Mekong River 2006

All images and associated pages copyrighted by Don Chesnut, 2006

     Frances Woollam, my travel agent booked my stay in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand through Brendan Vacations (www.brendanvacations.com). They, in turn, booked certain segments with other regional travel services, including Indochina Services (www.indochina-services.com) and Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com). I traveled alone and in the hot and humid season when few other tourists were there; perfect for me. The following part of my trip was with Pandaw Cruises. The crew, guides, food, etc. were excellent and I am planning my next trip with Pandaw as well.

8 July 06, Saturday

     [Saigon] I woke up a little before 6:30, took a shower and went down to breakfast (fruit plate, yogurt, cheese). I finished packing and checked out by 7:45. Qui picked me up a little before eight and dropped me off at the La Renaissance Hotel. Here, I met the others going on the boat trip. The boat holds 64 passengers. However, on this trip, there are only 7 of us going up the river. One group is a family of three from California and a nephew from California and London, England. The husband and wife are celebrating their anniversary today. The other couple is from Canberra, Australia. It is the husband's birthday and he didn't know where they were going till he arrived at the hotel. I am the odd man out. Everyone is very nice and I've enjoyed talking to them.

     We boarded a small bus and drove 1 hour 45 minutes to My Tho (me-toe), where the Mekong Pandaw is docked. It's a nice-looking wooden boat, built in Myanmar. We boarded and met in the "Saloon" to discuss the trip. There are more crew members than passengers, by far. My room was supposed to be on the lower deck, mostly below waterline, with a small porthole window. They decided to upgrade me to the main deck, because I was the only one on the lower deck. That's great for me. I now have a nice view of the river. We all then went up on the Sun Deck, under one of the large canopies. It rained off and on all day, sometimes very heavily. The teak wood deck is treated with some kind of very slippery oil, especially when it's wet, so we had to watch our footing. They have a very nice pool table on the sun deck. I have not played on it yet. We had a big lunch in the dinning room. I will regain all the weight that I have lost so far, if this keeps up.

     After a couple of hours going up river, we anchored in the middle of the channel (2 km wide and 20 m deep). A launch picked us up and took us on a boat ride up a canal (long round trip). We stopped at the village Cai Be and visited a 4-generation home. Here we had cooked catfish, snake whiskey, sea salt, mangostens (a fruit), and finally--- fresh durian. I hope the picture turns out. Close by, they were using coal to heat fresh bunches of longans. They did this to loosen the flesh from the hull. Then we saw girls peeling the fruit and separating the flesh from the seed. The hulls are used for fuel, the seeds and embryo to flavor rice whiskey and the flesh is sold on the market (it keeps well after roasting).

We then returned to the Mekong Pandaw by about 6 pm. The lens on my film camera kept fogging up and I was not able to use it all day. My room air conditioning was so cold that the lens fogged. After turning the air conditioning down and cleaning the lens, I didn't have the problem again.

     I went to the Saloon Lounge and caught up on my journal. Everyone arrived by 7 and our guide discussed visa application matters and our schedule for the next day. Then they brought out a couple of bottles of champagne for the anniversary couple. After toasts, we went to the dining room for dinner. This is very nice group to travel with.

     We anchored out in the middle of the river and will be here till lunch tomorrow. We'll have a morning trip to the floating market.

 

9 July 06, Sunday

     I woke up at 6:30, took a shower and then went to breakfast (fried eggs, toast, bacon and coffee). I cleaned the lens of my film camera but I think the problem is with the cold air conditioning and humid outdoor warm air. I am on my last battery for the digital camera, so I hope I solve the problem of foggy lens on the film camera.

     Hau was our guide the last 2 days. We boarded the launch at 8:30 and went back to Cai Be to view the floating market. We then entered a small canal and visited a rice paper, coconut candy, and puffed rice candy workshop. I again had snake wine or whiskey and no one else would touch it. We visited a family bonsai garden, had more refreshments, and then got back on the launch. Next, we visited a brick kiln near Vinh Long. They fire the brick with rice husks for 2 months. Then we headed back to the main channel of the Mekong to rendezvous with the Pandaw, which had moved upstream.

Upon boarding, we immediately went to lunch (I had pho, spring rolls, fish and rice, and beer). I then went to my cabin, caught up on my journal and took a short nap.

     At 4:00 PM, we went to the "Saloon Lounge" and watched a DVD of the Pandaw river trip in Myanmar. After that we went to the sun deck and watched the river go by as we headed upstream. I have not seen any artificial levee, only a slight hint of a natural levee on the river. Many canals, small and large, have been dug into the mainland and islands and strips of houses are probably built on the dredged sediment.

     We had a 7:00 briefing about tomorrow's activities and then dinner. We had long conversations at the dinner table and then everyone went to their rooms for the night. When they crew dropped the anchor, which is close to my room, I was awakened by the sound of chain going past the chain guide. It was loud. I jumped out of my bed (rack) because I thought we had run aground. Then I realized that it was just the anchor chain. We anchored at Tan Chau.

 

10 July 06, Monday

     I got up about 5:45, took a shower and went to the sun deck for a cup of coffee by 6:15. Breakfast was at 6:30 and then we all boarded a different launch to Chau Doc, which is on the southern branch of the river. We had to cross land, via the Tan Chau canal to get to this branch of the Mekong. The Pandaw anchored on the northern branch (distributary). The boat ride was about 1 hour 45 minutes to Chau Doc. We toured the city in rickshaw bicycles. We also saw, after a short boat ride, a Cham Muslim community and their weaving workshop; we visited a mosque as well. After that, we visited a floating fish farm. Everyone along the river is very friendly and there are many smiles and hand waving.

We returned to the Pandaw and hoisted anchor. Lunch, for me, was shrimp cocktail and pineapple, spinach and coconut cream soup, seafood noodles, and beer.

     At mid-afternoon, we anchored at the Viet Nam/Cambodian border to go through border formalities. I waited on the sun deck. Dark clouds hung over the Cambodian side. After the border officials left the Pandaw, we raided the anchor and headed into Cambodia. Many of us were sitting on the sun deck. After half an hour, it rained heavily with the wind blowing the rain sideways. We all went down to the "Saloon Lounge" and read. We all declined to watch the movie "The Killing Field." I went to my room to take a shower and clean up. By the time I got back to the lounge, the rain stopped and the sky cleared.

     We had dinner at 7:30 and talked again for a long time. Some of us went on the sundeck to watch the river go by.

I went to bet around 9:15 and was awakened again when the anchor was dropped at Phnom Penh, sometime after midnight.

 

11 July 06, Tuesday

     I got up about 5:30, showered and went to the sun deck for coffee. We raised anchor and went a few kilometers to Phnom Penh. I took pictures from the sun deck. We docked near the Titanic Restaurant and then had breakfast in the dining room. I had soft boiled eggs and sausage.

     We got in a Mercedes van at 8:00 and toured the Royal Palace and surrounding buildings. Then we went to the National Museum and saw lots of sculpture and other artifacts from Cambodia's past. We also went to a big market and I was finally able to buy deodorant; I had almost run out.

     We took the bus back to the ship for lunch.

[Warning: subject matter of the following paragraph and bulleted photos may be disturbing to some.] After lunch we got back on the bus at 2:30 for our afternoon tour. We went to School 21 which was used by Pol Pot for torture. Then we went to the "Killing Fields" about 15 km out of town on a very bumpy dirt road. We saw bones and clothing from the many people murdered there. Our Cambodian guide, Peah Rom ("peerum"), told us that his grandfather and uncle were killed by the Khmer Rouge. His father was sent to be killed with a lot of others. He was clubbed in the head and knocked unconscious. A rain storm came up several hours later and woke him up. He was amongst many dead bodies and was still tied to a piece of bamboo. He managed to escape and live. At least 3 million others died. This was a difficult afternoon for all of us.

     When I got back to the boat, I showered again; it had been another hot, sunny day. Several of us decided to eat on shore tonight. Four of us left the boat at 6:30 and walked along the river front park for about 1/2 mile till we got to the Ponlok Restaurant. Ponlok was mentioned in one of the guidebooks. We had spring rolls, curry soup, shrimp with pepper sauce, and fried, mixed vegetables. We each paid $11 for our share. I was the last one back to the boat and was in bed by 10:00.

 

12 July 06, Wednesday

     I got up at 5:45, took a shower and was on the sun deck by 6 for a cup of coffee. The boat pulled away from the dock and headed upstream on the Mekong. At 7:30, we had breakfast; I had Cambodian noodle soup.

     At about 8:45, we pulled along the bank of a very long island, at a village called Chong Kohs ("End of Island"); Kohs means island. People were waiting for us with homemade textiles. They followed us everywhere like a swarm of bees. We looked at the local pagoda and then walked down the dirt road to a weaving workshop. I bought 2 hand-loomed scarves from the villagers there.

We got back on the boat and headed upstream. The Australian lady, Julie, loaned me the book "Year of Wonders," by Geraldine Brooks, to read. It's about the plague in England in the late 1600's and is a novel.

     We went to lunch and had a new Cambodian menu. I had stir-fried fish, seafood salad, coconut-encrusted fried banana and Tom Yum soup. We encountered a heavy storm after lunch. At about 4:30, we docked at Peam Chhykaung village. It was raining lightly the entire time. We visited an active Buddhist monastery and walked through the village. When I told the 21-year old monk how old I was, he said "You are very old." While walking in the village, a western man ducked out of a building and said, "We don't get many westerners here." It surprised me. He said he was from New Zealand, but had a definite Scottish accent. He found us later, accompanied by his toddler, "Ariana" and his girl friend. They had no electricity or water but lived in the best house in town. He came to show the little girl our boat. His girlfriend seemed very young, a teenager. He looked to be in his late 40's or 50's. He lives there for 6 months and must go back to New Zealand for six months to make some money. On the return, I slid down the wet bank and got muddy shoes.

     We had a Cambodian dinner at 7:30. At about 9:00, we anchored mid-channel at Kampong Cham. Here is the first bridge we've seen for a long time.

 

13 July 06, Thursday

     I got up at 5:45, took a shower and went to the sun deck. The crew raised the anchor and proceeded upstream. I could hear Buddhist chants and songs on loudspeakers coming from both sides of the river as we proceeded upstream. I went to breakfast at 7:30 (Cambodian noodle soup for me).

     At 9:00, we dropped anchor at a small village and climbed a hill with a monastery, pagoda's etc. known as Wat Hanchey (7th century to present). A pre-Angkoran ancient structure was still standing although many other structures were destroyed by the Pol Pot regime. Several school-age kids followed us around to practice English. We returned to the boat for lunch and then cruised back downstream to Kampong Cham.

     We moored at Kampong Cham and boarded a Mercedes bus at 2:30 PM. We went to the Man Mountain (Phnom Pros), took pictures and fed a bunch of small bananas to the monkeys.

We went from there to Wat Nokor, another ancient (7th century) temple. I noticed corbelled arches and vaults. We talked to a monk for awhile. He spoke very good English and wanted to be an interpreter after he served his time as a monk.

We next went to an orphanage and met the instructors and saw the children. I bought a small painting and took a picture of the young girl who painted it. We gave the school some school supplies that we purchased earlier.

     We returned to the boat a little late and cast off immediately at 5:00 PM.

I took a shower and then washed out a pair of socks and a shirt and the cuff area of my field khakis. I really need to get everything laundered, but will wait for Siem Reap.

     We ate at 7:30 and talked till about 9:00. I went to my room and was in bed by about 9:15. The boat continued downstream at full steam. I heard the anchor drop about 11:30 PM and looked out the window and saw Phnom Penh. We were docking at the same place as before. I went back to sleep.

 

14 July 06, Friday

     I awoke at 6:00, took a shower and then went to the sun deck to read and have a cup of coffee. Breakfast was at 7:30 and I had my usual Cambodian noodle soup. We had cast off by 6:30 and headed up the Tonle Sap River (flowing in reverse this time of year).

     At 10 AM we viewed an HBO documentary "History of Angkor Wat." The film was excellent, but the English subtitles were hilarious. A non-English speaking person misinterpreted the English and wrote nonsensical subtitles. I may get this DVD. After the movie, we toured the boat including the galley, engine room, lower deck cabins, and wheel house. I took lots of pictures.

We had lunch at 12:30 and then got ready for our afternoon excursion. We anchored at Kampong Chhnang, a river-side fishing village. Ninety percent of the houseboat fishermen are Vietnamese (2nd generation). We got on a launch at 2:30 and toured the houseboats and then went ashore and walked around the open market and a street market. Several ladies laughed at our big western noses. Some ladies laughed and called me "Old Grandfather" because of my beard. It was pretty hot.

We returned to the Pandaw by 4:00 and I took another shower. A half-hour later, we encountered a rain storm with a little bit of thunder and light rain. It seemed to follow us but stayed just to our east. After we left Kampong Chhnang, we headed for Preak Kdam, which I believe we passed earlier in the day.

     At dark, the crew came to the sun deck and we were served champagne, snacks, and a birthday cake for Chris Plowman (today was his birthday). They introduced each crew member and we all clapped. And then we sang "Happy Birthday" to Chris. After that we had dinner.

     We will set our luggage out tomorrow by 7:00 and travel 4 hours by bus to Siem Reap for the next leg of our trip.

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