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I hail from a land of cubicles, iced soy lattes and consumer-driven impulses — a far cry from the agricultural communities I visited along the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia last month. As humbling as the journey was, it was also inspiring to interact with such persevering people, whose families have lived off the bounty of the Mekong for centuries.
Called the River of Nine Dragons for its nine distributaries or “tails,” the Mekong is a source of life for the 10 million Cambodians living along the riverbanks and the 20 million Vietnamese who call the Mekong Delta home, as well as countless others who depend on the rice, seafood and produce harvested from the region.
The river’s flow varies dramatically depending on the season, reaching its highest point in September and, when the Mekong reaches its flood stage, part of the river actually reverses its directional flow. Locals have had no choice but to adapt, building their homes high above ground on bamboo stilts or evacuating their villages for months at a time.
Traveling throughout the region, I discovered, is as unpredictable as the river itself, but that was all part of the adventure — and everyone who sails through Vietnam and Cambodia should come back with a few colorful stories of their own. The adventures of my two-week trip seemed incessant: I interacted with monks who were under the age of 10, helped extinguish an engine fire on our sampan boat, danced to Korean pop music with Khmer people, took a bumpy ride on the rump of an elephant, paid $2 for a “fish pedicure” (free local beer included), studied sandstone carvings on 10th-century temples and nearly ordered a steaming bowl of Vietnamese stew before learning that its main ingredient was rat.
Because of all of these unique, unexpected experiences and the many others that will inevitably unfold along the journey, the Mekong region in Cambodia and Vietnam is emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s cultural hot spots. Subsequently, the major players in touring and river cruising — including Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Abercrombie & Kent, Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways and AmaWaterways — are jockeying for the best tour guides as well as preferred access to strategic villages and ports.
Depending on the tour operator, some packages will also include a few nights in Bangkok, Thailand, or scenic Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. However, the river cruise component typically starts in the vicinity of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and ends near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or vice versa.
Siem Reap, CambodiaFifteen years ago, there were more rice fields than hotels in the Angkor area of Siem Reap. Fast forward to 2011 — when the Angkor area welcomed approximately 2.5 million international tourists, who had more than 125 hotels and guesthouses from which to choose. Tourism shows no signs of slowing down in the coming years as internationally renowned brands such as Marriott, Sheraton and Park Hyatt plan to open properties in Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is the gateway to the 154 square miles of ancient temples and overgrown forests of Angkor Archaeological Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The word “Angkor” translates to “City of the King,” and the park is home to world-famous Angkor Wat, the many stone faces of Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom, among the many other former capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating as far back as the 9th century.
After a few full days of exploring the temples, travelers should take a tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) to the Old Market to shop for inexpensive souvenirs and then feast on amok Cambodian curry or Khmer barbecue at a nearby restaurant. Cap off the day on Pub Street with a game of pool at Angkor What? bar, late-night dancing at Temple Bar and a much-welcome, open-air foot massage.
Kampong Cham, CambodiaFrom Siem Reap, riverside Kampong Cham is a scenic 4½-hour bus ride, passing rice fields, stilted homes with tin roofs and street-side vendors selling Jack Daniels bottles filled with gasoline to locals who zoom around on scooters, the preferred form of transportation in both Cambodia and Vietnam.
Any visit to Kampong Cham, the third-largest city in the country, should include an afternoon at Nokor Bachey Temple. The picturesque temple complex was built in the 11th century as a tribute to Brahmanism, although Buddhism is the religion primarily practiced today.
The temple complex buzzes with activity, and I was fortunate enough to be on site during the monk’s call to prayer, when pounding drums echoed in the distance as young monks — draped in bright orange robes — raced to the temple.
Angkor Ban, CambodiaSailing south on the Mekong, the small villages in Angkor Ban are traditional farming communities. I spent a morning walking around the community known as Angkor Ban Six, with a total population of 1,054. Here, locals grow papaya, patches of sweet potato, lemongrass stalks and betel nut trees as well as raise, by American standards, exceptionally skinny livestock. While passing gigantic haystacks and following weaving dirt paths, I came across a group of children taking an English class in an open-air classroom that consisted of little more than a dirt floor, antique desks and a tin roof, flanked by simmering pots of fish sauce. I had never seen such a modest classroom, but the children were genuinely excited to practice their skills with a native speaker.
Chong Koh, CambodiaScarves are more than a fashion statement in Chong Koh. For the rural Khmer, the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia, a scarf can be used to help shield a farmer’s head from the sun, as a towel after bathing in the river or as a purse to transport goods from the market. In the village of Chong Koh, nearly every house has a loom for weaving cotton or silk scarves that are available for purchase on the spot. And it really takes an iron will to leave the village empty handed — when school is not in session, adorable, yet aggressive, village kids follow visitors around, strike up conversations and lead them to their mother’s heap of handmade scarves and tablecloths. Admittedly, I left with three hulking bags, and everyone on my Christmas list can expect a colorful scarf weaved by either little Peter, Jennifer or John’s mom.
Phnom Penh, CambodiaThe capital city of Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s largest, with a population of roughly 2.5 million. To get a feel for the city, take a tuk-tuk from the dock to the Russian Market or to restaurants and bars along Tonle Sap River. When the temperature drops in the evening, it’s an ideal time to walk along the riverside for a slice of local life. Because the general population does not have large homes, backyards or adequate room to entertain friends, the riverfront operates much like a public park. Along the waterfront, it’s not uncommon to see a group of older folks practicing aerobics or to find yourself stumbling through an active game of soccer.
Choeung Ek, CambodiaAt one point or another, everyone who visits Cambodia will have to confront the country’s horrific past. One place to do so is located a 40-minute drive from Phnom Penh at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. From 1975 to 1979, it is estimated that at least 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime. Leader Pol Pot and his followers targeted “enemies,” a broad term given to professionals, educated individuals, ethnic minorities and anyone who lacked agricultural or hard labor skills.
“My grandmother, who was a nun, was caught praying to Buddha. The Khmer Rouge considered her to be the enemy because she didn’t work in the fields. When she was taken from our family to be ‘reeducated,’ she told me that she would look after us from heaven,” said tour operator Ry Rous, who narrowly escaped his own death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
The Choeung Ek memorial site is one of many places where the unfortunate were sent to be murdered, usually in excessively violent ways, and left in mass graves. Choeung Ek is a somber experience and many visitors get emotional when coming face to face with vestiges of genocide, such as the Mass Grave of 450 Victims, the Killing Tools Storage Room or the Memorial Stupa, containing nearly 9,000 human skulls. Visitors will feel compelled to put money in the Memorial Stupa’s donation box, light incense or leave flowers in honor of the victims.
Vietnam’s Mekong DeltaTravelers can spend time reflecting on Choeung Ek, journaling or reading a good book during the full day “at sea,” cruising from Phnom Penh to the Mekong Delta, which is known as the Rice Bowl of Vietnam. Vietnam is the biggest exporter of rice in the world, and the majority comes from this rural, yet densely populated region. Fishing is also a huge industry, particularly in the vicinity of Chau Doc Harbor, where a fish farmer can raise anywhere between 12 and 50 tons of seafood underneath his home.
Watching locals drive their boats to floating markets or ride their scooters to work, it becomes clear that most rural Vietnamese are better off financially than their Cambodian neighbors. In fact, the quality of life for the whole country seems to be improving. Vietnam’s illiteracy rate has dropped to 2 percent (it was at 35 percent in 1990). Additionally, Vietnam is among the top 20 countries using the Internet and, according to the International Coffee Organization, Vietnam has surpassed Brazil as the world’s largest exporter of coffee.
“Even though we live in a communist country, Vietnamese do whatever we like,” said Uniworld tour guide Phong Nguyen Thanh. “The majority of our people are happy, far happier than we’ve ever been in the last 20 years.”
Cai Be and Sa Dec, VietnamSimilar to how Westerners enjoy delicacies such as escargot, people in the Mekong Delta region love eating rat, cricket, spiders and scorpions. And if visitors find a crispy barbecued tarantula too hard to stomach, they should at least try a shot of “snake whiskey,” a rice wine infused with snakes, consumed by locals for its medicinal benefits. At least that’s what I did when visiting a rice factory in Cai Be that also produces traditional rice candy as well as rice paper used to make fresh spring rolls. Workers here keep pythons as pets, and they are more than happy to take them out of their cages to entertain curious visitors.
Sa Dec has a population of roughly 200,000 and a significant number of residents are Chinese, whose ancestors immigrated here hundreds of years ago. The town is famous for the 19th-century home that helped inspire “The Lover” by French novelist Marguerite Duras. True fans of the book/film can overnight in the house for $50 per night and explore the festive market selling everything from live ducks and turtles to cabbage, flowers and conical hats.
Ho Chi Minh CityHo Chi Minh City (HCMC) is about a two-hour bus ride from the inland port of My Tho. It won’t take long for visitors to realize that many Southern Vietnamese still refer to HCMC by its old name, Saigon. Some say “Saigon” is shorter and therefore easier to say, while others will admit that the Saigonese feel less devoted to the former president and communist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, after whom the city was renamed in 1975. Whatever you wish to call it, HCMC bustles around-the-clock to the tune of beeping scooters, local chatter and music pouring out of ever-present karaoke bars. There are also labyrinthine markets to explore as well as aromatic, piping-hot street food stalls, selling everything from made-to-order waffles and banh mi sandwiches to unrecognizable meat on a stick.
For another local experience, take a scooter taxi around town — after arriving safely at the destination, tourists are likely to feel that they have cheated death. Simply crossing the street in HCMC is flirting with danger as determined moped drivers yield for no one.
Most Mekong cruise-tours will include a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is located about a 1½-hour drive from the city center. Cu Chi is a fascinating system of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War (often referred to as the American War in Vietnam). For further insight, visitors should not miss the War Remnants Museum, however hard it may be to stomach. Graphic photographs, weaponry and inhumane artifacts depict the atrocities of war and present them from Vietnam’s point of view, which can be an educational and uncomfortable experience for Westerners.
It’s been said that time heals all wounds and, given the spirit, ingenuity and welcoming nature of the both the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, the age-old adage appears to be proving itself true.
Angkor Hospital for Childrenwww.angkorhospital.org
Scroll down for bizarre and interesting facts about these destinations.
Learn more about traveling in Southeast Asia.
• Think twice before giving money to or buying goods from children on the street or at major tourist sites. It keeps children on the streets and places them at risk.
• Rather than give money to individuals, donate to organizations — such as ConCert, the Angkor Hospital for Children or ChildSafe Network — which are working to improve the lives of those in need.
• Beware of orphanage tourism. Children are not tourist attractions, and a number of orphanages in Cambodia do not have child-protection policies in place.
• Support local businesses and organizations such as Mekong Quilts, which offers a sustainable livelihood to artisans in the remote villages of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Interesting Facts• ATMs in Cambodia distribute American dollars.
• Brightly-colored pajamas are considered to be fashionable daywear in Cambodia (primarily for children).
• Parts of the movie, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” were filmed around Ta Prohhm temple in the temple complex at Angkor.
• Riverboats in the Mekong Delta have a set of eyes painted on the front of the boat, a tradition thought to scare off crocodiles.
• Caodaism is a faith unique to Vietnam that draws upon elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Taoism.
• Las Vegas Sands is looking to develop multibillion-dollar casinos in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
• Weasel coffee, made from the excrement of weasels from the jungles of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, sells for approximately $250 per pound.