River cruising in the Mekong Delta

by Elizabeth Willoughby

Southeast Asia was influenced first by China and India, then by French colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, then by decades of war. With its doors reopened to tourism, what's Indochina like now?

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This French Colony is All Asian

Flying into Siem Reap, Cambodia, the vista from my window is of vast stretches of land at various stages of submersion. The paddy fields that aren't under water appear as a quilt of shallow, square pools. It's December; the waters are still receding. I'm on my way to the Jayavarman, the ship that will take me by river from whence I just departed by air: Saigon.

I have some time to kill before embarking, but unfortunately not enough to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex — the 12th-century masterpiece that most people recognize by picture rather than name. Angkor's Khmer temples would take days to explore properly. I choke back my disappointment and explore the local market instead.

At first appearance, it is not unlike many markets I've seen in developing countries. Rows of tables overflow with colourful produce — orange carrots, red peppers, white onions, green chives. It smells dusty, damp and musty under the corrugated steel roof, but the fans hanging from the ceiling framework give the illusion of relief as they blow the warm, humid air around. The wiring system is particularly impressive, running from one fan to the next, spliced here, twisted and exposed there, cobwebbed everywhere.

It takes a few minutes of wandering for a "sense of the unusual" to crawl over me. It's not that I feel tall for the first time ever — actually, I enjoy this moment of giant-hood as I tower over the small, slender Cambodians. It's not the density of the area either, although that is magnified by the narrow aisles, by slight sellers squatting on the tables rather than taking up standing room on the floor, and the utilization of the air space above the tables by hanging merchandise from the rafters — baskets, flashlights, bags of bags, plastic toys. It's also not the live black fish, slowly asphyxiating, waggling in dry trays, mouthing silently, or the yolks from broken eggs in transparent baggies sitting atop boxes of whole eggs for sale — nothing goes to waste.

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Beside a huge bowl of green olives, there is a heaping tray of deep fried tarantulas seasoned with dried yellow blossoms and herbs. I think that's it — that "sense of unusual" that's giving me goose bumps. I deduce that the palm-sized spiders are a good seller, since only half are left. The remaining half forms a cliff of protruding black legs down the centre of the tray. I imagine the spiders in motion, which makes me shiver and I move on to the clothing section until it's time to meet up with the other passengers.

Life on the Rivers

To get to the Jayavarman, we must journey down the Tonle Sap River. We board a motorized boat with rows of wooden benches laid out like a school bus, and we head downstream. Tonle Sap is busy as dusk approaches. Children in ragged clothes play volleyball and bicycle along the shoreline by thatched homes on stilts, and workers bathe along the banks that are gradually growing taller. Soon, the river widens and the vegetation becomes more abundant. Family boats that are pointed at both ends are equipped with motors and oars. They wend around treetops and bushes that have resurfaced above the retreating water, carrying people and cargo home to houseboats.

Just as the sky begins to glow orange, we approach our ship. Passengers clamour aboard and go upstairs to the lounge. The dark wood surfaces, wicker chairs and blue, beige and gold upholstery are tasteful and emanate the French Colonial charm intended. Staff members, however, are in a state of confusion — for they have also just arrived. The cruise director informs us that three quarters of the staff (Khmer) left this morning in support of the previous cruise director who had just been fired. In an act of desperation, and maybe brilliance, off-shift hotel personnel were scooped up to fill the void. The crew (Vietnamese) are the originals, but they don't know where the bedding is either.

The next morning, cruising downstream of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap Lake) is a moving picture of recurring objects: floating houses, homes on stilts on strips of land that appear between strips of water, fish corrals, pointed hats, submerged trees and jungle. Like a city at rush hour, boats move about transporting people and produce; men cast out fish nets while others haul theirs in; boats huddle midstream while motor problems are addressed. We haven't met the bigger, busier Mekong River yet, but there is constant activity here on the Tonle Sap River, and it feels unhurried.

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Although we won't meet the Mekong River until Phnom Penh, its significance here should not be underestimated. The water level difference at Phnom Penh can be as much as ten metres (33 feet) between low and high seasons. The Mekong swells so much during the rainy season, from both rain and from Tibet's melting snow, that it backs up into the Tonle Sap, forcing it to reverse its direction into the Great Lake. Once the river reverts to its southerly direction, the fish that rush out of the Great Lake with it are harvested for weeks. The Great Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and its fish provide more than half of Cambodia's protein. People fishing in one form or another are a continual sight, whether alone, in pairs or with the whole family aboard, tapping the river and tributary resources.

We head out in small motorboats for a fish-on-the-dock view of a floating town of 24,000 Vietnamese, even though we're still in Cambodia. Double rows of houses with covered decks stretch out from the land, allowing for a water-road before the next double row. Made of thatch, wood and metal, what can be painted on the houses is blue or occasionally green. Overhead wires crisscross to television antennas. Laundry is strung outside, canopies cover patios and boats are tied off to railings. Chopped wood is stacked along the outer walls. Plastic pails and baskets, potted plants and fruit trees sit around decks' edges. Sometimes a television is on with viewers lying on the floor in front of it.

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Little boys wrestle, young women gut fish, grandmothers mind babies and hammocks sway in the shade. Children's shorts do not match their shirts and no one cares. Everyone stops what they're doing as we float by. They stare back, smile and wave, some timidly, some excitedly, and some scamper over the floating obstacle course to follow us for as long as they can.

I can't tell what is really touching me about this river ride, but there is something. Maybe it's the people, so calm, gentle and friendly, on the ship and off. Or maybe it's seeing how intricate a role the rivers play in supporting every aspect of life. Whatever it is, viewing life in the delta from the water gives the spectator a comforting feeling of immersion.

Back at the Jayavarman, I relax on my cabin's balcony and review the next days' agenda. Tomorrow we will dock at Phnom Phnom and a guest speaker will come aboard to describe her family's escape from Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime when she was 12 years old. Then we'll venture through the city on cyclos — single-person, covered, three-wheeled carriages powered from behind by hired cyclers — to tour museums and the expansive local market. I wonder how the produce of this major port city's market will compare to Siem Reap's. I wonder what to picture once we cross into Vietnam the following day and motor through the floating market, where each cabin boat is a home and store in one. I wonder how long the Mekong and its tributaries will support the delta community that depends so much upon it. I wonder what they are thinking as they watch us pass by.

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How to: Heritage Line's Jayavarman

To get your own look at life in the Mekong Delta, I recommend a voyage on the luxury boutique cruise ship, Jayavarman, who hosted me (opinions my own). Overcoming its challenging beginnings, Heritage Line continues to develop its programme. Visits through port villages, Phnom Penh, ancient Wats, and various hamlets that support themselves through their local craftsmen and women's handiwork, as well as presentations on board, give Jayavarman passengers an in-depth look at this unique culture, past and present. Pro bono, community-based projects are also under works, allowing guests to look behind those scenes and even participate, providing an even deeper experience.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2012

This article was published at © 2012

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