Saturday 24 February 2024

Cruising the Mekong with Jayavarman

#expeditioncruising .

The Mekong has nourished Southeast Asian civilisations for millennia. Roderick Eime traces the course of history.

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 setting 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 plush Jayavarman (aka Mekong Explorer) at the port of My Tho where a small fleet of Mekong river vessels are lined up in expectation of their arriving passengers.

The sweet aroma of polished timber briefly obscures the robust mélange of dockside odours as we peer around the common areas on the upper deck. Adjacent to the reception is the Henri Mouhot Lobby Lounge, named after the famous French naturalist who is credited with discovering Angkor Wat. In 1861, Mouhot succumbed to malaria at the tender age of 35 after making several perilous journeys into the jungles of Siam, Cambodia and Laos in search of new species.

Our vessel, I learn, is imperiously dubbed ‘Jayavarman’ after a succession of great Khmer rulers who likely never met the French. Launched in 2009, the ship's owners claim design inspiration from the great Gallic liner Normandie, yet inside it is bedecked in colonial-flavoured, dark wood decor, Vietnamese lacquer paintings and amply-upholstered sofas. Brass bedside clocks and faux vintage bathroom plumbing complete the illusion.

Jayavarman dining room (supplied)

Dining is in the Indochine 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.

Much as Capitaine de Lagree and his intrepid Commission d'exploration du Mekong would have done a century and a half earlier, our shore excursions transport us by indigenous sampan all around the delta, visiting local villages while sampling their peculiar wares and products.

Busy trade in the Mekong Delta (RE)

Away from the incongruous concrete and cranes of My Tho, we’re soon among the more traditional delta port towns like Cai Be and Chau Doc where the Vietnamese frenzy continues, albeit on s smaller scale. The importance of the entire Mekong Delta for commerce, industry and food production is reinforced by our explorations ashore where we inspect everything from brick making, pottery, aquaculture and religious devotion. Few workaholic Vietnamese, it turns out, have much patience for prayer. The shrines and temples are mostly the work of the more devout Cham Muslims and Buddhist immigrants from Cambodia and Laos.

Across the border in Cambodia, the contrast is immediate. Life here is clearly 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 so too has it thwarted our final leg to Siem Reap. That said, it is quite common for bus transfers during the low water season on the great Tonle Sap, a luxury our French explorers were denied. We arrive at Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, and I take the obligatory tour to the great stairs where the leaders of the French Mekong Expedition assembled for their famous 1866 photograph.

While my story comes home intact, 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.

Originally published in MiNDFOOD Magazine.

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