THE pastel tropical dawn is fusing with the white glow of street-light fluorescents to illuminate our path along the wharf and we can hear the staccato throb of the motors on the back of the speedboat ferry awaiting our arrival.
We’re in Chau Doc, on the Vietnamese side of the Cambodian border, and my World Expeditions group is embarking on a day-long voyage to Phnom Penh along a short stretch of this magnificent waterway that winds 4350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea.
Our journey starts before dawn, to guarantee we reach the border outposts before they become clogged by travellers transiting between Vietnam and Cambodia, with the first hour of the cruise scheduled when residents of the waterside hamlets are engaging in the chores that mark the beginning of a new day.
Before the sun even peeps above the horizon, we pass farmers transferring the harvest in baskets balanced on speeding sampans, see mothers preparing the morning meal in open kitchens at the back of shacks built above the water and spy children completing morning ablutions in the canals beside their homes.
Teenagers release livestock from pens in the family compound and herd them into adjourning fields, fishermen wade into the water to hurl handmade nets, monks dressed in saffron robes stroll waterside trails to accept donations of rice and old women wander the banks collecting hyacinth reeds for weaving.
Today’s relaxed eight-hour journey comes on day 15 of our 20-day tour from Hanoi to Siem Reap, and immediately after an afternoon exploring the tributaries and cottage industries of Vietnam’s thriving Mekong Delta, and travellers use these sedentary hours to recharge.
Some of my companions perch on the speedboat’s open deck, while others retreat below to lounge in bucket seats beside big windows, but everyone spends hours watching the landscape pass while listening to iPods and reading e-books.
One traveller rarely lowers his camera, taking pictures of splashing youngsters, a farmer herding ducks across a dyke and mariners sleeping in hammocks hanging in the shade behind a barge’s wheelhouse.
As the sun climbs into the sky, rapidly boosting the temperature and turning an agreeable morning into a steamy South-East Asian afternoon, the riparian settlements give way to parched paddocks and clumps of bamboo or banana trees.
The midday meal is served by the captain’s offsider, with lunch-box compartments packed with cheese sandwiches and dried fruit, and bags of boiled lollies are shared as noon passes and we continue motoring towards Phnom Penh.
High-rise buildings appear on the horizon to mark the end of our journey and we gather on deck to get a first impression of this new city as the vessel glides towards the wharf on the western bank of the Tonle Sap River where it meets the Mekong.
We arrive in the Cambodian capital in the early afternoon with time to visit the Central Market before retiring to the top-floor bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club on Sisowath Quay and watching the sun set across the sleepy waterway that carried us to the Cambodian capital.
Escape route – Mekong River
The writer was a guest of World Expeditions