Discovering Asia – the Mekong
Story and photos by Andrew J Wood – a Director of Worldwide Destinations Asia Co Ltd. based in Bangkok and Immediate Past President of Skal International Thailand.
Living in Asia for any length of time you will hear reference to the Mekong River. It truly is one of the great rivers of the world, stretching 2703 miles (4352 km) from Tibet to the South China Sea. The meandering Mekong links Indochina’s rich cultures as it flows through six nations China; Myanmar (Burma); Laos; Thailand; Cambodia and Vietnam.
During my two decades here in Asia, I have never had time to really explore the Mekong and when I was given the opportunity recently, I jumped at the chance. Travelling as a group of six friends (including three hotel GM’s) we decided to undertake our voyage on a river boat, with Pandaw River Expeditions.
Billed as an exploration, our journey proved to be a voyage of discovery, travelling through some of the remotest parts of Asia. I’ve always loved river trips, you get a true sense of what life for the local population is really like. Not sugar-coated, but warts-and-all. I was a permanent resident on the boats’ observation decks, eyes glued to the passing kaleidoscope of river life, soaking it all in, camera in hand. Utterly loved it. A cornucopia of new images, sights and sounds. Relaxing and stress free. A truly great way to travel. Of course it’s a snap-shot, you are a peeping tom, stealing a look as you float-on-by.
Sometimes with a gorgeous sunset and a cocktail in hand.
I like to think we are taking nothing away from the local population, but instead providing alternative revenue streams for communities that live quite literally on what the river provides.
My journey starts in Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor Wat and its great monuments. We then traveled south to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. From there we crossed the border into Vietnam heading towards our final destination, the French colonial port of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
Our 8-day Pandaw downstream itinerary included fascinating excursions.
Day 1: Siem Reap / Kampong Cham
We transferred by coach from the busy colonial styled Victoria Angkor Hotel to Kampong Cham.
Day 2: Kampong Cham Area
We visited the hilltop temple of Wat Hanchey in the morning. Then later in the afternoon, we travelled by bus to visit the Twin Holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey (Man and Woman Hill) and the ecotourism village of Choeungkok supported by the French-Cambodian NGO Amica.
Day 3: Tonle River / Kampong Chhnang
We take a buffalo cart ride to Kampong Tralach Pagoda (dating back to early last century). Followed after lunch by an excursion up the Tonle River to Kampong Chhnang. Beyond Kampong Chhnang we travelled by local boat to explore around the floating villages on the edge of Tonle Lake.
Day 4: Phnom Penh
The day started with a fun morning in our own private cyclo (a kind of single seater bicycle rickshaw). The centre that sources the cyclos is a charity that provides basic welfare and medical services to cyclo drivers. We spent the morning exploring the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda (with a floor comprising of 5 tons of silver) and the National Museum. In the afternoon, an optional excursion (by coach) to the Killing Fields.
Day 5: Cruising the Mekong / Border Crossing
We spent the day cruising in the main Mekong channel, an international shipping route heading for the Vietnamese border.
Day 6: Chau Doc
Today a visit to a Cham tribal village, and a cat fish farm. Later we pass through the Chau Doc canal.
Day 7: Sa Dec / Cai Be
In the morning we took a local boat excursion to Sa Dec via Vinh Long along canals and backwaters. Visiting Sa Dec and the local market and the ancient house (1875) of Mr. Huyn Thuy Le, the subject of ‘The Lover’ of Marguerite Duras’s novel and film. Afterwards we visited a brick factory. In the afternoon at Cai Be, we cruised through the floating markets on the way to a village producing local rice wine, coconut candy, pop rice and rice paper. At the end of the day we toured the catholic church before returning to the Mekong Pandaw.
Day 8: My Tho / Saigon
Early morning sail from Cai Be for My Tho, where our river journey ended and we disembarked for a coach transfer to Saigon.
The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and the seventh longest in Asia. Estimated to drain an area of 795,000 km², which is more than the size of France (640,000 km²). In English the river is called “the Mekong River”, derived from “Mae Nam Khong”, a term of both Thai and Lao origin. In Thai all great rivers are considered mother rivers signaled by the prefix mae, meaning mother, and nam for water. In the Mekong’s case, Mae Nam Khong means “Khong, The Mother of Water”. Many Northern Thai and Lao locals refer to it as the “River Khong”.