Friday 6 January 2023

From On Board: The Jahan on the Lower Mekong

#expeditioncruising .

Ten Years ago I made my first proper voyage on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, this time it was my third and in something of a full circle, I had returned to Heritage Line and their stylish and romantically styled vessel, The Jahan.

The story of the Mekong itself would fill several volumes, but suffice to say ‘The Mother of Water’ has nourished Southeast Asian civilisations for millennia.

Considered by many early explorers to be among the wildest rivers on the planet, the 4350km Mekong (Mother of Water) is the 12th longest river in the world and the seventh longest in Asia. Its daunting rapids and narrow, raging gorges thwarted the colonial French as much as the turbulent politics that festered along its banks.

For more than a century, the obstinate French overlords believed they could subdue this mighty waterway, but it was the Mekong who would have the last laugh. From 1866 to 1868, French naval commander, Captain Ernest Doudard de Lagrée and 25 men laboured through malarial swamps and tortuous, raging rapids in search of a navigable passage to Siam and China.

It would have been a heady spectacle to witness the party as it set off from Saigon on their journey into the unknown. British historian and author, John Keay, described their departure thus:

"In two minuscule steam-driven gunboats, with an inordinate quantity of liquor, flour, guns and trade goods, plus all the trappings of a major scientific expedition, the Commission cast off from the Saigon waterfront and headed upriver into the great green unknown on June 5, 1866."

While the excitement may be the same, the conditions are vastly different for us as we are welcomed aboard the delightfully retro-styled, 48-guest Jahan, tied up on the banks at Kampong Cham, 50 kilometres by river northeast from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

The sweet aroma of polished timber briefly fills our nostrils as we peer around the common areas on the upper deck. The Raj of India Lounge dictates the mood and decor of The Jahan, named after the famous Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, who ordered the building of the Taj Mahal in 1632. Steampunk enthusiasts would be in their element.

Heritage Line - Mekong - The Jahan - The Taj Suite 4

Entering service in 2012, the ship's owners claim design inspiration from the British Raj with fine artworks and reproduction antique outfitting sourced from India such as brass clocks and faux vintage bathroom plumbing to complete the illusion.

Dining is in the Viceroy single-sitting retro restaurant with dishes heavily influenced by local flavours and produce. Fish, pork, chicken and rice in countless fragrant variations appear each day, but neither are staunch Western tastes overlooked. The food really is quite superb and chef makes sure to do a quick circuit of the dining room and receive our accolades.

Heritage Line - Mekong - The Jahan - BBQ on Board

Much as Capitaine de Lagree and his intrepid Commission d'exploration du Mekong would have done a century and a half earlier, shore excursions transport guests by indigenous sampan all around the delta, visiting local villages while sampling their peculiar wares and products. On this occasion, I am on an abbreviated low-water itinerary in Cambodia only and we are able to tie up on the river banks and stroll ashore via a sturdy gangplank with sailors at hand to assist the wobbly amongst us.

Here in Cambodia, the contrast to Vietnam across the border is immediate. Life here is more relaxed as we cruise serenely past the many stilt villages toward the capital, Phnom Penh.

While the city is quickly taking on the character of so many burgeoning Asian metropolises, it had a lot of catching up to do after the unimaginable horrors of the Khmer Rouge period. There seems little sentiment for the long-departed French either as much of the former ‘Pearl of Asia’ is overwhelmed by glistening Chinese-funded high-rise towers.

The merciless Mekong ultimately brought the French to their knees and in the eight-month low-water season (December to August) it becomes necessary to reach Siem Reap via coach transfer. Thankfully the Cambodian government took advantage of the lull in tourism to remake many of the major roads like the highway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, so our road trip is much more comfortable than my last experience.

While in my story I come home intact, but I pause to remember the brave and yes, foolhardy, men of the French Mekong expedition who did not return from their great adventure, among them its leader, Capitaine de Lagrée. The stoic commandant battled a crippling confluence of ailments throughout the journey, finally succumbing in China during the return to Saigon.


For now, the Mekong reigns supreme over the former French territories of Indochina but massive dam works upstream in Thailand and China now threaten the health of the Mother of Water. Will she crush her invaders like she did the French or buckle under the weight of progress? Only time will tell.

Fact File:

For details on all itineraries, dates and vessels visit the Heritage Line website

TIP: While Heritage Line sails all year round on the Lower Mekong, high and low water seasons influences pricing and whether road transfers to and from Siem Reap are required.

Expedition Cruising sailed as a guest of Heritage Line.

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