River ship that feels like home …

Cruise the Mekong River on the RV Mekong Pandaw, Vietnam, Cambodia.“GOOD morning, welcome home,’’ the ship’s crew chant as we step back on board the RV Mekong Pandaw.

It’s only 10.30am but the day is already fiercely hot, the dense humidity delivered by last night’s monsoonal downpour settling on the landscape like a wet woolen blanket.

I’m pleased to be back on my graceful floating hotel after a morning seeing a remote corner of Cambodian countryside.

Each staffer greeting us is assigned a different task and after the first crew member takes my shoes to wash away the mud accumulated during our morning wander along the country trails, there’s someone to present a cold towel, another to hand over my cabin key and finally I’m given a thirst-quenching drink.

It occurs to me the RV Mekong Pandaw, a sanctuary of colonial-era charm, really does feel like home.

ESCAPE: Mekong Cruise, Sarah Nicholson. Picture: Supplied

The modern Pandaw fleet is modelled on the vintage riverboats that navigated Burma’s grand waterways during the decades before World War II and it’s like travelling in a bygone golden era every time I step from my cabin to stroll wide teak decks flanked by rows of armchairs and lush palms dancing in the breeze.

My Wendy Wu Tours group is on board the RV Mekong Pandaw for a week, drifting downstream from Siem Reap — gateway to the Angkor Wat temples — to Saigon, and returning from this morning’s activity marks the halfway point on a voyage that takes us through Cambodia and Vietnam on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.

And it’s a local encounter that occupies our time with the group boarding rustic — but surprisingly comfortable — ox carts to amble through a bucolic hamlet a day’s sailing upstream from Phnom Penh.

The carts, each pulled by a pair of sturdy beasts with a good percentage of Brahman in them, are guided by farmers in from the fields to show us around their patch of Indo-China and we roll along country lanes past ponds laden with lotus flowers and shacks with waving toddlers dancing around front verandas.

After 20 minutes on the move, the procession pauses in a temple compound so the cattle can be released from harnesses to rest in the shade, and our guide Som translates for one oxcart driver who tells us more about his animals.

“My ancestors were all farmers, so I’ve been working with these animals all my life, and I give them names because they are like members of my family,’’ the 71-year-old says.

And it’s a local encounter that occupies our time with the group boarding rustic — but surprisingly comfortable — ox carts to amble through a bucolic hamlet a day’s sailing upstream from Phnom Penh.

The carts, each pulled by a pair of sturdy beasts with a good percentage of Brahman in them, are guided by farmers in from the fields to show us around their patch of Indo-China and we roll along country lanes past ponds laden with lotus flowers and shacks with waving toddlers dancing around front verandas.

“They do so much for me and my family — they give us transport, work in the fields, give us fertiliser for the crops — but they are also like babies because I have to feed them and wash them three times a day, clean up their dung, and all they want to do is sleep.’’

After wandering around the temple, chatting to a gaggle of curious monks dressed in floating saffron robes who are keen to practise their English, it’s back to the carts for the return journey.

I watch my driver retrieve his cows and it doesn’t take much to get the loyal animals back into position, and the farmer simply clicks his tongue to get them moving before giving the pair a tender pat on the neck once they fall into position.

On the return journey, we spy a crew making bricks by hand and arranging the ochre clay in long lines to bake in the sun, see pigs wallowing in mud puddles and pass fishermen flinging nets into flooded fields while balancing on flimsy sampans.

When we return to the RV Mekong Pandaw, the streets of the nearby village, which were busy when we anchored just after sunrise, are almost deserted with the midmorning heat forcing everyone to retreat into the shadows and wait for the cool of the evening.

As I stand on the deck outside my cabin, watching the ox carts amble away, quiet settles on the riverbank with only the hum of invisible insects interrupting the calm around my waterborne home.

It occurs to me that if I were on a coach, the vehicle would roar away as soon as we were finished with our morning activity but on an old-style riverboat I have the time to listen to the sounds of silence settle in this most serene part of the planet.

The writer was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysia Airlines.

ESCAPE ROUTE

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies from Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin and Perth to both Siem Reap and Saigon via Kuala Lumpur with economy and business-class cabins offered on all flights to and from Australia. malaysiaairlines.com

Getting around

Wendy Wu Tours has a selection of Indo-China itineraries that include a voyage on a Pandaw vessel with Mekong Odyssey a 20-day expedition that takes in destinations around Vietnam — Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An — before the voyage from Saigon to Siem Reap.

Classic Mekong is perfect for those with less time, or travellers looking for a serene journey between Cambodia and Vietnam, and while limited to the eight-day voyage on a Pandaw riverboat, Wendy Wu Tours offers short-stay additions to explore Saigon and Siem Reap.

MORE wendywutours.com.au


This story originally appeared in Escape on Sunday, February 12, 2017

Click here to see the story online


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