Cruising down the Mekong

Toronto Star Dec 18, 2017: PREK KDAM, CAMBODIA—Little kids shout hello from the shore. A fisherman drops his net in his long narrow boat to give us a wave. White cattle graze near the water and somewhere dogs are barking over the rhythmic putt-putting of fishing boats moving up and down the Mekong River. We’re cruising down one of the biggest river systems in the world, flowing thousands of kilometres from China to Vietnam.

We hop on board our AmaWaterways river cruise ship, the AmaDara, on the Tonlé Sap, a Mekong tributary at Prek Kdam, Cambodia. After eight days exploring Cambodia and Vietnam, we get off at My Tho, the port two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City. Along the way we visit floating villages, a temple or two and take a ride in oxcarts, tuk tuks and rickshaws. We pick up a little Buddhism as well as some silk souvenirs, and meet scores of smiling children.

Cambodia’s Khmer refer to the Mekong as the “Mother of the Water” and it is certainly is a master multi-tasker.

The river provides fish to eat, wet lowlands to grow rice and a wide highway for transportation. And like mom, the river performs the odd miracle. In the rainy season it forces water up the Tonlé Sap, reversing the smaller river’s flow for part of the year. We change direction too, going up and down the Tonlé Sap the first couple of days and getting a glimpse of Cambodia’s rural life, going to shore and wandering through the market at Kampong Chhnang, pausing to watch a couple dozen men fiercely paddle a long boat, training for a race.

At Koh Chen we are greeted by grinning children and the tap tap of women wielding tiny hammers as they sit hunched over silver and copper. A gaggle of kids and a few of their moms follow us around selling silver trinkets and jewelry. Our guides have suggested we save our shopping for a visit to the community-run store. At every stop, we’re reminded not to give money to children lest we “destroy the culture of the village.” On most excursions we’re able to support a local business or community initiative.

We drop by a classroom where the kids try out their English by asking us questions and singing “When you’re happy and you know it.” One girl gives me a page from her scribbler where she’s practiced writing “man” in English and in the beautiful Khmer script. Everyone in the room is delighted. As we leave, we happily donate to the school improvement fund.

As we get closer to Phnom Penh, we start seeing barges along with the fishing boats on the river. After all the tranquility, it’s a bit jarring to see high rises on shore but we adjust quickly to the city-vibe with a tuk tuk ride through the giant merge that is Phnom Penh traffic. The next day as our coach inches along through endless motorcycles, cars and tuk tuks, our guide, Sokuan Truy, exclaims more than once: “Oh my Buddha.”

When our bus finally arrives at the Oudong Monastery, we’re given strict instructions: “Ladies, do not touch the monks.”

You’re also not supposed to look monks in the eye but everyone is welcome to sit and be blessed in the temple. The monks wear orange robes and sit near an altar that’s lit up with flashing lights. They chant to invite Buddha, remove evil and wish us all long life, happiness and prosperity, tossing out lotus and jasmine flowers to emphasize that last point.

We meet a few nuns, too. They take care of the monks, who aren’t allowed to cook for themselves. They smile at us in their white robes and shaved heads and one invites us in to see her tiny quarters. Two boys join our group with their hands out but quickly switch gears to goof around and mug for our cameras. They fall over themselves laughing when we show them their pictures and then they promptly strike another pose.

We learn a little Buddhist philosophy on the short drive from Phnom Penh to Choeung Ek, one of the hundreds of Killing Fields around Cambodia. Truy, whose aunt and uncles were among the millions murdered in the late 1970s, warns us the mass graves and monument containing more than 8,000 human skulls will be a powerful experience.

“If it’s too much, walk away,” he says. “Do not allow the story of what happened 40 years ago to make you suffer. You have to live in the present and look to the future time.”

Neighbouring Vietnam has its own difficult history to ponder while touring Viet Cong bunkers at Xeo Quyt.

A less grim excursion to Tan Chau includes a ride in the back of a rickshaw. My driver pedals slowly, giving me a generous glimpse of village life and the shining faces of kids waving at the parade of Westerners. We visit a silk factory to see how it’s made before descending on the gift shop for gorgeous scarves and stunning kimonos. At Sa Dec, we visit markets crammed with baskets of colourful produce and slippery eels and stop in for a look at where French writer Marguerite Duras grew up.

The excursions give us much to discuss back on board over a cold beer or cup of tea made with fresh ginger. Part of the fun of a river cruise is getting to know fellow passengers — the Brits soaking up the sun to gird themselves for the grey English winter, the U.S. Foreign Service guy who was last in Vietnam in 1971 and the hip grandmother from NYC travelling with her adult granddaughter.

We enjoy each other’s company over meals, a karaoke night and presentations about local history. Back in our cabins, we turn off the TVs and turn to the other flat screens — pulling back the curtains and watching tufts of green water hyacinth pass by along with life on the Mekong.

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