Story by Carol Canter.
Photos by Carol Canter and Jack Heyman.
On a Mekong River cruise, we meandered along Asia’s “Mother River,” from Vietnam into Cambodia in late March aboard the AmaDara, visiting floating markets and riverside villages where houses rise on stilts. We moored overnight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city once considered the “Pearl of the Orient.” Along the way we passed fishing boats of every stripe, fruit orchards and fish farms, pagodas and rice paddies–all sustained by the ebb and flow and unparalleled biodiversity of Southeast Asia’s longest river. Even as we ventured forth to visit a glorious gilded palace, historic Buddhist monastery, and small craft workshops producing silk, copper, candy or woven rattan mats, we relished the return to the air-conditioned comfort of our beautiful AmaDara, greeted with a chilled hand towel and a cold drink. AmaWaterways’ new ship–its woodwork gleaming and staterooms spacious–was launched in mid-2015 to cocoon its 124 passengers in comfort on a seasonal 7-Night Mekong River cruise between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Siem Reap (gateway to Angkor Wat), on journeys billed as “Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong.” Rich it was.
We were a mix of independent adventurers and more traditional vacationers, all well traveled and eager to get off-the-beaten path — but in the context of a cruise line acclaimed for its seamless presentation of exotic lands. We were prepped and primed for forays into this languid landscape by a magnificent staff and crew that were our window into the heart and soul– not to mention the history, geography and culture–of each of our destinations. So we practiced the basics like how to say “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you.” and to count from one to ten in Vietnamese and Khmer with the charming staff in the dining room and bar. Some of us learned how to wear the Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese long silk tunic dress gracefully draped over pants.
And we expanded our delight in tropical fruits, moving beyond mango and papaya into sapodilla and dragon fruit, longan and lychee, mangosteen and jackfruit. (Durian, which they say smells like hell but tastes like heaven, was not yet in-season.) Most profound for many of us was learning to understand the Buddhist concept of forgiveness from people whose families had experienced unimaginable suffering in both countries during too many decades of war.
The toughest morning of the trip was our visit to the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields of Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh. On the eve of our visit, we gathered in the AmaDara’s spacious Saigon lounge to watch in horror the award-winning documentary film “Pol Pot – The Secret Killer.” Together we struggled to comprehend the transformation of this idealistic Paris-educated Cambodian student into the genocidal tyrant who turned the clock back on his country’s once vibrant Khmer civilization to”restart” it at the “Year Zero.” There’s no way to soft pedal the horror of what was done. Some 2 million (the figures are disputed) of Cambodia’s population of 7 million were murdered. Certain passengers understandably chose to skip that excursion. But for others, the chance to share the experience, and even to shed tears, with our guides and a few new friends felt cathartic.
In fact, the educational aspect of our journey with AmaWaterways went beyond all of our expectations, adding layers of depth and richness to a trip that was beyond beautiful and fun. Our guides were smart, articulate, and unafraid to discuss not just the painful history of their countries, but the complex ecological and economic challenges facing them today. Daily briefings energized us for our outings on the mighty Mekong–the river that flows 2,700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. The Mekong basin is Asia’s rice basket and one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, second only to the Amazon.
From ship to tender, we were immersed in the watery world of floating markets, abuzz with vendors who paddled and peddled their wares: luscious-looking fruits, vegetables and herbs piled high in flat-bottomed wooden boats called sampans. We surveyed floating villages–close enough to peer into living rooms shaded by potted plants–gas stations and grocery stores lapped by the river, stores stacked with 100-pound sacks of rice, a fraction of the 2,500+ species sold on world markets.
From ship to shore we ambled through rural villages like “Evergreen Island,”–poor yet ablaze with the emerald greens of rice paddies, purple morning glories, fuchsia bougainvillea, yellow sunflowers and red peppers drying atop wooden sheds. Huge jackfruits and papayas hung heavy from the trees. Still morning, the temperature was already well into the nineties with humidity to match, but we were shaded by our sunhats, cooled by our fans and enchanted by the children who flocked around to welcome us with their perfectly practiced English phrases and flashing pearl white smiles.
We rode tuk-tuks and oxcarts and trishaws; we meditated with saffron-clad monks at Vipassana Dhura, the biggest Buddhist Monastery in Cambodia, after which we extended to them ritual offerings of rice. At the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, built in 1866 as the home of the Cambodian King, our bare feet cooled on the floor of the Silver Pagoda, made from 5,000 pieces of silver floor tiles.
In Sa Dec, we sipped ginger tea at the home of Huynh Thuy Le, the wealthy 27-year old Chinese paramour immortalized by French writer Marguerite Duras in “The Lover,” the highly erotic 1984 novel of her teenage affair made into a film by the same name. “The Lover,” along with “Indochine” starring Catherine Deneuve, and “The Quiet American” a 2002 film based on a Graham Greene novel set in Vietnam in the 1950s were all part of a well-curated selection of films available on our in-cabin video system. Each film unmasked the complexities of colonial life in Vietnam and enriched our exploration.
Downtime was welcome, to enjoy the amenities of our beautiful floating home. My $30 carrot honey facial–the best facial I’ve ever had–was 60 minutes of bliss. I floated back to my cabin in the sensuous silk robe provided, face aglow. While crew handled formalities of our border crossing into Cambodia on Day 3, some passengers attended a cooking lesson with our tall, elegant Head Chef Pheara. He showed us how to make fresh spring rolls and pho bo–Vietnam’s satisfyingly nutritious rice noodle soup with beef–the rich broth flavored with star anise, ginger, garlic and fish sauce, then topped with fresh cilantro, sweet basil, lemon grass and crunchy bean sprouts. Later that afternoon on the sundeck, Salad Chef Sopheap led us in a fruit tasting that introduced the abundance of the region’s tropical fruits. But first he demonstrated fruit carving, showing us how to find the “heart” of the watermelon and from it create a magnificent ruby red flower. That delicate red flower is an image I carry of our mesmerizing Mekong River cruise. Here are some others:
White oxen passing on a dusty village road, an Emerald Buddha.
A young boy in blue tee shirt extending pink lotus blossoms by the monastery gate.
–From the sundeck with friends, or the privacy of our stateroom balcony, passing vistas as picturesque as sampan fishermen in traditional conical hats throwing nets. Or as industrial as the large flat barges laden with silt, the nutrient-rich sediment that replenishes and enriches the land along the Mekong.