Holiday reads are surplus to requirement on a river cruise in Southeast Asia; the Mekong has its own stories to tell.
Southeast Asia is one of those destinations which is everything you expect it to be and more. The rice paddies are as bright a shade of green as they look in the photos, stacked like steps on the river banks. Red-robed monks really do stand silent on the centuries-old stones of Angkor Wat, as though placed there on purpose to set the scene. The cattle really do wade neck-high through the rivers and the fishermen really do tiptoe to the very edge of their boats to fish under sunrise skies, all conical hats and balancing acts. There really are that many scooters in Hanoi and the street food really is that good in Ho Chi Minh City.
A journey into Vietnam and Cambodia, by means of the mighty Mekong, thrusts you into a world a million miles away from the one you are used to. This isn’t a relaxing break in the Asian sun, but a high-octane, life-affirming adventure, cramming in countless memories along the way. Here are some of them…
WATCH THE SUN RISE OVER ANGKOR WAT
Mekong cruise and stay itineraries from operators like APT and Viking River Cruises often incorporate a pre or post-cruise stay in Siem Reap, for at least two or three nights. Exercise a little determination when it comes to resisting the snooze button and you’ll yourself euphoric at the foot of the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat. Birds sing their morning song, the skies are as orange as fire and the crowds are nowhere in sight as the sun rises over this temple city, the skyline painted with shadowy stupas.
Angkor is twice the size of some major UK cities and you could quite easily spend an entire day or more exploring its hundreds of temples. Plans are being put in place for electric cars to transport visitors around the one-time capital city of the Khmer Empire, but in the meantime this is done by means of a tuk-tuk, your guide proving invaluable in sharing the stories behind the ruins. A short ride from Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, or ‘The Great City’, where more of the best temples are clustered. The Bayon (the one with the giant faces), the Royal Enclosure, Baphuon and the Terrace of Elephants are some of the most notable monuments.
UNLEASH YOUR INNER INDIANA JONES
After its discovery by French architects in the 19th century, Ta Prohm was left largely in the same state as it had been found; swallowed by the surrounding jungle and choked by its trees. This silent declaration of nature taking back its territory makes the ‘Kingdom of Trees’ one of the most atmospheric and unmissable temples of all those at Angkor, its courtyards and corridors enabling an opportunity to live out your long-held action hero fantasies. With scenes from blockbusters Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom filmed here, Ta Prohm has become something of a movie legend in itself.
DELVE DEEP INTO THE CU CHI TUNNELS
Squeeze your shoulders into the Cu Chi Tunnels and you’ll find yourself transported back to a time when Vietnam’s guerrilla army, the Viet Cong, were waging a war from 30ft below ground. It took twenty years to dig this elaborate tunnel system with nothing but hoes and bare hands, its muddy maze spanning more than 120 miles, including a section which ran mischievously beneath the American Army Base. The tunnels allowed Viet Cong to avoid aerial attacks, house troops and mount surprise attacks on the opposition, retreating to their underground warren once the damage was done.
The Cu Chi Tunnels have become not just a war memorial, but rather a tribute to human will and ingenuity in the face of great adversity.
SAMPLE PHENOMENAL PHO
There isn’t much to pho, just clear stock, beef, rice noodles and herbs or onions, but eating steaming hot bowls of it is something of a rite of passage for all who visit Vietnam. Locals eat it from dusk until dawn, squatting on plastic footstools outside two-table restaurants run by the same family for years. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the restaurant chains springing up around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, turning pho into the Vietnamese version of a fast food phenomenon.
There’s a North-South divide when it comes to the herbs and spices traditionally used to flavour the aromatic noodle soup, but at well under £1.50 a bowl you can afford to sample it in both if your itinerary incorporates a stay in Vietnam’s energetic capital.
PAY YOUR RESPECTS AT THE KILLING FIELDS
A visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek is painful but unmissable. The war memorial for those executed by the Khmer Rouge regime doesn’t pull any punches but teaches us important lessons about a history which played out less than 40 years ago.
The Tuol Sleng Museum was once Security Prison 21 (S-21), Pol Pot’s most notorious detention centre. Over 14,000 people entered the interrogation complex and only seven survived. Some of those returned to the centre as guides, stunning guests into silence with their recollections. The austere interrogation rooms and blank-faced portraits of thousands of Cambodians are haunting to say the least.
The silence becomes deafening as you continue on to Choeung Ek, where prisoners of S-21 were eventually executed on what came to be known as the Killing Fields.
GIVE SOMETHING BACK
In a world of iPads and smart phones, the humble colouring book and crayons have been somewhat forgotten. There’s an app for that, or so the saying goes. In Cambodia however, where education remains beyond the reach of many, something so simple as a pen and paper is a gift from the gods.
Voluntourism is fast-becoming the travel industry buzzword, with the principle being to give something back to the local communities you visit. River cruise companies such as AmaWaterways and Viking River Cruises sponsor local English schools in Vietnam and Cambodia, and a visit is often part of your Mekong itinerary, so feel free to leave space in your case for coloured crayons.
BE BLESSED BY BUDDHISTS
The sense of calm at the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre is almost tangible. Saffron-robed monks shuffle along the marble floors in perfect unison, their rhythmic chants resonating harmoniously throughout the halls of Cambodia’s largest Buddhist monastery.
Kneeling on woven mats on the temple floor, monks showering you with jasmine blossoms to consecrate the blessing, is a spiritual experience not forgotten in a hurry. We’d like to bet that the red wool amulet slipped around your wrist will likely stay there long after you return home.