After two relaxing nights at the Sofitel, at Siem Reap, we looked forward to our seven day cruise on the Mekong River onboard RV Amadara. Our journey would see us travel from north-west Cambodia to south-east Vietnam, at a forty-five degree angle across Indochina.
During the rainy season, passengers boarding RV Amadara at Siem Reap enjoy a leisurely twenty-minute bus ride to Tonle Sap Lake before enjoying the perks of their vessel. We, however, were not boarding RV Amadara in the rainy season! Instead, we faced a six to seven hour bus ride – along a mixture of one lane highways, corrugated dirt roads and tracks which may have been fit for a herd of Cambodian jungle goats – to a boarding point further downstream where the depth of the river could comfortably accommodate our boat.
It was about twenty-five minutes into our extended road trip when I knew I was in trouble.
I don’t wish to be too crude, here, in the description of my predicament. Let’s just say that I was faced with the universal biological function whereby water is eliminated from the human body and my need to eliminate said water became more acute with the passing of time.
And only with the passing of a significant amount of damned time would a significant amount of dammed water be allowed, finally, to pass!
Our Cambodian guide explained that the locals referred to rest breaks as ‘happy stops’. There would be just two such stops on our long journey and the first was some 2.5 hours away! So, until then, I was subjected to bus-bound purgatory, without relief.
So, I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and tried to think about something else. Anything but the Mekong River, or the Tonle Sap Lake…or waterfalls…or irritation systems…or dripping taps.
The violent shuddering of the bus over corrugations in the road did not help. Nor did the sight of several trucks spraying water onto dirt roads to settle the dust storm caused by the passing traffic. The offers of a water bottle to increase my fluid levels were akin to a cruel joke, which I swiftly rejected with an impatient wave of my hand.
Time passed slowly, like water seeping from a busted garden hose. I added that image to the list of things I really needed to stop thinking about. Together with water pistols and high pressure cleaners and washing machines.
I tried turning my attention to the scenery. It was typically Indochinese. There were open green fields, mango trees, occasional villages with houses on stilts to avoid the floods. Damn! ‘Floods’; another thing to add to the list of things not to think about.
As the time for our first ‘happy stop’ limped closer, I began to fret. Was the 2.5 hour estimated travel time accurate? It seemed remarkably precise. Were we running behind time? The bus was delayed at several road works.
Suddenly, as though by miracle, the bus began to slow and turn off the road, before coming to rest at a market area. Was this it? Were we really there? Oh! Blessed relief!
“HeyIgottagotodamen’s“, I calmly said to Huckleberry B the moment the bus doors opened, clearly communicating my plight.
With that, I was out of the bus, darting across no man’s land and into the lavatory. Aaaaaahhhhh.
Stuck on a Tender
MV Amadara is a very nice riverboat. Only five months old, it is more spacious than the narrow vessels we have experienced in Europe. Perhaps the bigger river permitted a boat of broader width? But I am only guessing.
Whilst our itinerary looked engaging, I spent a lot of time on a Tender.
Unfortunately, I am not talking about a tender vessel which takes tourists from a mooring point to shore. Rather, the Tender I spent much time on, in our comfortable stateroom, was a Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by one of my firm’s major clients.
To her credit, my understanding beloved allowed me to spend as much time as I needed and never once grizzled when I declared I had to stay onboard whilst she went on the organised tours. She understands the meaning of ‘bread and butter’.
I was fortunate to have a good WIFI connection for most of the journey. What I was even more grateful for was that the WIFI was complimentary, even in our suite.
Whilst I was able to venture out several times, my week onboard RV Amadara was typified by preparing drafts of our Tender response – iteration upon iteration – punctuated by leisurely lunches and dazzling dinners. It was actually quite a nice way to spend the week! Each period of creative thinking rewarded by bountiful food and alcohol; my business mind continuing to work sub-consciously whilst my holiday brain enjoyed the dining room banter.
Occasionally, whilst tapping away on my laptop – which I unhappily lugged from Sydney – I would hear a noisy motor outside my window. I am somewhat embarrassed to report that on more than a dozen occasions over the week, I forgot where I was and thought our neighbour back home had started mowing his lawn, and actually proceeded to make a mental note-to-self that I had better get my lawn mower out too, later in the afternoon. Then I would remember where I was and recognise that the motor I heard was, in fact, attached to a wooden longboat, hauling bags of rice or farm equipment to the next village down the Mekong River.
Then I would rise from my seat and stand by the window, drinking in the view. On the far side of the river I would see a row of dwellings rising upon stilts on the steep banks. I would hear children yelling out to us and waving. Others would be playing chasings with their friends. Meanwhile, the river would be busy with activity. In addition to the lawn-mower-motor powered longboats, I would see fisherman balancing on their shallow canoes, throwing nets into the water. Another river boat might pass by, heading upstream towards Tonle Sap Lake.
Then I would return to my laptop with renewed vigour and a new idea.
Not a bad way to spend the week at all!
The Photogenic Monks, the Boy with a Sandal and the Oxen of Oudong
On the first morning of our river cruise, Huckleberry B enjoyed a visit to the Lakeside Wetlands on a motorboat. She did so, solo, whilst I continued working on the Tender.
The next day, we ventured out together to visit the Oudong Monastery. This was one of the highlights of our time in Cambodia.
Oudong is the former capital of Cambodia and lies just 35 kilometres north of the current capital Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, much of Oudong was destroyed by Khmer Rouge air strikes in the 1970’s. The largest Monastery in Udong, Vipassana Dhura, is a reasonably new structure and this was the focus of our morning tour.
We arrived at the Monastery after a short bus ride and were ushered efficiently to the main temple. A tall building with long white columns holding up an ornate golden roof, the main building is quite impressive. We had to climb several flights of stairs to get to the main hall. Once there, we enjoyed expansive views of the Cambodian countryside.
After removing our footwear – a subject to which I will return shortly – we entered the hall and were invited to sit, cross-legged, before three Buddhist Monks. The Monks proceeded to bless us through the medium of a 15 minute chant. It was quite an uplifting experience, rendered all the more enjoyable when the Monks invited us to pose for photographs behind them. I was fortunate to snap a shot of the Monks alone with Huckleberry B.
After leaving the Monastery, however, I did something stupid. As I was strapping on my right sandal, a little boy broke away from the group of local children who were hovering around and moved in swiftly to assist me with my left one. He was too fast for me and the job was done before I could decline his offer of assistance. Services having been rendered, albeit not upon my request, I felt compelled to give him some money. I had a dollar in my pocket which I decided was more valuable to him than to me.
When our guide found out, she was cranky. With me, not the boy. Whilst acknowledging that it is easy to feel sorry for the children because they are poor, the guide explained that if the children know they can come to the Monastery and tourists will give them money, then they will hang around the Monastery rather than go to school.
Damn! Did I feel dumb!
As we left the Oudong Monastery, I pondered how much that dollar note would cost the boy who helped me with my left sandal.
Soon, however, we were back on the bus and on our way to our next experience; an ox-cart ride through the rural streets of Kampong Tralach. When we arrived, the white oxen and their drivers were waiting for us. Each couple was assigned a pair of oxen and an accompanying cart. Entering the conveyance was no easy task. First I sat on the rear of the cart and gradually slid backwards on the warm embroidered matting, before placing my arms on the railings. Then Huck B did the same until she was comfortable with her back against my chest, with her legs dangling over the rear edge of the cart.
Soon the ox-cart driver gave the command to his oxen and away we plodded. As instructed (more than once) I kept my hands away from the large wooden wheels as they slowly went round and round. We enjoyed the view as we bumped along the earth road.
After about twenty minutes the platoon of ox-carts gathered in a clearing and we were ushered, again efficiently, back onto the bus to return to RV Amadara, where lunch would be waiting.
The Tuk Tuks of Phnom Penh
That afternoon, I left our riverboat again and joined Huckleberry B on a Tuk Tuk adventure. Each Tuk Tuk featured a dude on a motorbike hauling a small carriage with four seats. I used the word ‘carriage’ in the last sentence, but realise that suggests a degree of majesty which is not warranted. Perhaps ‘small trailer with seats and a roof’ is a better description.
Seating arrangements were at random, so it was no surprise that we were joined by a couple we had not met before. To our delight, it transpired that they were Mexicans living in Sydney! We engaged in animated chatter as the streets of the Cambodian Capital flashed by.
A bunch of Western Tourists on a swarm of Tuk Tuks was quite a sight, as our drivers weaved through traffic and jumped ahead at every set of traffic lights. Our driver was a bit of a character. When we first arrived, he proudly wore a Chelsea FC cap, but when he heard we were from Sydney he reached into his bag and substituted a cap emblazoned with the Australian flag. Sometimes, as he drove, he would point out a local landmark and provide us with some running commentary. With the traffic noise combining with the sound of wind rushing by our ears, though, we never had any hope of hearing him.
Our Tuk Tuk journey took us to the centre of the city where we saw the President Hun Sen’s city dwelling and a monument to the former King Norodom Sihanouk. Then, as the sun set over the Mekong River, we zipped along the northern shore back to RV Amadara.
A Tourist’s Dilemma: To Tour or Not to Tour
Sometimes, when holidaying overseas you are faced with a difficult choice; should we indulge in macabre voyeurism or not.
On this trip there were two organised tours which made us face this conundrum. The less confronting dilemma (although still difficult) was posed after we crossed the border into Vietnam when we had an opportunity to visit to a local village on Evergreen Island.
I admit to having a fundamental problem with a tour which is based upon seeing how people far less fortunate than us live in poverty. We poke our noses around and then return to a temporary home onboard our river boat which is far more comfortable (and sanitary) than the permanent dwellings the villagers live in. Some fellow travellers even make ‘helpful’ observations about how the villagers could improve their living conditions, whilst totally ignoring the fact that the villagers are doing their best to merely produce sufficient food to sustain life.
When discussing whether to visit the village of not, Huckleberry B reminded me that she grew up in government housing in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. When she waited for her bus outside her school, she would wave at busloads of Western tourists travelling north from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, through her hometown, just as young Indochinese girls have been waving to us throughout this trip. Huck B is confident that her young, smiling, moon-face appears in dozens of photo albums around the world.
Then Huckleberry B raised her right arm and showed me a stigmata on the back of her hand.
“You see this?” she said, “Between my diamond ring and my diamond bracelet, there’s this black mark. Do you remember how I got that? From the chickens in our coup pecking me whenever I took their eggs. For a couple of years, I used to collect left over food from the garbage bins in the wet market near our home. The inedible stuff was fed to the chickens and we ate the rest. I started working, with my siblings, when I was 6 years old, selling lottery tickets at the train station. I never forget where I came from. Been there, done that.”
Huckleberry B and I also recognised, however, that our visit to Evergreen Island was a source of income for the villagers, so there was a benefit to them. We ultimately decided to go on the tour and I am comfortable with our decision.
Throughout the walking tour, children would smile at us and wave and say ‘hello’. I thought of my wife, as a young girl, standing outside her school, waving at the buses that stopped so that the tourists could see how the locals lived.
The inhabitants of the Evergreen Island village seemed happy enough, though I remained uncomfortable when I compared the living conditions in their stilted houses with those onboard RV Amadara. Towards the end of the walk, the children were grouped together and they sang us a welcome song in Vietnamese. The wealthy Westerns, of whom we were two, responded with a rendition of “ABC”: not the Jackson 5 hit (that would have been ridiculous) but the children’s song which goes through the alphabet and ends with “now I know my ABC, won’t you come singalong with me“.
The Killing Fields
The far more difficult decision we were called upon to make, earlier in our voyage, whilst still in Cambodia, was whether to visit Pol Pot’s Tuel Sleng; otherwise known as the S21 Detention Centre or ‘The Killing Fields’.
I am happy to admit that part of me wanted to go. Just like I was tempted to accept an offer to visit the Treblinka Concentration Camp on our day trip from Prague to Dresden to Zagan and back to Prague in 2010. That said, the part of me which did not want to visit S21 acquired a louder voice when I heard that we would walk – not just on mass graves – but on bones and other physical remains.
Just as there was oscillation in my own mind, on the eve of the tour, whether to visit the Killing Fields or not, there were debates around the dinner tables onboard RV Amadara that night. Two schools of thought existed. Those who argued that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it and those who argued that they already knew enough about the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, without having to see the remaining evidence first-hand.
I was already leaning towards not visiting S21 when Huck B delivered two telling blows (at least for us). Firstly, the date or our proposed visit, 24 December – in addition to being Christmas Eve – fell during the Winter Festival in the Chinese calendar. Stepping on somebody’s bones during this period may bring bad luck. Secondly, Huckleberry B grew up in Malaysia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She and her family saw the Cultural Revolution in China, followed by the American War in Vietnam, followed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and lived in genuine fear that the ‘domino effect’, so heavily propagated by the USA, would soon reach her country. For B, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields were very close to home when she was a teenage girl. There was no need to relive it in order to remember it.
Those who did go to S21 came back ashen faced and sombre. The lunch time conversation was unusually subdued. We heard stories about the museum which depicted remarkably vivid images of executions and human remains. Some visitors left the museum in a state of distress.
Whilst a quietly spoken voice still argues with me that I should have gone, I am confident I made the right decision.
What a Fine Bunch of People
Our Cruise Director – an amiable young Vietnamese man named Son – commences every announcement he makes by warmly greeting his ‘Ama-waterways family’.
What I thought, at the outset, to be a bit over the top ended up becoming quite endearing. I believe he really viewed us that way.
With his fluent American English, his ever-attentive attitude and his willingness to joke about most things, including himself, Son was one of the best Cruise Directors we have met. He was certainly one of the most popular! Particularly with the young female passengers onboard.
We were fortunate to have picked a cruise with many very engaging and interesting people. In no particular order, there was a Jewish couple from Boston, an American couple living in Sharjah, a Canadian couple and their son who lives in Hanoi, two couples from LA who are friends, an African-American man who was onboard because he was ‘in the industry’, a man from Atlanta travelling alone because his son had pulled out, two female friends holidaying together, an American woman living in Bali and a couple originally form Iran who now live in the States. There were also two Mexican clans, travelling separately. We were the only Australians onboard! Which is a first of us and a little surprising given Australia’s proximity to the region.
At every meal, we had a variety of interesting people from whom we could choose to dine. And I have to say that my wife was very popular amongst all of them as she glided from group to group, chatting away happily.
And speaking of meals, the food onboard RV Amadara was excellent, from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. What we both really appreciated was that there was a genuine attempt to match the food with the region. As I have said before, it is jarring when you spend a day, for example, in Shanghai, and you pick up your menu in the ship’s dining room that evening to find that it’s Italian night again! Every meal onboard RV Amadara featured a local option – including at the breakfast ‘Action Station’ where a different variety of noodles was available each morning – and the quality was very good.
The dinners, where joyous carousing amongst new friends abounded, were particularly memorable.
On the last night of our Mekong Delta adventure, a conversation developed about World War II. Our table began debating when Hitler could have stopped his expansionism and said ‘thanks folks, that’s enough’ and got away with it. Don’t ask me how we arrived at that subject, because I can’t remember. Dinner conversations – fuelled by plentiful food and an enchanted wine glass which replenishes itself with every mouthful – are living organisms with multiple, tangled legs.
What I do remember, however, is that the conversation quickly morphed into a very spirited exchange of views on current American foreign policy. At this point, I recognised I was out of my depth and retreated. The discussion which followed, however, was fascinating!
There they were – a west coast African-American from LA, a northern Jew from Boston and a southern gentleman from Atlanta – battling it out; trying to persuade the others to their point of view. They each knew their facts and they were each passionate about their position. Some concessions were made, but not many. If you are wondering how there can be three sides to a debate, the answer is easy: the two extremes and the middle ground.
I went to sleep that night excited by the debate I had witnessed and truly sad that I might never meet these fine people ever again. Or the other new friends we had met during the week. It’s both one of the joys and one of the curses of cruising.
By the way, whilst no agreement was reached during that debate on our final night onboard RV Amadara, there is one political point every American we met during our trip agreed upon; Donald Trump is a joke and the joke ceased being funny a long time ago. Not that any of them liked Hilary much either.
The spare room in our house remains available, on a short term basis, whilst permanent accommodation is sourced, should anybody wish to emigrate.