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One of the finer ways to see Cambodia and Vietnam is by riverboat, as HEIDI SARNA discovers.
When we reached the riverbank and peered down at the Orient Pandaw, its stubby bow nudged up against the muddy banks of the Mekong River, a smile stretched across my face. Here we were at a tributary near the southern edges of Tonle Sap, Asia's largest freshwater lake. After having taken plenty of conventional ocean cruises on giant resort ships, I was thrilled that I would be spending the next week with my friend Sue aboard a true original – or at least a true model of an original.
The 60-passenger vessel resembled an old-time steamboat, minus the paddlewheel, with three main open-sided decks and an air of utility. All six of Pandaw River Cruises' 48- to 66-passenger boats are replicas, built since 2002, of the Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers that plied Burma's Irrawaddy River a century ago.
The change in our mode of travel was a welcome one, after a four-hour bus ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we had spent two days touring the ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat.
While the year-old Orient Pandaw has a retro look with its teak and brass fittings, it's equipped with modern creature comforts including roomy air-conditioned cabins that open directly to the outside promenade deck. The windowed open-seating restaurant is configured with tables for eight and serves a combination of buffet-style and à la carte meals, from delicious nasi goreng to Khmer fish curry, glass noodles with pork, and spicy beef salad, as well salads, pastas, cold cuts, cheese, fresh bread and other continental staples geared to the mostly European and North American guests.
When we weren't eating or sleeping, the place to be was a padded teak chaise longue on the open-air observation deck. While sailing we were close enough to shore to wave to children, admire sampans piled high with coconuts, and watch a solitary figure in a conical hat paddling a skiff past the ubiquitous water hyacinths. Our excellent guides mingled and answered questions, guests enjoyed cold beers and drinks from the bar, and a conscientious few watched the landscape glide by from the seat of the stationary bike, the ship's lone piece of exercise equipment. Massages were offered on deck and in a massage room below deck, as well as port lectures and occasional activities such as a spring-roll-making demonstration. In the evenings, local folk dancers and singers performed. There were also movies shown in an indoor lounge, classics such as The Quiet American, Indochine, and The Killing Fields, which dramatically portray the history of the region we were sailing through.
The temples of Angkor Wat near Seim Reap in CambodiaWe made one or two excursions from the ship each day. On the Cambodian side of the river in Kampong Chhnang and Kampong Cham, we travelled by sampan past floating wet markets and walked through rural villages to see the 12th-century Angkorian temple Wat Nokor and some ancient Cham shrines. (The Cham are one of the region's ethnic minorities.) We visited an orphanage supported by Pandaw and handed out paper, pencils and candy to the children.
On our third day, we docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city, where structures like the grand Buddhist Silver Pagoda (one of the few places Khmer artefacts weren't destroyed by the Khmer Rouge) and charming French colonial architecture coexist with grim reminders of the dreadful Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. (In preparation for my trip, I read a chilling memoir of those years by Loung Ung called First They Killed My Father.) We visited the notorious Killing Fields on the edge of the city, where thousands of innocent people were murdered and buried, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly a prison known as the S21 Detention Centre, where more than 10,000 Cambodians of all ages were interrogated and killed by the evil Khmer Rouge regime.
That evening, we took a bicycle rickshaw to a local spa for a great US$8 massage, followed by dinner at an atmospheric little restaurant, before heading back to the boat.
Sailing across the border into Vietnam the next day, we noticed an immediate shift in mood and character. Cambodia's primitive wet markets and thatched huts were supplanted by the vigorous commerce of Vietnam. Sand barges carried their cargo to Saigon for export to Singapore and emerald green fields of irrigated rice carpeted the riverbanks.
From Chau Doc and Cai Be, we travelled by sampan through the canals and backwaters of the main Mekong channel, stopping to wander through local markets, check out a floating fish farm, snap photos of a French Gothic cathedral in Cai Be and sip tea at the former imperial residence, the An Kiet House. The group enjoyed visits to two factories, one that produced rice paper and coconut candy, the other tiles and pottery.
Our weeklong river adventure ended in My Tho, near bustling Saigon. We stayed overnight in Vietnam's largest city, visiting the War Museum and its graphic photo collection, Chinatown, the Reunification Palace (the site of the official fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the war) and the sprawling Ben Thanh market. We also toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels outside of the city, an impressive underground warren built by the communist Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. We spent the last evening of our trip at the open-air Rooftop Garden Bar of the Rex Hotel, where journalists hung out during the Vietnam War. The views of Saigon from above were magical and it was the perfect place to reflect upon our Pandaw adventure.
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