed to travelling independently I was unsure, prior to the trip, how I’d adapt to a timetabled programme of excursions and leisure time but it’s proving far less regimented than anticipated. I’m relaxing, rather than spending time planning ahead, and enjoying opportunities to chat and bond with fellow travellers during the coach journeys to and from sites of interest.

Discovering a common passion for photography resulted in me joining an American couple, Fred and Cathy, for an unscheduled, pre-dawn trip by tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat, from our resort hotel in Siem Reap. The cloud-heavy monsoon-season sky meant we didn’t witness a spectacular golden sunrise over the broad moat, the shot for which we’d optimistically hoped but knew was unlikely. That, though, didn’t mean the journey was in vain. At daybreak the 12th-century Khmer temple proved surprisingly crowded; far busier than during our group visit two afternoons earlier. Despite the heavy visitor numbers, nobody else wandered over to the residence of Buddhist monks, about 100 yards from the famous landmark. When an aged monk became aware I wanted to photograph him he politely gestured his refusal and shuffled away, to my temporary disappointment. Picking his robe from the washing line he turned, smiled warmly, and carefully arranged the saffron folds over his chest before indicating his satisfaction and readiness for the camera.

On the sun deck of the RV Tonle I settle into a lounger and observe evening life on the shore. Locals sit at plastic, streetside tables and laugh together, chatting over cans of beer. As we return from our sunset cruise a couple of hours later, I hear a distant call to prayer. The Cham people, after whom this riverside settlement was named, form a Muslim minority within this predominantly Buddhist nation.

Two enigmatic faces, reminiscent of architectural features on the Bayon temple in Angkor, peek across from a golden stupa housed within a dockside walled enclosure. In the early morning light I stroll around the Wat Dey Dos pagoda, observing its many sculptures, including a half-starved monk with disturbingly pronounced ribs, and a gold-painted Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity to whom believers look for auspicious beginnings.

Five miles from the city centre stands the twin-peaked mountain of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei. Macaques seem playful as they bound between the tree branches on a plateau offering fine views of the surrounding countryside. However, a male bares his teeth as I position myself to photograph him; I respect his wishes and back off, removing my shoes to take temporary refuge in a temple painted with mythological scenes.

Barring that short-lived simian aggression, this place makes a serene impression. A shaven-headed nun sweeps leaves that have fallen by a reclining Buddha statue. It comes as a shock when Fin, our local guide, informs us this location was used as a detention centre by the Khmer Rouge during the mid to late 1970s.

I learn more about Pol Pot’s genocidal regime the next day at Choeung Ek, 10 miles south east of Phnom Penh. The monsoon weather provides a suitably gloomy backdrop to my photos of the memorial stupa, in which hundreds of human skulls are stacked. This is probably the best-known of the approximately 400 so-called killing fields across the country. Roughly one in every four of Cambodia’s eight million population was executed or worked to death between 1975 and 1979. Each of the grass-covered dimples in the grounds represents a mass grave that once held the remains of 450 victims.

It brought home to me that each of the elderly monks I’d made eye contact with and photographed was a survivor who’d witnessed unspeakable atrocities.

Visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that was converted into a detention centre, provides an insight into the sickening barbarity of the Khmer Rouge. On 17 April 1975 this site became known as S-21 or Security Office 21. Here, between 17,000 and 20,000 inmates were interned and tortured; only seven survived the regime. Most were detained in tiny, shoddily constructed brick cells within the former school rooms. It’s shocking to realise that every one of the hundreds of mug shots on display in the ground-floor hall depicts a victim. ‘Please be silenced, do not make any noise or laugh’, says a superfluous sign that I notice when filing out of the memorial.

City streets

Even in rain the busy streets of Phnom Penh make a vibrant impression as we drive towards the ship. Kids laugh as they splash through knee-deep puddles. I can’t comprehend how this place, along with all the other cities in the country, were forcibly emptied of their population by the Khmer Rouge just four decades ago. On the rooftop terrace of Le Moon Terrace Bar, overlooking the Wat Ounalom pagoda, I sip a zinging Singapore sling and brood over the atrocities while staring out over the city lights and their reflections rippling on the gently moving river.

Heading inland the next morning, Fin jokes, “You like the free Cambodian massage?” as we drive along a bumpy road on the way to Udon Monastery. While the rest of the group receives a blessing from two monks I try to decrypt stories depicted in paintings on the temple walls and ceiling. The gilded architecture of the site is impressive. What fascinates me most of all is watching white-robed nuns doling out lunch to a long queue of monks, including fresh-faced boys and old men. According to Buddhist custom, all of the food must have been presented as an offering and served before noon.

Mekong river cruise - Dining hall, Udon Monastery

Dining hall, Udon Monastery. Image: Stuart Forster.

After lunch on the ship I set out alone to explore Phnom Penh. The woman working behind the wrought-iron counter of the post office’s philately bureau is watching televised Australian Rules football when I arrive. She explains that sets of stamps cost from $2 (£1.23). The US dollar, rather than the Cambodian riel, is the de facto currency in the city and is available from ATMs. Across the street I visit the Seeing Hands Massage Center (T: 00 855 16 856188) and for $7 (£4.30) my feet receive an hour’s soothing attention from a blind masseur.

With a spring in my step I walk the few blocks back to Sisowath Quay, which is busy with people out strolling and socialising. Men stand around in groups deftly playing jianzi. With flicks of their feet they prevent an outsized shuttlecock from touching the ground. A mixed group participates in an aerobics session, complete with music from a portable device and a crowd of spectators. A cyclo rider offers me the seat on the front of his pedal-powered vehicle but I decline, choosing to walk back to the ship.

“Tonight we have some special Cambodian delicacies for you to try,” says Jan, the RV Tonle’s uniformed German hotel manager with a knowing nod, when I return. That sounds good to me. So far I’ve been choosing regional cuisine rather than the Western dishes each mealtime. Jan offers a platter laden with deep-fried tarantulas, frogs, silkworm and crickets. He serves them with tongs. Feeling obliged, I tuck in. The crickets are crispy and surprisingly palatable while the silkworm has a sweetish, nutty flavour. I can’t quite bring myself to devour the frog whole, although that’s how it should be done. Even touching a cooked, tennis ball-sized spider — let alone putting one anywhere near my mouth — is beyond me. Thankfully, the delicious, Cambodian family-style meal that follows is insect-, amphibian- and arachnid-free.

Despite devouring creepy-crawlies, I’m no worse for wear the next morning and head onto the sun deck as the anchor is raised. Fin explains our dock is actually on the Tonlé Sap River and that the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, a mile away, stand at the confluence with the Mekong. In Cambodian, ‘Tonlé Sap’ means ‘Great Lake’. Prior to the monsoon, the lake drops to an area of about 1,040sq miles and is just 3ft deep in places. During the rainy season it swells to cover 6,177sq miles and has a depth of 27ft. Between November and June, water flows out of the lake, heading 111 miles south east into the Mekong. From July until October, the flow reverses when the monsoon-boosted Mekong flows upstream into the Tonlé Sap. “It’s a rare phenomenon and our fishermen take about three-quarters of the nation’s catch in the river,” says Fin. Below us — in long wooden boats with woven, arched canopies — fishermen are at work setting their nets.

As we sail past the Bassac River, Fin gestures towards the unusual X shape of the confluence, regarded as the starting point of the Mekong Delta. A fleet of dredgers is at work. The barges sit so low in the river that I wonder how they don’t capsize when rocked by the wakes of passing ships. Water spills over their decks from vast extractors, flowing back into the river. From its source, up on the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong has already snaked through China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Thailand before reaching this point. I assume the boats are working to prevent the shipping channel from silting up with minerals. Fin corrects my view, explaining that the channel is more than 90ft deep. What we’re witnessing is a commercial operation, to win sand for use in construction projects.

Thirty-seven miles south of Phnom Penh we cross the border into Vietnam and drop anchor while our passports are checked. Storm clouds roll in at a pace that reminds me of time-lapse footage. For a few minutes we’re lashed with wind and rain. In the evening sunlight I watch ferries packed with trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians crossing the broad river near Tan Chau. They commute past sections of a cable-stayed bridge that, when finished, will make the ferries obsolete.

“We have three seasons here: hot, hotter and hottest,” jokes Hieu, my Vietnamese guide, as we board a sampan, a motorised wooden boat that provides access to villages along narrow tributaries. It’s early, humid and the sun is shining. Temperatures of up to 31C are forecast. “We know the river as Song Cuu Long, meaning ‘Nine Dragon River’, because it has nine main channels,” he adds, as we head past lush fields towards Vinh Hoa (‘Evergreen Island’). Boats chug past us with faces painted on their red prows, a tradition that was originally meant to scare off crocodiles. The crocs are now gone, thanks to human intervention that extends beyond outstanding work by boat painters. Metal huts floating by the river bank house fish farms; each producing 65-tons every four months.

A number of fields are flooded with brown river water that will leave a fertile deposit. Around 40% of Vietnam’s rice crop is produced here in the Mekong Delta. We disembark to visit a farmer’s house, a wooden building on stilts. Mr Nam greets me with a grin, gives me hug, expresses satisfaction at my stature, then hugs me again. If all else in life fails, it seems I’ll be welcome back to till his fields.

At the waterfront market in Sa Dec we see women wearing conical straw hats selling fruit — including sweet, thumb-sized bananas — and vegetables. Fish, crabs and river shrimps writhe and wriggle in buckets. I’m perplexed by a tray of skinned, pink creatures. “They’re rats. Deep-fried with lemon grass, they taste good,” grins Hieu. I’ve consumed my quota of novelty food for this trip and won’t be partaking.

I follow the group into a traditional Chinese merchant’s house on the quayside. It belonged to the family of Huynh Thuy Le (T: 00 844 67 3773937), who was 27 when he approached the 15-year-old Marguerite Duras on a ferry crossing the Mekong in 1929. Duras tells the story of their affair in her autobiographical novel L’Amant (‘The Lover’), much of which is set in Cholon, today a district of Ho Chi Minh City. That’s the direction we’re heading, but first we pause in Cai Be, a town with a church, built by the French in the 1930s, and a floating market bobbing on the channel between stilted waterfront houses. Boat owners lure customers by hanging samples of their wares on wooden poles. “Do you know why no meat, only fruit and vegetables, is sold at this market?” asks Hieu, furrowing his brow. I consider hygiene and legal issues, then shake my head. “It’s because they can’t hang cows from the boats,” he answers, laughing.

Disembarking in My Tho, the RV Tonle’s crew wave farewell. I look up towards the sun deck. The river has almost finished its 2,700-mile course to sea. Before my journey ends I’ll have three days to explore Ho Chi Minh City. I ask my perennial question: how will that live up to what’s just preceded it?


Getting there
Vietnam Airlines flies direct to Ho Chi Minh City from Gatwick. Numerous airlines fly between Ho Chi Minh City and Heathrow via their respective hubs including British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Jet Airways, and Thai Airways. Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Thai Airways offer flights with a single change between Heathrow and Phnom Penh.
Average flight time: 15h.


When to go
December-February. Temperatures (average 25C) are a couple of degrees lower than the rest of the year and rainfall is low.


Need to know
Visas: Apply four weeks ahead of travel. vietnamembassy.org.uk  cambodianembassy.org.uk
Currency: Vietnam dong (VND). £1 = VND 34,500; Cambodian riel (KHR). £1 = KHR 6,600.
Health: Vaccinations against typhoid, diphtheria plus hepatitis A and B are recommended. Visit your GP six weeks ahead of departure.
International dial code: Vietnam 00 844; Cambodia 00 855.
Time difference: GMT +6.


More info
Ho Chi Minh City & Mekong Delta. RRP: £7.99 (Footprint Focus Guide)


How to do it
Viking Cruises offers flights, cruise ship and hotel accommodation, all meals on board plus wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, 14 guided tours and all port charges, airport taxes and transfers costs. From £3,749 per person for 15 days.

Mekong Eyes offers a three-day cruise between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, including transfers, a guided walk and sampan tour, plus meals. From $379 (£233) per person.


Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)