Photos by Le Suisse & Vincent Sung / Text by Catherine Vanesse
‘From Angkor to Saigon along the Mekong River’
From the Khmer temples of Angkor to the ancient capital of French Indochina, the Mekong winds its way over a little more than 450 kilometers. A mythical river to be discovered along the water, to take the time of a trip in slow motion.
From its source on the plains of Tibet to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the Mekong flows over nearly 4,500 km, irrigating China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The name originally given by the Taï tribes, distributed throughout the whole basin, Mae Nam Khong, means “Mother of all Rivers”. Thus, what’s more enchanting than embarking on a boat to cruise a few hundred kilometers on the Mekong at the rhythm of water flowing, on one of the longest rivers in the world, while enjoying stops in small villages in Cambodia and Vietnam, to discover the local culture?
The sky is adorned with orange colors. It is almost 6pm when I/we embark in Koh Chen aboard the Toum Tiou 1, a ship with colonial charm managed by the river company ‘Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong by CroisiEurope’. Va La, the ship’s manager, a Cambodian man with a keen sense of Khmer, French and English languages, welcomes all passengers: French, Swiss, Belgian, Swedish and British. The average size of the group invites you to talk and get to know each other’s on the upper deck during the first evening. After a brief presentation of the crew and the program, we are shown to our quarters in one of the ten wooden cabins, admittedly a bit simple and cramped, but pleasant. The cruise can start for an adventure of eight days and seven nights, from Cambodia to Vietnam for a total distance of 450 km at an average speed of 15 km/h.
At dawn on the first day, the ship sailed to Kampong Chhnang, a town on the outskirts of Tonlé Sap, whose name means “village of potters”. We disembark to the mainland and after crossing a local market, we arrive in a village, where the whole activity during dry season, is related to pottery. It is under our astonished glances that a Khmer lady gives us a demonstration of their local techniques. Here no pottery wheels are used; she places her piece of clay on a support and begins to turn around in order to make a jar, which will be bought by a wholesaler at 0.75 dollar. At the end of the day, this peasant woman produced ten copies, all almost identical. A low price, but an important income supplement for some families. Exhibited on a table; candle holders and other small clay pots, touristic visits to the village allow them to sell some of their production at a fair price. A little further on, a caramel smell emanates from a pot, palm sugar production is another important activity of the region, with rice cultivation and fishing.
The Tonle Sap sets the tone
Nearly 200 species of fish are listed in the Tonle Sap. It is the largest freshwater lake and river in Southeast Asia and is a site of major ecological and economic importance, recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1997. Another peculiar feature of the Tonlé Sap: the direction of the river gets reversed following the seasons. Depending on the season, it flows from the lake to the Mekong (north-westerly to southeast in the dry season from November to May) or from the Mekong, then flooded, towards the lake (south-east to northwest melt of Himalayan snows and monsoon rains, from May to November), a rare phenomenon, unique in the world.
We return aboard the Toum Tiou 1 to discover the life of the inhabitants of the lake. In the floating village of Kampong Chhnang, about 1,500 families live, and between wooden houses, school and stalls, the floating village population moves on small boats.
The boat continues its navigation before dropping anchor a few kilometers from Kampong Tralach, which we’ll discover the next morning.
To get to Kampong Tralach Pagoda, we are ‘loaded’ by pairs on ox carts and navigate through the rice fields and lotus ponds. The sound of the hooves on the red-colored roads, made of Cambodian soil, plunge us in another dreamlike state, back into the past. This is certainly what strikes most when you embark on a cruise like this one, Time seems to stop. We lose our bearings on the date, the time in which we live. Finally, we take the time to disconnect from our hurried life (the boat offers free WIFI, but the connection is so slow that most tourists abandon the idea of checking their emails or their Facebook page!), to observe the landscapes that pass slowly, to sit on one of the deckchairs with a book, play a game of cards with fellow travelers or take an aperitif. A relaxing break, in a world where everything goes very fast, too fast …
Besides, we are already arriving in Phnom Penh in the afternoon of the third day. Two options are available to choose from: free time or discovery of the city. If a few courageous people take the option of hustle and bustle through the capital by bicycle, others opt for a two-hours tuk-tuk city tour, before we all explore the local nightlife by walk. A first approach that will be deepened after a good night’s sleep, as a heavy schedule looms over the next day with visits of the main attractions that Phnom Penh has to offer: Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, National Museum, Wat Phnom, Russian Market and Tuol Sleng under the name S-21.
Now converted into a museum, S-21 was until the mid-seventies a high school called Tuol Svay Prey. From 1975 to 1979, at least 12,380 adults and children were tortured and executed. To end the day on a more joyful note, we witness an Apsara dance demonstration on the deck of the boat, for our last night in Cambodia. It is also in Phnom Penh that Chung Bao Quan joins our team, he will be our French Vietnamese guide until our final destination: Saigon. The discretion offered by navigating on slow water leaves Chung Bao Quan free to express himself, as he shares a wealth of information on Vietnam’s culture and politics.
Crossing a border by river makes it possible to find oneself directly immersed in the heart of the local life without going through the administrative formalities. In a few kilometers, small fishing boats change their style. Here many women wear the conical hat “nón lá”, emblem of Vietnam lifestyle.
Located north of the Mekong Delta, Chau Doc is our first port of call. On the banks, there are many fish farms that we visit aboard a small boat. The smell is strong, almost sickening in the heat of the beginning of March. We continue to a village on the mainland. The houses on stilts and bamboo bridges give an idea of the level that the Mekong can reach in the rainy season. On one of these dwellings, black lines and a date indicate the level of the floods years after years, a level that tends to rapidly decrease as a result of the construction of the various dams upstream of the Mekong, affecting at the same time the local economy.
In this village, we meet with one of the fifty-four ethnic groups that make up the country; the Cham community, a people of Hindu origin converted to Islam and whose family system is matriarchal. In the Chams traditions, children bear the name of their mother, so it is not a Patronym, but a Matronym, and it is the girls who inherit and not the boys. Chams are considered to be marginalized by Muslims in the Middle East, in the sense that they practice Islam religion without all the obligations related to the majority channel. In addition to believing in Allah, they also worship the local Hindu and Buddhist gods …
At the end of the afternoon, we arrive at Chau Doc, an opportunity to discover the effervescence of this city of more than 160,000 inhabitants. It’s sunset and evening markets are setting up wares, Vietnamese cyclos loaded with passengers or goods, are traveling tirelessly throughout the streets. The tour of the city is quick, maybe a little too fast, we would have liked to take the time to sit down, to taste a Phở (noodle soup with beef) and a beer while watching the bustle of the city, even if the quality of the cooking on board, with its Khmer chef, will have us spoiled throughout the entire cruise, with his traditional dishes adapted to the tastes of the Westerners.
In the footsteps of Marguerite Duras
On the fifth day, we arrive at Sa’dec. It is in this city that Marguerite Duras met Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese family who inspired her book The Lover, Goncourt Prize of novel in 1984. Walking through the streets of Sa Đéc, we pass in front of a school founded by Marguerite’s mother, where schoolchildren greet us happily from their playground. A little further on, we are invited to enter the house of the Lover’s family. Built in 1895, the mansion was classified in 2010 as a “national historic site” by the Vietnamese authorities. It is open to the public since 2007. French or English speaking guides accompany visitors while explaining the story of the house tumultuous past. On offer, a more original experience is suggested by renting one of the two bedrooms in the house for $50/night including breakfast and viewing of the movie L’Amant (The Lover) in its uncensored version. “In Vietnam, the feature film is indeed broadcast in a version where the erotic scenes have been cut, which obviously did not prevent most Vietnamese to discover the film in its entirety thanks to the copies that have always circulated on the black market” explains our guide. After dinner on the boat, we too are entitled to an uncensored screening of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s blockbuster…
On the sixth day, the cruise is nearing its end, with a visit to a pottery, a fruit tree plantation in Vinh Long and the floating market of Cai Be, before ending the day overlooking sunset with the passage of the Cho Gao Canal. Nearly four thousand ships pass daily through this strategic channel of the Mekong Delta, twenty-eight kilometers long and hundred meters wide. Two hours crossing to the peaceful rhythm of navigation, which make it possible to realize the importance of the river traffic in the region. For our last evening, the crew members planned a special dinner menu as well as a Khmer traditional dance show followed by a dance party.
For us, the sun rises one last time on the Mekong and Saigon looms in the distance. Lying on the deckchairs, Marguerite Duras’ words echo to our ears and summarize our journey: “I look at the river. My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life will I see rivers as beautiful as these, as large, so wild, the Mekong and her arms going down to the oceans, those territories that are going to disappear in the cavities of the Oceans. “
We arrive at the port of Saigon, it is time to take back our suitcases and to embark on the frenetic and bustling traffic of two wheels in the biggest city of Vietnam.
Words by Catherine Vanesse
Photos by Vincent Sung and Le Suisse
Produced by Fluxus Agency
Kindly supported by Compagnie Fluviale du Mékong