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750km Mekong voyage - Slow boat to Siem Reap

Author: John M.
Email: johnm@adam.com.au (More Trip Reviews by John M.)
Date of Trip: April 2006

On my cruise, the other passengers were mainly Americans and Britons, a smattering of Europeans and a few Australians. This was, I was told, is a fairly typical mix.

The beauty of the voyage is that, by day, the cruise vessel becomes a mother ship or base for the extremely well-planned daily excursions-- a place to retire to for relaxation once the on-shore 35C heat and the humidity become too much. However, there is no obligation to participate in the excursions. The RV Mekong Pandaw, like its sister ships, has an expansive 60 metre sundeck with ample shading, comfortable sun lounges and whicker chairs, and an all-day complimentary tea, coffee, bottled water and soft drink station.

Over the eight days we visited many remote villages and temples along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, explored backwaters and canals, as well as well-known places such as Phnom Penh. Each day blended easily into the next and a chronological list of the activities would simply compartmentalize a voyage that was as a varied as it was fascinating.

Shore excursions ranged from passengers transferring to up to four comfortable but much smaller vessels and voyaging down tributaries to places such as the Mekong Delta's floating markets through to stopping at villages to watch rice paper, popcorn and snake wine being made, admiring weaving demonstrations, enjoying rickshaw rides, and touring markets in the large towns and cities including Phnom Penh and Chau Doc.

Most are highly entertaining and educational, although in Phnom Penh most passengers are quickly brought down to earth by a visit to the grim S21 Detention Centre where the Khmer Rouge, acting under orders from the despot Pol Pot, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent Cambodians. The night prior to berthing at the Phnom Penh wharf the award winning film "The Killing Fields" is screened in the RV Mekong's saloon bar, and this shows passengers some of the butchery that occurred under Pol Pot's regime of terror. The emotion of visiting S21 is compounded by subsequently taking a short bus journey bus to "The Killing Fields" outside Phnom Penh and seeing the mass graves of hundreds of the some up to two million people believed exterminated by Pol Pot's followers. Central to the field is a towering glass memorial, or stupa, containing hundreds of skulls and the sad remnants of the clothing their skeletons were wearing when selected mass graves were opened. Even today one only has to scuff the dirt paths with one's shoe to expose human bone. And if that is not enough to break the heart of the toughest of tourists, there is a sign alongside a large tree which describes the trunk as the one that the Khmer Rouge used when grabbing children by their feet and swinging their heads against it, before unceremoniously tossing the small bodies into the adjacent mass grave.

As the days progressed, one could be forgiven for regarding the RV Mekong Pandaw as a second, albeit temporary, home because of the brilliant service, ambience and affable nature of the other passengers. Most were retired and in their 60's and older, but still very active and enthusiastic. I met many talented people who had worked in a range of fields including a BBC and two German television producers, two cinematographers, several high ranking ex-British and American Army officers, computer software engineers, Americans who worked in the aerospace industry, scientists, journalists, a puppeteer and one of Australia leading theatre producers.

The physical nature of the on-shore excursions tended toincrease as we acclimatized to the heat and humidity and became more confident. However, helping hands always assisted passengers to embark and disembark from the small vessels that took us along tributaries and canals where the RV Mekong Pandaw was unable to navigate. Steady gangplanks with handrails were provided when the excursion was merely stepping from the vessel to the riverbank.

We also visited a number of temples and wats, all of which provided wonderful photographic material. The excursions were significantly enhanced by the guides, who all spoke excellent English. Although I admit to feeling somewhat "templed" out towards the end of the voyage.

The final day provided perhaps the most dramatic. Because the water level was low across the 100 km long Lake Tonle-- the biggest expanse of fresh water in South East Asia-- the 57 passengers were transferred near Kampong Chhnang to a massive high-powered speedboat in order toorder to reach our final destination of Siem Reap.

This is not always necessary, but because I was on the last voyage of the 2005-2006 season, I had been warned in advance that this might be the case due to the lake's dry season water level. In fact, for part of the year the lake is only about one to one and half metres deep with an area of 2,700 square km. However, during the monsoon, the Tonle Sap River, which connects the lake with the Mekong, reverses its flow due to the massive torrent of water flowing down the Mekong and actually flows uphill! This increases Lake Tonle Sap's area to up to 16,000 square km and its depth to up to nine metres, inundating nearby fields and forests. It provides a perfect breeding ground for fish and makes the Tonle Sap ecosystem one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world.

The speedboat leg was an uncomfortable yet adventurous grand finale to a cruise that, while perhaps totally different to an ocean voyage or, in my case a Greek ferry!

Reflecting on the voyage, there were no downsides-- despite my sometimes hard-to-please nature. The staterooms were perfect, the food a gastronomic delight, the sun deck was highly relaxing, and the excursions were varied and fascinating.

It is a tribute to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company's commitment to service, fine food and wine, and luxury accommodation that a large percentage of its passengers are repeats. For that reason alone, bookings fill quickly with some passengers on my cruise admitting they had tried for up to five years to gain a berth for a cruise on the date of their choosing.

A word of warning: This may not be a cruise for young people unless they put together a group of 4-6 couples. The ships are not party vessels, and most people are in their cabins by 9.30 pm.

In addition to its Myanmar cruises, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is currently negotiating to include the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh and India.

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