Sunday, October 14, 2012

Floating Downstream

My sister Jane has always encouraged me to take a cruise. On many of my journeys I have seen tourists from various behemouth-sized ships milling through markets near the port or shuttled by tour buses to nearby sights. I knew that they were sipping the wine from the edge of the glass of a country but hadn't the time, energy, or wherewithal to drink heartily from the goblet. This was fine. You get something of a county's sweetness and that is really what matters.

With some skepticism I decided to join a river cruise of the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh,(Saigon). The online brochure indicated that the luxury boat had a capacity of 28 passengers and would travel the 800 kilometers in 7 days with many "breathtaking" stops. For reasons that are still not clear to me, this is the first trip of the season and the boat is virtually empty. There are only 11 of us, composed of 2 New Zealanders, 2 Israeli-Americans couples from California, a husband and wife from rural Minnesota, two old Navy buddies, who served on the "Delta" during the War, and me.

The tour leader is a young French-Swiss fellow, who reminds me of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, intelligent and mysterious, who lives year around on the boat, speaks with the crew fluently in both Cambodian and Vietnamese and determines the trip's itinerary, which he promises will be unique.

We left Siem Reap day before yesterday afternoon and began crossing the largest lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap which during flood is 30 miles wide and 75 miles long. Then it becomes the Tonle Sap River, and stays almost as wide. It is deep, full of floating plants, sandbars, muddy water, and loaded with nearly blind fish pursued by fishermen paying out long gill nets. The area is scarcely populated and I glimpse an occasional village on its shores.

After a welcoming "open bar" party on the sundeck, we were shown our air-conditioned quarters and then given a brief synopsis of the next morning's activity, namely a tour of a remote floating village which,according to our leader, no tourists will ever visit except his guests. Then we were treated to a sumptious gourmet dinner of an artistically prepared lobster appetizer, several seafood salads, and a dinner of whole fish and fresh vegetables, from recipes from his chef cooked to Asian perfection. I burst with excitement and kept my camera clicking of the scenery, shooting pictures of passing boats and of course the dinner.

Tonight we have docked in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, where I have connectivity. I have been underway one evening and two full days. It has been extraordinary and I will do my best to share my adventures, although I am having fits uploading pictures. The bandwidth is questionable and also it is hard to see because my screen constantly fogs up due to the humidity. I think of my sister and thank her, but I'm not sure this is what she envisioned for my first cruise, although it fits me to a tee. I have seen people and places which challenge description. So far my float is a cross between Heart of Darkness and the Loveboat!


  1. Sounds wonderful, perfect!! I'm so excited for you!! Glad you were able to find time for this post!! Enjoy!!

  2. I have to admit I did a double-take when I first saw the picture of that sleek and luxurious boat in my inbox a little while ago. It was the very last thing I expected, and the funny thing is that I didn't consciously realize it until the reality of that sleek river boat did a head-on collision with my preconception. That's because for me the words "Mekong River" conjure up images of only one kind of boat--namely John Kerry's swift boat, with all the usual associations of discomfort and extreme danger.

    Now I didn't expect you to "really" be on a swift boat! After all, the Vietnam war is long over except for those who served in it. But unconsciously it seems I was expecting something a little more rundown, but I didn't realize it until I saw that picture. I'm very interested in hearing about the reminiscences of those two old Navy buddies who are on the cruise with you. I assume they served in Vietnam together. I have been trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling on this cruise, as they inevitably compare it with their first time on the Mekong River.

  3. I dunno, but when I read your post I began singing, "Cruising Down the River on a Sunday afternoon"! That was strange, wasn't it?

    I agree with Raksha that there is a certain dissonance connected with such a boat on the Mekong. Not what one would expect. But I'm glad it's so nice and that you're enjoying the cruise.

    Excuse me, though, I've got to get my guitar; there's a song in my heart! :-)

  4. Wonderfully described. I like the "cross between Heart of Darkness and the Loveboat."