Cambodia up close: River cruise on the Mekong makes for immersive experience
By ANDREW EVANS | Chicago Tribune | Published: March 23, 2018
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- "Life is not staying still," Vuthy spoke softly to me, like a kind older brother. "It is moving from one place to the next."
I followed his rhythmic breathing -- in, out -- inhaling the lotus air and untangling my own breath from the outside breeze, flowing in through the open temple doors.
"When we let something go, that is the ultimate peace," Vuthy continued, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Like the monks around us, his head was shaved, but he was dressed in khaki -- my guide on the river. He'd been a monk before; his instruction was real. Our morning meditation was a spontaneous detour from the rote tourist path in Oudong, a golden complex of pointed temples and the former capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
All of the monuments and fanfare, the behemoth statues, the many thousands of golden Buddhas sitting silently in unseen rooms -- all of it pointed to these moments of serenity. My monk-turned-guide did not want to merely show me the sights; he wanted me to understand them.
Barefoot, we climbed the 400 stone steps to the highest white marble stupa encasing the Buddha's relics. Bold statues of the mythical three-headed elephant Erawan guard the shrine, and from this highest point, I could see miles across the flat squares of green to the shimmering complexity of the Mekong, an unwinding bundle of twisted rivers.
Our moment of peace ended with a band of long-tailed macaques invading the shrine, snatching up all the holy offerings and shoving the food into their pouty pink mouths. The Buddhist pilgrims only laughed while the smallest baby monkeys licked the sticky rice off their tiny fingers before dashing home into the forest.
We made our way back to the ship, chatting with market vendors along the way, sipping sugarcane and munching palm fruit -- Vuthy stepped in to interpret and indulge all my curiosity. He insisted that I touch, taste and smell everything. He wanted me to travel mindfully.
Most people hear "cruise" and think of some high-rise ship crammed with thousands of passengers that drifts away from Florida for a week of bad buffets and forgettable ports lined with T-shirt shops. My Mekong cruise was the total opposite -- unrushed, calm and authentic -- an active and intimate discovery of the land, people, nature and culture of Cambodia. Smaller numbers, a flexible itinerary and the right ship make all the difference.
Low and lean, the Aqua Mekong -- one of two ships belonging to Aqua Expeditions, a cruise line launched a decade ago on the Amazon River -- was custom-built for this specific waterway in Southeast Asia. The vessel features just 20 cabins, each with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that reveal every second of scenery you pass.
Every morning on my balcony, sipping my sunrise espresso, I watched the river wake up. Fishermen cast their nets like fireworks, chasing the silver fish that disappeared like sparks beneath the ripples. Little kids rubbed their eyes in their houseboat hammocks, and like a rush-hour highway, the river grew busy with boats, whining and whirring motors ferrying people and animals up and down the mighty Mekong.
No longer a spectator sport for tourists of a certain age, river cruising can be an immersive, active form of travel _ an ideal way to explore Southeast Asia's Mekong River in Cambodia.
After breakfast, we tendered to the closest shore and watched our ship vanish upriver. Untethered and independent, we mounted our bikes and took off into pockets of dark jungle, where lofty bamboo and sturdy palms offered a canopy of shade. Swerving deeper into the countryside, we passed banana groves, fields of pink flowering ginger, and farmers working in their fields.
Pedaling between the emerald rice paddies felt magical. White butterflies floated up from the path, baskets of black sesame seeds dried in the sun and the air carried the scent of wild jasmine. Dodging roosters, sleeping dogs and ox carts, I gazed up into stilt houses painted red and blue and caught a glimpse of another life. Old men mended their fishing nets an inch at a time. Women dyed cloth and wove sleeping mats from river reeds. Another family shelled soybeans by hand.
"You always see more when you're biking," explained Vuthy, and he was right. I had been to Cambodia twice before, but I had missed all of this. Most tourists never leave the major cities, yet the rivers are the heart of the country, swelling up with the seasonal monsoon, feeding the fertile delta. The water extended for miles on either side, and only on my bike did I begin to understand the immensity of the Mekong with its ever-shifting shoreline. Sometimes the bike path ended in water, but we only needed to ring a small brass bell and a ferry arrived to take us across to the other side.
Travel should never be a spectator sport, and exploring a destination by bike gives you the freedom to stop and see. When we met a man building a fishing boat in his front yard, I stopped and loaded him with questions. Smoothing the wood beams with a plane, he explained how he waterproofed the hull with tarlike pitch -- using techniques that seem as old as this river. We saw silk being spun from silkworms, bricks and clay pots being made by hand, palm sugar being tapped from the tallest trees.
When a lady summoned us to her lotus fields, we ditched our bikes and trudged out into the knee-deep water where we sniffed the pink blossoms and helped harvest the edible pods. A young farmer gifted me a wood apple from his tree, and when school let out, a band of young students joined us on their bikes until we reached their village and they peeled off for home.
In four days, I clocked 55 miles by bike. This was my first cruise where I burned more calories than I ate. No matter the amazing fish curry steamed in banana leaf or the tender pork satay and the banana fritters with coconut ice cream -- every luxurious meal on board was followed by some active exploration of the surrounding area. If not by bike or on foot, then by kayak.
Paddling in the shallows, I maneuvered my way through a mesh of houseboats at dusk. Tied up into "streets" of watery passageways, these extended floating villages are home to mostly Vietnamese fishermen.
In my solo kayak, I felt like a silent intruder into this utterly different place, dropping into a rarely seen world where people live on boats. Dogs barked at me from floating porches, women dunked their babies into the river for a quick bath and men waved at me politely without breaking their gaze from the soccer game on TV.
The lavender light was fading, with only a few pink dragon clouds left in the sky. Night was near, and so I paddled midriver, letting the faster current pull me back toward my own floating home, where I caught the hull with my hands, boarding the Aqua Mekong just in time for dinner.
This was the kind of cruising I loved, coming and going, ebbing and flowing with the river itself, because like Vuthy told me, life is not staying still.
If you go
Aqua Expeditions offers 3-, 4- and 7-night Mekong River expeditions year-round in Cambodia and Vietnam aboard the Aqua Mekong. Prices start at $2,835 per person. Specific itineraries are based on seasonal water levels; 866-603-3687, www.aquaexpeditions.com. Tourist visas to both Cambodia and Vietnam can be acquired online in advance.