Our cruise on board Heritage Lines’, the Jahan, can be described as a comfortable old world boutique floating hotel. It is simple, with a touch of luxury. We spend a week sailing the mighty Mekong River from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Siem Reap.
Embarking on a Mekong River cruise allows you to ease off on the accelerator. You will soon discover that the journey is as rewarding as the destination. This is leisurely travel. You dedicate time to getting to Siem Reap by swapping the fast paced plane travel for the slow boat up the river. you will soon enough be there, but here you enjoy the slower pace of life and it makes the journey the star rather than the destination.
The Mekong makes its way from its origin in Tibet, flowing through China, along the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand and into Cambodia before splaying out in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. This is a powerful river, with a strong current and a significant volume of river traffic. It is referred to as the Mother of Rivers in Thailand and Laos, a fitting name for a river so vast providing a sole purpose of survival for the millions of people who rely on her.
Our floating hotel is comfortable, with tasteful décor, a large dining room and a spacious covered upper deck with a full bar and small pool in which to cool off. Our suites are roomy and all suites afford access to private verandahs, which is a nice way to watch river life from the privacy of your suite. The common areas are more akin to a Raj’s palace, which comprises of a relaxing air conditioned library and sitting area, the perfect place to sit back, read a book or watch Mekong River happenings, away from the stifling humidity.
But our river cruise is much more than salubrious accommodation and fine dining. It is about experiencing and discovering cultures centuries old, learning about river life in today’s Indo-China and engaging with locals. More so, it provides an opportunity to talk to fellow travellers, reliving a day’s sightseeing with a cold beer or a cocktail or a gin and tonic and afternoon canapes.
The first thing that you will come to understand on a Mekong River cruise is that you will see a lot of temples. Each temple has a story to tell. At every port, disembarking directly onto a riverbank then climbing stone staircases to temples, built centuries ago by locals, you are humbled by the simple life lead by the monks and locals alike.
And because this is the Mekong River, you will experience rustic local markets, floating villages and floating fish farms. This way of life is something to behold, giving an insight into how the population along this mighty river survive. And being on a river cruise, it also offers one the buffer of getting away from the close or dirty.
Our river cruise had permanent tour leaders who were equal parts storytellers, teachers and a conduit to the wider community that we were engaging with. Our Cambodian guide, for example, openly recounts childhood memories of running away from Khmer Rouge soldiers, his father’s survival against the Pol Pot regime and the demise of his family. Despite these terrible backstories, our guide’s enthusiasm and pragmatic outlook on life is overwhelming. Our interactions with him share a common purpose, humanity.
While we’re docked in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, teenagers from a local orphanage come aboard to demonstrate traditional dances. Our Raj inspired lounge turns into a stage and becomes a classroom. And we are treated to a Buddhist blessing.
Morning tai chi sessions on the ship’s open-air deck provides a perfect way to start the day in the quiet morning. We preferred to watch and enjoy the ca phe su da listening to the rhythmic sound of the river lapping on the boat’s hull and watching the sun rise to light up the surrounding countryside and stilted huts. We watch the fisherman go about their daily ritual, eking out a living, or maybe just providing for their family. Then, the sound of outboard motors breaks the peaceful quietude. Seemingly out of nowhere, locals start to go about their daily business and we retreat to our dining room for breakfast.
As we sailed to Siem Reap, towards the iconic temples of the Angkor complex, we knew we would remember not just the bookends of Saigon and Siem Reap, but all the places we saw in between. In fact, it’s the local experiences that won us over on this cruise. Had we not taken this cruise, we would not have met a Khmer Rouge survivor in Phnom Penh who volunteers at SS21, or listened to first hand experiences from our ship’s guide. Nor would we have received a blessing from the Buddhist monks, a sweet and sobering experience nor have listened to village elders in Kampong Chhang speak about their life on the river. More importantly, we would not have engaged with a population who were genuinely thrilled to have us visit their country.
Such travel experiences soon make you realise how privileged we are to be able to travel, to experience lands afar, engage with people producing handicrafts at a market or managing fish farms along the river. Such encounters provide you with a perspective and teach you how fortunate we are and the opportunities we are given.