Explore Southeast Asia on a Mekong River Cruise
By Steve Bergsman
When considering a cruise down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, one is tempted to think back to the patrol boat in the movie "Apocalypse Now." But let me offer a far different cinematic reference, the 1939 Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor romance, "Lady of the Tropics," which begins with a cruise ship landing in Saigon before Taylor's character, Bill Carey, joins the mixed-race beauty Manon, played by Lamarr, on board a riverboat steaming up the Mekong River to Angkor Wat, where Manon is pledged to be married to a local prince.
Early in the movie, Carey says to his fiancee, whom he will abandon for Manon, "Take a quick look before all this is ruined by the tourists." How prescient.
The set piece of the trip takes place on the riverboat deck, where Carey and Manon, in romantic languor, watch as the Asian jungle slips past. They sit close, and he says to her, "Angkor Wat is not the end of the world." Later Carey says, "I keep wondering how I got here." Then they kiss.
I thought of the movie when I booked a cruise on the Mekong River with Aqua Expeditions, which offered a small luxury boat that was supposed to set sail out of Siam Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia, and head to Phnom Penh. Due to high water, however, it had to sail from Phnom Penh and head to Kampong Cham, a distance of 70 miles, before turning around and heading back as the boat would eventually head to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
We boarded late in the afternoon. Guests gathered for an introduction and then entertainment by young Cambodian dancers. In Southeast Asia the dances are complex ballets that tell a specific story. The movements are intricate and exact, down to the position of the fingers. I woke early the next morning and opened the curtains to see a jagged crimson sky in the east, the reds and purples hanging over the jungle with billowy clouds forming above.
Like most cruises, even small river tours like this one, land activities are organized. I opted for a bike ride through a traditional village that was somewhat modernized with paved lanes through a good part of residential neighborhoods. I had to maneuver my bike through rivulets, mud, rocky ground and, near to the market, a tsunami of people -- all in tropical heat.
Eventually the road led to a temple, where three novice monks and a teacher instructed us in the ways of the Buddha and then chanted us a blessing. Afterward, all the Westerners were given woven bracelets that a monk tied on our wrists. Everyone else got a red bracelet tied to the left wrist, but the monk tied a yellow bracelet to my right wrist. In Buddhism yellow symbolizes "the middle way." Was he trying to tell me something?
The Mekong River is the 12th-largest river in the world. In begins in Himalayan China and runs through six countries before emptying into the South China Sea. It's a big, wide, muddy river -- a dark brown, fast-moving ribbon that cuts through profoundly verdant lands. I first floated the river near Luang Prabang, sailing to Buddhist caves and silk-making villages. Then, near Siam Reap, I boarded another boat to sail on a lake called Tonle Sap and visit floating villages.
My third flotation was for four nights. It was an easy trip as every morning began with meditation while a gaggle of dragonflies circled overhead, then breakfast before the skiff would take us landward to villages or temples. When we were lucky we were offered a bike ride, which was somewhat precarious because in Cambodia there are not many rules to the road. Yet despite the craziness there is no road rage and people on their scooters, cycles, trucks and tuk-tuks seem to find their way with no injury.