Mysteries of the Mekong
Melting snow on the Tibetan Plateau forms the source of the trans-boundary Mekong River that flows down via China’s YunNan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to Vietnam, out into the South China Sea. By Gillian McLaren.
Over 60million people depend on the mighty Mekong and its tributaries for food, water, transport and daily activities. It is a working river, plied by sea-going vessels, heavily laden barges, container vessels, as well as small fishing craft.
From the spacious cabin of the Aqua Mekong cruise ship, I gaze out of the floor to ceiling windows, as she sails sedately from Saigon to Siem Reap, along a route full of thriving cities, rural communities, floating villages such as Kompong Luong, floating markets and almost fluorescent green rice paddies, Chinese style pagodas and Buddhist temples.
An intimate cruise ship, the Aqua Mekong is ultra-luxurious and no detail is spared to ensure that passengers are cared for individually. Dotted around the ship are arrangements of lotus flowers, with their petals turned back. When I admire them, I return to my cabin after dining to discover that some of these iconic flowers have been placed in a pretty vase for me, on my side table.
When I rise early for a brisk walk around the top deck, or to exercise in the gym-with –a view, the barman on duty brings m freshly squeezed dragon fruit juice, which he knows is my favourite. After a shower in my neat bathroom – with its twin basins and generous jasmine-scented amenities – I laze in the ship’s library to read some of the novels set in Vietnam or Cambodia, or to peruse the diverse coffee table books on Vietnamese cuisine or décor, architecture or Mekong wildlife. Before I know it, a glass of Vietnamese coffee- made with ice and condensed milk – is placed by my side.
Breakfast is served in the dining room, which has several small tables and a splendid view. Guests sit where they please, either alone or by joining newly made friends. As with all the meals, both Asian and Western food is available, but I ask to be given only Vietnamese or Cambodian breakfasts, so I try all sorts of flavours and textures, each of which I think are delectable and far more interesting than most European fare. The food, styled by Consultant Chef David Thompson, is consistently excellent and we all eat with enthusiasm and eager chatting, especially after the shore excursions where we ride bicycles or walk to explore remote villages.
Aqua Mekong is the only Cruiser in the area that has its own fleet of private tenders, to transport guests to shore, to interact with the local people and learn about their trades. With a guide to guest ratio of 1/10, expeditions remain intimate. Each village specialises in a different craft, so by the end of the cruise, we have watched silver making, pottery, silk production and weaving, as well as rice farming. The people of the Mekong Delta rural communities that we visit do not see many foreigners, yet they are unfailingly warm, kind and very open. We are greeted with smiles and a chorus of cheery hellos, especially from the adorable children who are as intrigued by us as we are of them.
To my delight, we visit small local schools where the children willingly sing to us and then we sing to them! We meet village and temple elders, receive blessings from monks in wingtipped Pagodas and try exotic fruits like durian and rambutan, as well as watch musicians play traditional instruments and sing time-honoured ballads.
Our education about the Mekong River and culture of the countries we are sailing through continues onboard, where concise talks are given each evening in the lounge, as we sip cocktails and nibble on gourmet snacks. After dining, films like The Killing Fields, set in Cambodia and The Lover, set in 1920s Saigon are available in the ship’s movie theatre, which has decadent lazy-boy type chairs. Some passengers choose a pampering Asian massage in the on-board Spa, a swim in the infinity pool or find a quiet spot to enjoy the reflections of moon and Northern hemisphere stars in the Mekong.
Aqua Mekong is unashamedly opulent and could be called a floating five-star boutique hotel. After stimulating excursions in the balmy humidity and heat of Southeast Asia, the air-conditioned spaces are a pleasing haven. The ship sails on. Greenish-brown water of the timeless Mekong bears coconuts, water hyacinth and driftwood past my cabin, as a Brahminy Kite hovers above a fish.
Aqua Excursions Aqua Mekong
+27 11-064 1100