Newspaper article Sunshine Coast Daily (Maroochydore, Australia)

Marvellous Mekong; Mekong Provides a Cavalcade of Sensory Experiences, Writes David Potts

Newspaper article Sunshine Coast Daily (Maroochydore, Australia)

Marvellous Mekong; Mekong Provides a Cavalcade of Sensory Experiences, Writes David Potts

Article excerpt

GOOD TO KNOW

You can visit Vietnam and Cambodia any time of the year, although the peak season (the dry between November and April) is the preferred time. It's okay to visit in the wet season, between May and October. The advantage then is that the rivers and lakes are full, making it possible, usually, to get around the waterways.

Singapore Airlines has return flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Perth with economy fares starting at $789 and from east coast ports from $839.

For fares on the 10-day Mekong Unexplored Expedition with Pandaw Cruises, visit www.pandaw.com

STAYING THERE: Renaissance Riverside Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City has twin/double rooms starting at $140 a night twin-share. The Victoria Angkor Resort Hotel in Siem Reap has twin/double rooms starting at $152 a night, twin-share.

PLAYING THERE:

The Red Piano restaurant in Pub St, Siem Reap, has Asian and western food with main courses between $4 and $7 (Angelina Jolie's favourite Siem Reap restaurant).

PIP is a five-year-old Cambodian orphan. He and some of his orphanage mates have come aboard our Mekong River cruise ship to show us national Khmer dances.

His silky, chocolate-brown skin is hidden beneath a monkey costume as the troupe plays out a traditional dance.

Later Pip tells us of his other love, a cultural shift for him -- break dancing. And he eagerly gives us a sample.

Pip is just one of the 40% of Cambodians under the age of 16 years. These gentle, smiling people are trying to erase the hideous years between 1975 and 1979 under the ruthless Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge who slaughtered a quarter of the population.

River cruising is about seeing a country in slow motion. It's travel with your bed, dining and your gin and tonics laid on. It's about lying in a deckchair, thick book in hand. And opening a window on another world.

We're privileged to see Mekong river life from the comfort of our 32-passenger Angkor Pandaw with its spacious decks and wood-panelled cabins with brass fittings and rattan furniture. Our ship, a replica of ships which once worked on the Irrawaddy River in Burma (Myanmar), is informal, small and friendly. It is the rainy season which means the river is high and we can negotiate stretches which, in the dry, might be closed to us.

Our Vietnamese and Cambodian crew provide impeccable, smiling service. And knowledgeable, helpful guides are there to lead us. There's no TV and other western distractions: just the wonderful life of a river to explore. We watch spectacular golden red sunsets from the open deck, cocktail in hand.

There could be no bigger contrast between the five-star luxury of our 42-metre Pandaw cruise ship and the simple life and poverty we see as we cruise upriver from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia on a 10-day Mekong Unexplored "expedition".

The milky tea-coloured Mekong River is the longest river in south east Asia and the 12th longest in the world. Rising in south eastern Qinghai province, China, it flows through Tibet and China's Yunnan. About 60 million people live along its length of about 4350 km, from China to Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. Flowing through six countries, it is a source of water for washing, drinking and food and, of course, a highway for their produce.

Vessels carrying cargo, ranging from sandfill to market fruit and vegetables, sit low in the water heading downstream to markets. Clumps of water hyacinths float by. Children wave from villages of thatched houses among palm trees and mangroves.

It's a journey of patchwork green landscapes, bamboo and palm leaf villages, floating markets, floating villages, spice scents, French colonial buildings, bustling townships, fish farms, sampan homes and barges laden with produce for market, and temples and monasteries. …

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