Along the Mekong
This article is part of our weekly tourist advice column.
Mekong. The name alone is enough to make you travel. Bubbling in the north, on the border of Laos and Cambodia, it then calms down, and, over thousands of kilometers, brings life to its shores where fruits, vegetables and rice grow in shambles, of course, when the seasons allow it. In its waters spawn hundreds of species of fish, heavenly manna that feeds the inhabitants of the countries it crosses. From Tibet, where it takes its source, to Vietnam, where it ends in a delta covering an area of 55,000 km², the Mekong changes its appearance, its name, sometimes, according to the cultures, but its heart remains the same , both contemplative and teeming with life.
This observation, it was after a ten-day trip to Cambodia and Vietnam that we got there. Seven of them spent on a superb boat, with a deliciously old-fashioned exterior appearance but which hides a comfort and luxury that the thirty or so passengers will enjoy at any time, between two stopovers and as many visits, under a blazing sun.
But before joining the Mekong Prestige, it is in Siem Reap that we put our first foot on Cambodian soil. A nice introduction, in a small airport, a stone’s throw from the city which, let’s face it, is not very pretty. Its real attraction – and what it was built around – are the temples of Angkor, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful archaeological sites that we have been able to admire. Despite the heat, the humidity (80%) and the jet lag, the magic operates …
Capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, the site, surveyed each year by hundreds of thousands of tourists, has lost nothing of its soul or its magic. And even if you access it (temporarily) by a floating bridge (in plastic) – the main road is being repaired -, once facing the impressive stone constructions, in the shadow of smiling Buddha, in the scrolls of the sticks incense and as night falls, you really have the feeling of touching a bit of eternity …
The next morning, change of scenery and direction Lake Tonlé Sap, which the waters of the Mekong have fed. We are lucky since it has only been navigable for a few days again, which saves us a long and tedious journey by bus to reach the pier of our floating hotel. On board an improbable fast boat (of Russian origin, we are told), we sail south for three hours on this (almost) inland sea, that is to say 16,000 km ² when its surface reaches its maximum. Thanks to the submerged trees and the houses on stilts, you get an idea of the decor when the water drops. Because here we are at the heart of an extremely rare phenomenon in the world: the Tonle Sap, which then becomes a river, by a principle that resembles that of communicating vessels, flows in both directions. When the Mekong is in flood, it pours its waters into the lake and, in the dry season, the course is reversed and it is the lake that fills the river …
So we jump from one boat to another, where a crew – made up of Cambodians, Vietnamese, Filipinos – is waiting for us. For a week, they will not cease to make us discover the beauties of their countries and the delicacy of their cuisine. Even if, for the chef – who will entrust him on the last evening – all this is sorely lacking in spice. A welcome drink, a few photos on the sun deck and here is the Mekong Prestige which sets sail. The journey can (re) begin …
Getting up early in the morning to admire the life that resumes when daybreak, we successively visit a floating village and a market, along the river; We meet young monks who have come to do their morning quest and then set off to discover Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia, where one of the most impressive pagodas in the country stands. In a small school where everything is missing except smiles, we sit among the children. They have just learned to read and write but already imagine themselves police officers, doctors, farmers …
From the balcony of our cabin, we can see that, little by little, the architecture is changing and becoming denser. We pass under a huge bridge and, in the distance, see the first towers of Phnom Penh. We will spend two days surveying a city where modernity meets traditions and wide avenues the tangle of alleys. Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, Madame Penh hill: there is no shortage of tourist spots. But the most overwhelming of them remains, undoubtedly, the old S21 high school (read elsewhere), where opponents of the Khmer Rouge regime were imprisoned and put to death.
When the navigation resumes, we leave the Tonle Sap River to slide gently on the majestic Mekong. At the border, an employee of the boat goes through the formalities and here we are in Vietnam, that our new guides – it would not occur to Cambodians to comment on the neighboring country – present us at the bar, in outline. The others, the smaller ones, will be discovered by us during our future stopovers, in Tan Chau where rickshaws await us which take us successively to a mechanical silk workshop then to a mat factory. Aboard a small boat that serves as a taxi for residents of the river, we then visit a fish farm where thousands of tilapia frolic, which the Chinese are fond of. In the evening, the bar is transformed into a projection room and, on the eve of discovering it “for real”, we dive into the heart of Sadec, the town where Marguerite Duras grew up and which she describes in The lover .
We are then only a few tens of kilometers from the Cambodian border and yet the change is being felt. Some colonial houses still stand proudly, the streets are undoubtedly a little cleaner. Also in Sadec, we visit a Cao Dai temple. Multicolored, shimmering, it brings together all the religions that Caodaism has made its own – Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity – and even… Victor Hugo, who would have appeared to the founder of the cult in academician dress.
And then, finally, at the end of our trip, there is Ho-Chi-Minh-City, still Saigon for most Vietnamese. Twelve million inhabitants, 6 million scooters. As you walk through its streets, where the doorstep of luxury boutiques alongside those of makeshift restaurants, you once again come up against noise and fury. From the roof of the Sofitel hotel (where a swimming pool awaits tourists), we contemplate what was the beating heart of Cochinchina, which still pulsates and pulsates.
4 good reasons to go down the Mekong
1. The welcome, the smile, the warmth
It’s almost commonplace to point it out, but in Southeast Asian countries, smiles are everywhere. Whether you wander the markets or negotiate – a great sport – in the halls of Phnom Penh, you are always greeted by open and curious faces. In return, the minimum that some tourists would do well to learn is to respect places of worship (temples, pagodas) and think twice before unsheathing their cameras …
2. The Independence and Genocide Memorial
This former high school, S21, is now a museum, in the heart of Phnom Penh. 18,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and tortured there, many lost their lives there, under the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge. It is in silence that we go from class to class or rather from dungeon to dungeon. Iron beds, chains, traces of blood on the walls still testify to the horror that reigned there, from 1975 to 1979. In the small garden, where a few graves are lined up, two survivors sell books that tell their life. A poignant moment.
3. Food, food …
Soups, broths, rice of all flavors, curries: Cambodian cuisine – and even more Vietnamese – is infinitely rich and, as soon as you leave establishments intended for tourists, very very spicy. In Phnom Penh, our guide, Kevin, bought us something to feast on on the boat: snake (whole) roasted and spit, tarantula, worms, grasshoppers, water cockroaches… A delight.
Obviously, by embarking on a cruise ship – on which, by definition, you will spend some time – you never know which cabin neighbor you will fall on. If friendships are formed during excursions, at the restaurant or at the bar, it is also perfectly possible to enjoy the tranquility of the landscape and the surrounding calm, on the sun deck… in the bubble bath!
How to get to Cambodia
Plane : Thaï Airways operates a direct Brussels-Bangkok connection and flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap. Impeccable service. Count 1,200 €.
All Ways Cruises All Ways (acquired by the Rivages du Monde group) offers a large number of cruises, on all the rivers of the world!
For the Mekong (including plane), the 13-day trip starts at € 3,980. http://www.all-ways.be/fr
Embassy of Cambodia: Avenue de Tervueren, 264A, at 1150 Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. (02 / 772.03.72)
Vietnamese Embassy: Bld Géneral Jacques, 1, in 1050 Elsene. (02 / 379.27.37)