Sunday 18 September 2011

Journey of Discovery on the Mekong

For centuries the Mekong River of Southeast Asia has been a binding cultural and economic force. Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, retraces some of the steps of an ambitious 19th century expedition.

“Each meander of the river added to my map was an important geographical discovery. This constant preoccupation, from which nothing could distract me, amounted to an obsession. I was mad about the Mekong.” - Francis Garnier 1885

Their feet and legs bleeding from gaping wounds, they hauled the boats across the jagged rocks and through muddy leech-infested swamps. Their shoes long worn out and discarded, the men continued on undaunted as the weeks turned into months and the months into years.

The search for the source of the Mekong and the presumed river road to the riches of China, obsessed them to the point of madness. Against sickness, disease and hostile tribesmen the ill-prepared, but typically defiant French soldiered on for two years, leading them into China but tantalisingly short of their ultimate quest.

Once considered among the wildest rivers of the world, the 4350km long Mekong (or 'Mother of Water') is the twelfth longest river in the world and seventh longest in Asia. Its daunting rapids and narrow, raging gorges thwarted the French as much as the turbulent politics that festered along its banks. For the men of the 1866-68 Mekong Expedition, it would ultimately bring them undone and, albeit a century later, so too the French colonial administration.

Today we are reminded of the hundred years of French influence through the surviving ornate architecture, orderly civic planning, nostalgic cinema classics and a few anachronistic place names. But for the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian residents who served these harsh European masters, there is little fond sentiment. Now, after centuries of internal and cross-border argument, a relative calm has descended on the former protectorates that once comprised L'Indochine.

The great Mekong River, the life-giving watercourse that binds the people, their kingdoms and regimes, is now playing host to a new invasion; one not so much bent on conquest and subjugation, but discovery and simple enlightenment. Beginning (or ending as the case may be) in the sprawling delta that incorporates nine discrete rivers, a small fleet of luxury river vessels operate itineraries for inquisitive travellers eager to uncover for themselves the mystery and allure of this majestic Southeast Asian waterway.

My vessel, imperiously dubbed the Jayavarman after a succession of great Khmer kings, also sails under the less salubrious title of MV Mekong Explorer. Launched in 2009, the ship's owners claim design inspiration from the great French liner 'Normandie' yet inside it is bedecked in colonial flavoured décor right down to brass bedside clocks and bathroom plumbing. Our crew comprise a mixture of Vietnamese and Cambodian and for all but the most finicky, is beyond criticism. We dine in fine fashion in the "Indochine" single-sitting restaurant with dishes heavily influenced by local flavours and produce. Delicious and artistic salads feature prominently with a mix of plated and buffet servings. Fish, pork, chicken and rice in countless variations appear each day, but staunch western tastes are not overlooked either.

Much as Garnier and de Lagrée would have done a century and a half earlier, our shore excursions transport us by local sampan all around the delta, visiting local villages and sampling their peculiar wares and products. From sweet rice confection and cobra whiskey through to traditional brick-making and humble basket-weaving, we explore the range of grassroots industry that has been the hallmark of the Mekong Delta for centuries prior to the expansionist French incursion. Hectic delta port towns like Cai Be, Chau Doc and My Tho reveal the importance of the Mekong trade route as the entire region's produce is concentrated in these manic commerce centres.


The contrast across the border in Cambodia is immediate. The pace of life is immediately relaxed as if a throttle is released and we cruise serenely toward the capital, Phnom Penh. Hustling sampans laden with produce and bulging barges weighed down to an inch of freeboard are replaced by tiny fishing canoes occasionally expelling a gossamer-like net across the water and excited barefoot children waving cheerfully from shore. To imagine this peaceful country in the grip of Khmer Rouge terror is a difficult mental contortion and it's clear that the population just want to get on with their lives. Our stopover in Phnom Penh demonstrates the contrast of fading French civil engineering overshadowed by gaudy new high-rise construction.

In Phnom Penh, our day tours comprise the predictable, yet mandatory, visits to the killing fields, S21 and national museum, but I'm not up for repeat exposure to this, instead I call on an acquaintance from an earlier visit, Kem (Srah) Sereyvuth, who featured in the gritty 2002 thriller, 'City of Ghosts', starring Matt Dillon and James Caan. Clinging to the back of Srah's moped, we tour the backstreets, revisiting the movie locations that made this low-budget drama so memorable.

Just as the valiant Gallic enterprise was thwarted by the vagaries of the Mekong, so too are we halted in our progress. With insufficient water in the tributary, Tonle Sap, we disembark Jayavarman north of Phnom Penh and proceed cross country by coach to our final destination, Siem Reap. In the years immediately preceding the French Mekong Expedition, another Frenchman with more humanitarian ideals, Henri Mouhot, popularises the great Angkor Wat, long a symbol of the once mighty Khmer civilisation represented by our namesake vessel in photographs.

And just as the members of the
Commission d'exploration du Mékong gathered for the camera on the steps of the great Wat in 1866 in Mouhot's now famous photograph, we too glorify ourselves with snapshots amongst this sprawling regal structure. While the tempestuous 'Mother of Water' may have led the over-ambitious French to ultimate collapse, the modern, comparatively luxurious equivalent stands in contrast as a pathway to equally entrancing, albeit more modest discovery.


MV Jayavarman is a 58m deluxe riverboat offering a fusion of traditional eastern shipbuilding and avant-garde French colonial design.

There are 27 cabins including two Royal junior suites, 11 deluxe cabins and 14 superior cabins.

Eight-day cruises operate regularly throughout the year from Saigon to Siem Reap or vice-versa.

Bookings:Heritage Line


InterContinental Asiana Saigon (Tripadvisor 4.5)

Hotel de la Paix, Siem Reap (Tripadvisor 5.0)

Hansar Bangkok (Tripadvisor 5.0)

THAI flies 42 times a week from Australia to Bangkok with daily connections to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Phnom Penh.  Experience THAI’s legendary hospitality with complimentary meals and entertainment, every time you fly, Smooth as silk. For the latest special fares and promotions, contact travel agents or visit

Bangkok Airways flies daily from Bangkok to Siem Reap

The writer was a guest of Heritage Line and THAI Airways

This article was originally published at

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