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Mekong / Cambodia with Pandaw River Cruises
By Petra O’Neill
On the Mekong Through a Changing Cambodia
Cambodia is a land of contrasts – an ancient civilisation with the majestic temples of Angkor, the loss of the country’s cultural elite as a consequence of atrocities committed by Pol Pot, the serenity of a Buddhist temple, the raucous din of tooting trucks and tuk tuks.
One of the most beautiful countries in South East Asia, it is a destination I fondly return to. This time I am here to continue my journey on the Mekong River that winds through six countries, from China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before reaching the South China Sea, 4,800 kilometres away.
I begin in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, located at the confluence of the Bassac, Mekong, and Tonle Sap rivers and one of South East Asia’s most charming cities. Broad tree lined boulevards, French colonial architecture interspersed with domed Buddhist stupas and a smattering of buildings including the Railway Station and Central Market reflecting an Art Deco style. The French influence is still evident with cafés serving baguettes, croissants and coffee.
Wandering along the grand halls of the National Museum provides an overview in the Khmer aesthetic with giant statues dating from the 8th century. Next door is the Royal Palace with its magnificent Throne Hall and Silver Pagoda.
The historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal is lovely with tourists lounging poolside, some never leaving the confines of cocooned luxury to venture out. I stay at the Pavilion Hotel, once home to a Cambodian Princess and now an exquisite boutique hotel, spending my days exploring on foot many of the neighbourhoods close by and enjoying wonderful Khmer Amok curry at Sugar Palm.
On my final morning, I walk along the riverside promenade, past locals engaged in Tai Chi and vendors setting up their carts to sell drinks and snacks. Then along comes an elephant, which in any other context would appear quite extraordinary, but in such a city of enchantment, seems not out of place.
I’ve come to join the 66-passenger RV Tonle Pandaw for a cruise upstream destined for Siem Riep. This is my 5th Pandaw Cruise and some of the crew recognise me. I arrive early and ask if I can follow Chantal as she goes to restock on essential provisions. At the supermarket she asks “Australians. Breakfast, what do they like?” I suggest muesli and weet-bix. She grabs several packets and loads up the shopping trolley with 12 bottles of gin. The staff look at us curiously.
While Pandaw Cruises commenced operations on the Mekong in 2003, many other companies now cater to the increasing number of travellers who prefer a more relaxed way of travelling between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Riep in Cambodia. Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong and Bassac are boutique, while larger ships include the Jayavarman, Jahan, La Marguerite and the AmaLotus that caters for up to 124 passengers.
The RV Tonle Pandaw is more my style, reminiscent of the original Burmese paddle steamers built by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Beautifully hand finished in brass and teak, with rattan furnishings and an informal colonial ambience, it cruises at a leisurely pace.
We cast off with most of my time spent on the Observation Deck that provides an uninterrupted panoramic view of life on the river – the rice fields, Pagodas, riverside towns and villages that come into view.
We take an excursion on a small boat up the Tonle Sap River to discover the vast wetlands and the many fish traps. We travel by ox cart along a bumpy dirt road to Kampong Tralach Pleu Pagoda with outstanding mural paintings. Over the next few days we visit floating villages, where timber houses are built on stilts, explore villages including Chong Koh renowned for silk weaving, monasteries and local schools, before arriving at Kampong Cham, a charming town with a busy market. Perhaps the most memorable part of the journey was at dusk watching a tall line of clouds turn pink then brilliant orange at sunset while enjoying the heady cocktail of the day.
In 1859 the French explorer Henri Mouhot set out to explore Indochina. It took him a year of hacking through jungle and fending off leopards, leeches and elephants before he arrived at Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on earth completed in AD1145. The Buddhist temples of Angkor cover a vast area of around 200 square kilometres with more than 100 temples requiring a stay of several days. The other great monuments include the Bayon, the vine covered Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei, the oldest temples dating from 835 AD.
As captivating as the temples of Angkor may be, Cambodia’s sun in May is scorching, the air dry and gritty. Fortunately Siem Reap, the town that lodges and feeds Angkor’s visitors, has evolved from little more than a village into a chic haven of rest and relaxation with excellent cafes, restaurants, bars and a vibrant contemporary art scene, providing the perfect final destination to end my journey.
Cambodia is changing rapidly, far removed from the country I'd encountered when I first visited. The potholed roads have gone, the boutiques, restaurants and hotels are so sophisticated they are almost destinations in themselves. Many well-heeled tourists do little more than fly into Siem Riep for a chauffeur driven tour to Angkor Wat. At the airport I asked an American from Las Vegas what she had remembered of her stay. “Gorgeous Hotel!” For me, there is no better way of experiencing a country than to cruise on its rivers and in Cambodia, after a journey on the Mekong you feel that you know just a little of it.
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Photos courtesy Petra O’Neill
Petra O’Neill is a Freelance Travel Writer based in Sydney, Australia.
“As a child, I was greatly inspired by a story about a mouse who travelled to exotic locations on a magic carpet.”
After juggling a corporate career with journeys of adventure, travel finally held sway. Petra specialises in writing about remote destinations including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India. Petra’s work has appeared in numerous publications in Australia and the UK. She can be contacted at email@example.com