Beverley Watts joined the elegant Tonle Pandaw for the Original Mekong Cruise with Jules Verne
Reaching the city of Kampong Cham in south-eastern Cambodia, with its beautiful French colonial buildings, was a bit of a schlep from the UK, but long-haul travel always is. Hot, sweaty and tired after a connecting flight and a coach journey, heaven awaited on the banks of the Mekong onboard the retro-style RV Tonle Pandaw.
After chilled welcome drinks, I was shown my teak-lined, air-conditioned cabin and felt ready to fall fast asleep between the crisp white sheets. A shower soon sorted me out and, following the launch briefing and a cocktail on the Sun Deck, dinner was served – a four-course delight. The first evening’s menu offered green mango and smoked fish, spiced sour beef soup, tender pork chops, banana bread pudding and alternative delicious vegetarian options with red and white wines.
The 180ft RV Tonle Pandaw, with just 28 luxury cabins, has a spa and library on the lower deck and the dining room is stylish and spacious. With a times-gone-by feel, the Scottish-owned vessel is based on the 1930s paddle steamers built in Glasgow for the Old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and it’s a charming design.
The source of the Mekong is in Tibet and dams in upstream China, as well as seasonal rainfall variations, alter water levels. The RV Tonle Pandaw’s shallow hull means it can usually reach areas in the river bigger boats can’t navigate. For safety, though, we took our first excursion to Katie Province and the island of Koh Trong, an eco-tourism site, by road and local ferry.
Oxcarts driven by white Khmer oxen met us on the shore so we climbed aloft in pairs and rattled along the track to see a rosewood and mahogany reforestation project before boarding motorbike wagons and visiting a school. There the young pupils were keen to practise their English with us and proudly read aloud from their textbooks.
Then it was on to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins, an endangered species closely related to the killer whale. These shy mammals tend to dive when alarmed, but sit quietly and you can watch them surface to breathe in a roll, rather than a leap.
Houses are built on stilts along the banks of the Mekong because in the monsoon season (August to November), the river delta broadens and floods the land, carrying silt to nourish the vast fields of rice. The soil is rich, Cambodian cooking makes use of the fresh, fragrant produce and lunches on the RV Tonle Pandaw were as wonderful as the evening meals. With varied salty, sweet and spicy buffet salads to tease the appetite, the fresh baby squid with noodles was a favourite main course followed by fresh mango with coconut sauce.
Cambodia is 95% Theravada Buddhist and saffron-robed monks joined us for a special water blessing one afternoon. In the ceremony, accompanied by Buddhist chanting, the monk sprinkles you with flower water and ties a small string around your wrist for luck. (I concentrated hard on not crossing my legs as in the company of monks this is disrespectful.)
Our local guide Somnang, who surprised us by quoting English philosopher John Locke, was once a monk himself and was always a cheerful face, accompanying us each day by sampan ashore. Some of my fellow passengers opted to stay on the boat to read their books but I was keen to join all the inclusive outings.
At Koh Oknha Tei we saw silk being spun and a demonstration of ancient Khmer martial art, Bokator. Believed to have been developed 1,700 years ago, this vigorous technique involves energetic elbow and knee strikes with shin kicks allowed, too. I stood well back as the young men jostled in combat.
Docking at Phnom Penh, we enjoyed Femme Fatale cocktails at the swish Raffles Hotel and took bicycle rickshaw rides to the Royal Palace complex, the glittering residence of the king of Cambodia. But the country has, of course, a very sad recent past. A visit to a former Khmer Rouge detention centre, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was chilling, as was the skull-filled Choeung Ek Monument, on the site of one of many Killing Fields.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea, led by Marxist Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia with a brutal regime and between 1975-1979 two million people were executed or died from starvation, disease and overwork. It’s a terrible legacy but these memorials honour the lives of those who perished.
The Mekong empties into the South China Sea and we sailed into Vietnam as celebrations were beginning for the Lunar New Year (called Tet) – the Year of the Pig. Our sampan glided past fish farms on the Tan Chau Canal and we took a short walk through local villages, where fields were sown with spring onions and chillies. The red lanterns decorating a Taoist temple – built on the river bank to protect against drownings – are a colour believed to bring good fortune.
Mooring off Con Phung Island, known for its handicrafts, furniture makers were busy sanding down woodwork for ornate solid wood furniture. A great-grandmother in her eighties, head of a family of basket weavers, showed off her skills, her fingers as nimble as ever.
In Duong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds), the inland wetland of mangrove forests is now the site of the Gao Giong bird sanctuary, home to tens of thousands of storks. The only access to the canals is with small boats so we were rowed along the canals by graceful Vietnamese women in traditional ào bà ba costumes and nón lá (leaf) hats. Back at the entrance we spotted that they’d changed back into their jeans before jumping on scooters to go home…
At an outdoor cooking display at Cho Lach, we learnt how to make Bánh Xèo ‘sizzling pancakes’ from scratch at the home of a Catholic family in the countryside. (Around 7% of the population is Vietnam is Catholic.). There was pot making from sand and cement, a coconut candy workshop and the chance to try sweet ‘n’ sour honey tea, flavoured with kumquat. But before we knew it, we’d arrived at My Tho and it was time to disembark.
Our final night on the trip was in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), staying in a central hotel. On a quick tour we were able to see Notre-Dame Cathedral and the light-filled 1895 Post Office – built when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Before we flew home, there just one more landmark we couldn’t miss, the Reunification Palace. It was on 30 April 1975 that a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through its gates during the Fall of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War.
The Original Mekong Cruise with Jules Verne, a 7-night full-board cruise, with flights (Heathrow), port charges, transfers and local services from £2,895 pp. Departs 14 September & 9 November 2019, and 18 January, 15 February & 14 March 2020. Most drinks are included and no single supplement applies on some departures (subject to availability). Optional extensions in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap for the temples of Angkor. See www.vjv.com or call 020 3131 2520.