By: Clare Mann
A dwelling near Siem Reap, in Cambodia
“But you promised,” said a solemn little boy with trusting brown eyes. I had indeed promised to buy a scarf from him but my dollars had gone and now the boat was leaving. I felt an absolute heel as I hurried back up the gangplank of our fairy-tale boat, La Marguerite. We drifted away down the wide, slow-moving milky-brown Tonle Sap river, which flows into the Mekong at Phnom Penh, leaving the disappointed boy far behind.
The heart-rending incident happened after we had been taken to see the recently revived tradition of silk weaving in the Cambodian village of Chong Koh on an island in the river. Old looms, which had been hidden during the dark years of Pol Pot, had now been returned to use. Beguiling little girls selling armfuls of krama, a traditional scarf with multiple uses, had entwined themselves around us and led us around their village, practising their English and wanting our dollars. The girls scampered off, distracted by a motherly Italian tourist handing out sweets, and the boy sidled up full of questions about England. Is it a happy country? Did we all have blue eyes? From him I learnt a valuable lesson: carry plenty of dollars and spread them around to support the local communities and their handicrafts. After decades of violence, tourism is a lifeline for this fragile but emerging country.
Our river cruise started at Siem Reap. After crossing the 100-mile-long Lake Tonle Sap by motor launch, we were to sail 560 miles (900km) down the Mekong to Saigon in a week.
Before joining La Marguerite, we spent the morning immersed in the wondrous temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. Our guide, Mr Son, a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Buddhist monk and now tour guide, proudly showed us the three best-known temples, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm.
Back on deck, I sipped Angkor beer as I read Jon Swain’s River of Time, a romantic but also disturbing account of being a journalist in Cambodia and Vietnam during the years of conflict, and his friendship with photographer Dith Pran (the subject of the film, The Killing Fields). It was hard to associate the country’s traumatic past with the peaceful scenes slipping by: fishermen casting their nets from delicate sampans, picturesque houses built on stilts, gleaming new pagodas on the river bank, lush paddy fields, children riding water buffalo, and everyone smiling and waving.
How welcomed we felt from our floating palace. We visited Cheung Kok Ecotourism village, where profits from the local handicrafts go towards teachers’ salaries and health care. Our Cambodian guide asked us not to give the local children money, though few asked. Instead he wanted to encourage them to go to school: “Education is my country’s future.”
We were taken to an orphanage, where we wandered freely; a child showed me her precious possessions tucked beneath her bed in a spartan dormitory. While my husband played badminton with some of the boys, I bought paintings by the children and pretty silk bags sewn by the girls. The children, happy and well cared for, sang to us as we sat in the shady garden. An elderly Australian in our group stood up to thank the children. He too had been an orphan. “Never give up and always do your best,” he told them with obvious emotion.
On excursions from the mother ship we visited ornate Buddhist temples and saw engine casings from B‑52 bombers that had been turned into huge drums, stark reminders of a turbulent past. We explored backwaters on tenders to visit markets, floating villages, schools and even a Catholic chapel on the water.
As we peered into houses, lives were laid bare for our inspection. There was no hostility at our prying eyes, only amused grins from the young men as they tinkered with boat engines while endless cameras clicked. But we wondered how long it would be before the novelty of all the attention wore off. We loved Phnom Penh. Our guides suggested we wore “ambassadorial attire” to visit the magnificent Royal Palace home of the present King. The centrepiece is a gold Buddha statue weighing 14 stone (90kg), studded with 9,584 diamonds. In the Russian Market and Central Market, we browsed avenues selling everything from miss-spelt designer knickers to fried beetles and bootleg DVDs.
A few buildings on the busy waterfront remain from the city’s colonial past. We stopped for cocktails at the famous FCC (Foreign Correspondents’ Club). It has a nostalgic air, with upstairs views of the river, geckos on the walls and whirling ceiling fans. It didn’t take much to imagine the brave and hard-bitten war corres-pondents who gathered there not so long ago.
The Khmer Rouge used Tuol Sleng school in Phnom Penh as a detention centre during their brutal rule in the late Seventies. It is now a Genocide Museum. Photographs of the men, women and children who were imprisoned and tortured here stare from the walls. They were then taken to the “killing fields”, mass graves outside the capital, to be executed. Visitors walked around the former class-rooms in stunned silence.
An English couple in our group quietly wept as we wandered around the killing fields at Choeung Ek later that day. The site is crude and immediate; shards of human bones and clothing were pushing through the worn mud paths. The central memorial is a tall glass structure filled with hundreds of skulls.
La Marguerite was a welcoming and cool refuge after our excursions. Named after the French writer Marguerite Duras, who grew up in French Indochina during the 1900s, it is elegantly decorated in French colonial style. There is an attentive crew of 42 to look after 92 passengers, and while the eight suites on the sun deck are the largest cabins and have private balconies, our stateroom, one of 38, was very comfortable.
We ate well, with a splendid buffet breakfast and lunch plus a four-course dinner each day. Indeed, we felt in serious danger of piling on the pounds with too little exercise. Although there was a small gym on board we found other distractions more enticing.
Our fellow guests were a diverse and interesting multinational group who quickly acquired nicknames from our travelling companions, Maddy and Christopher. In the evenings we were entertained by local dancers and musicians, films, and talks on the history of the region. Otherwise we played bridge on the deck, swatting the occasional mayfly as they swarmed around the lights.
On day four of the cruise we crossed into Vietnam. The difference was marked: along the riverbank many new factories appeared, the river traffic trebled, with countless laden barges, some piled high with bonsai trees and yellow marigolds in preparation for the Chinese New Year festivities. A family of five may cling to a moped (a luxury) in Cambodia, but the economic surge in Vietnam has brought new prosperity for many and here only one passenger rides pillion, and everyone wears a helmet.
There were a variety of organised excursions: a visit to the house, now a museum, of Marguerite’s lover, a wealthy Chinese; a catfish farm (not for those with delicate nostrils); and a brick works with ancient beehive ovens worked by slender young women for five dollars a day.
But the highlight was a tour by trishaw of the small town of Tan Chau. We cycled down narrow streets, where fighting cocks strutted in cane cages, barbers shaved their customers, coffins were stacked and painted vivid colours and large woks were stirred. And again we received nothing but welcoming smiles and delight at our presence.
Our last day and night were spent in Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by the locals. “Asia on steroids”, as an expat friend described it. We were charmed. But the American Museum made us shudder: heartbreaking photographs, facts and figures about bombs and chemicals used during the war.
A stiff drink at the Rex steadied us, followed by lunch at Ngon in Nguyen Du, patronised almost entirely by friendly Vietnamese who helpfully suggested what we should eat – not entirely successfully. We liked The Deck bar and restaurant, with its twinkling lights over the river, which gave us a glimpse of Saigon’s beautiful people at play.
Outside the cathedral, opposite the handsome colonial post office, a young couple getting married asked us to pose with them in their wedding finery. “Where are you going for your honeymoon?” I asked. “America,” they replied.
AmaWaterways (0808 223 5009; www.amawaterways.co.uk) offers a seven-night Mekong river cruise on La Marguerite from £898 per person (excluding flights) based on two sharing a cabin. Price includes all meals on board, unlimited drinks and daily sightseeing excursions. AmaWaterways also offers a 14-night land and Mekong river cruise from £1,825 per person (excluding flights). Flights and hotel accommodation can be arranged through AmaWaterways.
Thai Airways (08445 610 911; www.thaiair.com) has daily flights from Heathrow to Bangkok from £540. Internal flights to Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City are via Bangkok, which makes a good place to break your journey for 24 hours or more.
Stay at the central Banyan Tree (00800 300 20000; www.banyantree.com), which has the best panoramic nocturnal views of the city from rooftop Moon Bar and Vertigo restaurant on the 61st floor. Private chauffeur-driven transfers from the airport. Deluxe doubles cost from around £140 with breakfast.