Cruising the Mekong

As a keen photographer and partial to South East Asian cuisine it was a real treat to revisit some of my favourite areas in Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Active Asia.

I checked in online the day previously for my Singapore Airlines flight from Auckland to Singapore. On arrival at the airport I just had to present my passport and do a bag drop. This route is operated by the Boeing 777-300 ER. Seats were comfortable and featured KrisWorld seat back entertainment. Connectivity on this aircraft had the usual USB, and standard RCA audio inputs and featured OnAir which is the new Wi-Fi service. This is a user pay service and I didn't trial it at USD14.99 for 15mb. I did use my Bluetooth headphones on this flight without any issues. Food and beverage were of a good standard, with snacks, juice and water offered frequently throughout the flight. The cabin crew service was efficient and courteous.

In Singapore we stayed at the Copthorne Kings Hotel, Singapore. This hotel is located near the Singapore River about a ten minute walk to Robertson Quay and a little further on to Clarke Quay. Rated as a 4 star hotel, I really probably would only give it 3.5 stars as there are much better 4 star hotel options in Singapore. The hotel decor was dated and the bathrooms needed a refurb. We were booked into the deluxe rooms. We were shown the lower grade superior rooms and felt these were actually nicer than the deluxe as they had been modernised and had newer bathrooms. The outdoor pool area was nice and there was a well equipped gym. The club lounge used by those booked into the deluxe club rooms consisted of a private dining room, outdoor seating area with gardens and of all things a putting green. 

We had a couple of spare hours so decided to visit the Marina Bay Gardens. This is a wonderful area with a number of walkways through tropical gardens, water features and sculptures.

On arrival in Vietnam we were transferred to the Caravelle, once the top hotel in Saigon. It is currently undergoing refurbishment which will once again allow this grand establishment to claim its place amongst the newer 5 star rivals. Oysters and champagne were on the menu but we opted for a night of Mojitos and Saigon Beer at the hotel's rooftop bar Saigon Saigon. A lovely hotel with all the expected features of a five star heritage property. Highly recommended and in a very central location for exploring the old city.

Earlier in the evening we went on a walking tour to experience the local street food. Neon lights, colourful food and exotic flavours could be found on every corner. It was particularly interesting wandering some of the side streets and seeing how the locals spent their evenings. We ended the walking tour at a local barbecue restaurant where the food is cooked on a hot plate at the table, delicious!

Up at sunrise for walking tour number two. This was to experience the city waking up and see the locals in the parks socialising and going about the morning exercise routines. It was quite odd to see several people playing badminton on the street outside a local medical clinic or a group of middle aged ladies working out at an aerobics class in the park. We also experienced a bird cafe, this is a local outdoor cafe where bird owners take their caged birds for company of other birds while the owners socialise over coffee. Our mode of transport back to the hotel was by Cyclo, a fun way to end the tour and our brief stop in Saigon.

We were driven from Saigon to the riverside town of My Tho, the departure point for our Pandaw cruise. Driving time was approximately 1 hour. Each Pandaw ship is hand finished in brass and teak by traditional craftsmen. There were only 28 guests on board this cruise with a capacity of 48, so the staff to passenger ratio was above average on this cruise. The Pandaw ships are modelled on the original fleet built in Burma by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC operated from 1865 - 1940). At their peak in the late 1920's IFC operated 600 vessels world wide. Pandaw is a Scottish company owned by Paul Strachan. Beginning in 1995, Strachan located an original Clyde-built steamer, the Pandaw, and by 1998 had it refitted and ready for business. Now, the fleet consists of 13 vessels. Our ship RV Mekong Pandaw was built in Burma in 2003 and refitted in 2013. The air conditioned cabins were a good size finished entirely in teak and contained a wardrobe, in built safe, writing desk and bedside table. The ensuite bathroom was surprisingly spacious and well appointed with vanity and toilet and modern tiled shower. They have complimentary wi-fi.

The journey from My Tho in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia was 4 days and 3 nights. This is the slow way of doing the trip as it can actually be done by speedboat in about 5 hours. The ship has 4 levels. Spa deck (this is downstairs and contains a library, office, bathrooms, spa and massage services and gym), Main (this contains 6 cabins and the dining room), Upper (this has the remaining cabins and the saloon lounge bar) and Sundeck (this is entirely open air and has the main bar, deck chairs, comfortable sofas, pool table, the majority of the deck is covered by shade cloth). The food on board was excellent, the meals always consisted of a buffet as well as a la carte selection. All beverages are included with the exception of imported spirits and wine.

The first morning on board I was eager to catch the sunrise, so I was up at 6.00 am. I opened the cabins sliding doors and stepped from the cool air conditioned cabin on to the sun warmed deck and into the balmy morning breeze. I sat outside the cabin and watched the early morning river traffic wake to the day as we slowly made our way up the river. Breakfast was a leisurely affair and taken in the main dining room, afterwards up to the sundeck for coffee and a walk around the ship. When we were not off the boat on an excursion the time was spent socialising with other passengers on the sun deck, looking for the coolest spot with a cold drink in hand. During the late afternoon some of us chose to seek the coolness of the air conditioned cabin for a quick nap, I preferred to lounge up top and watch the sunset while sipping on my G&T. The evening began with cocktail hour on the sunset deck then dinner in the main dining room, this was a casual affair and attire was smart casual. After dinner there was usually a form of entertainment on the sun deck followed by a movie in the saloon lounge.

The entertainment during our time on board consisted of local musicians and dancers in traditional costume. Another night we had a quiz and I am proud to say that team Kiwi beat the disgruntled team Aussie.

Our fourth day on board we cruised into Phnom Penh in the early morning, my first impressions were of a low rise developing city sprawling along the river banks, the skyline was pierced by the occasional crane and a brand new glistening glass tower. A developing city financed by various world economies notably the Chinese and French.

The experience on board the Pandaw was exactly as I had imagined, great service, wonderful colonial atmosphere and superb amenities, this was a very relaxing way to travel and an ideal interlude to include in any busy itinerary. Throughout the trip was enhanced by shore excursions. Our morning excursions departed at 0830 and we boarded sampans to do these trips with the Pandaw anchored in the deeper part of the river. A typical day would be a morning visit to Cai Be and its colourful floating market. In the afternoon an exciting Sampan boat excursion to Sa Dec via Vinh Long, along canals and backwaters and see the local market and the ancient house of Mr, Huyn Thuy Le, the 'lover' of Marguerite Duras, a famous French novelist.

The nationalities on board included our small group of kiwis, Australians, British and a Swiss couple. The age range was 40 to 70.

Sailing into Phnom Penh it appeared golden and sprawling on the banks of the Mekong with the morning sun glinting from the spires of the Royal Palace. We docked at the main pier in the heart of the city. We had to wait onboard the boat until Cambodian immigration gave us back our passports which took an hour longer than expected.

I wouldn't say a visit to the Killing Fields was a highlight in fact I would urge caution as it is quite a disturbing experience. The tour takes you out of the city to the fields where an estimated 1.7 million people were killed. It was here that the Khmer Rouge took their prisoners and butchered them piling them into mass graves. They were transported here after many had been held captive and tortured at the notorious prison camp S21. Unfortunately when you walk around the graves you are actually walking on the bodies as bones are clearly visible on the dirt walking paths. This is being remedied in the near future by the construction of boardwalks.

The S21 complex is also part of this tour and was more disturbing than the The Killing Fields as it displays images of tortured prisoners, it is a chilling place.

Thankfully we had the rest of the afternoon off and checked into our hotel, the Patio Hotel and Urban Spa. This was rated three and a half star and was modern and very nice with a wonderful roof top infinity pool. The location was relatively central although we did take tuk tuks to get to the main riverside eateries, we dined that evening at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club or FCC as it is locally known.

The next day we flew with Angkor Air to Siem Reap. Angkor Air were efficient and the short flight on an ATR aircraft was comfortable. We arrived into Siem Reap and were met by our guide. We were too early to check in to the hotel so decided to have lunch on the way and picked a random cafe which offered an excellent choice of Vietnamese and Western food. Our hotel the Victoria Angkor Hotel and Spa was the best on the tour. It was a beautiful colonial design complemented with outstanding facilities including the salt water swimming pool, extensive spa menu, dining options including the French Lā€™ Escale or the Le Bistrot all day dining and the cosy Le Explorateur Bar.

Our exploration began with a visit to the Angkor National Museum for an hour's walk around this interactive insight into the history behind Angkor. I hadn't been to the museum on my previous visit to Siem Reap and did find this a very interesting and worthwhile inclusion. The museum is housed in a modern building and had numerous artefacts recovered from the various temple sites and assisted in understanding the history of the temples. The museum has a very good shop displaying quality locally made handicrafts. Our next visit was to the Artisans' D'Angkor work shops. This is a fantastic facility as it employs talented young local craftspeople who are dedicated to the preservation of traditional Khmer skills in silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting, but it is also an organisation committed to promote the development of individuals and secure their future by the means of education and welfare. The Artisans' D'Angkor sells the crafts through their onsite shop, unfortunately the prices charged were very high comparative to other local vendors. 

That evening we had a dinner of traditional Khmer food and an Apsara Dance show of traditional Cambodian dance at Por Cuisine Restaurant. The restaurant was modern and the food well presented however we ate from a set menu and we had already sampled much of what was on offer at previous meals. The dance show, although colourful and athletic, was very "touristy", ok for a night out but not essential. 

The main temples are a 15 minute drive from Siem Reap and before entering the area all visitors must purchase the Angkor Pass from the very well organised check point on the main road to the temples. The pass is printed out with your photo and is USD20 for a day although longer periods are at discounted rates. We began the day visiting Angkor Thom entering via the South Gate and the Bayon complex. The vast area of the Angkor Thom ruins, contains many stone temples and other features to explore. The city has five monumental gates (one in each wall plus an extra in the eastern wall), 20m high and decorated with stone elephant trunks and the king's favourite motif, the four faces of Avalokiteshvara. I would suggest that you go early in the morning to the temples as it is much cooler and less crowded. If at all possible avoid mid day as it is extremely hot and crowded and also quite physical as some of the temples require a steep climb up many steps.

The Bayon Temple (circa 1190) is a Buddhist temple but retains elements of Hindu cosmology and imagery. Standing in the exact centre of the walled city, it represents the intersection of heaven and earth. It is known for its enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara and its extraordinary bas-reliefs.

Angkor Wat is the best preserved example of Khmer architecture in Cambodia and is so grand in design that some rank it among the Seven Wonders of the World. It appears on the Cambodian national flag, a very rare instance of a flag incorporating an image of a building.

As it was our last night it was party time and our farewell dinner. We chose a restaurant in downtown Siem Reap, the AHA Restaurant, superb setting and fantastic modern Cambodian cuisine. The location was also right next to Pub Street the 'happening' area for Siem Reap nightlife and the home of the 50 cent beers, great way to end a fantastic journey!

Thanks to Active Asia and Singapore Airlines and Pandaw for a fantastic tour that encompassed so many aspects of Vietnamese and Cambodian life. The local tours enabled us to see the real side of how the people lived and enabled us to better appreciate their culture. Memories of the bustle, colour and sounds of Saigon and the days spent on the flowing Mekong as the Pandaw pushed its way upstream towards the magic of Angkor will endure.