Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Mekong, Vietnam and Cambodia

From the barren Tibetan highlands, the Mekong river rumbles south through China's Yunnan province and winds its way along the Myanmar, Laos and Thai borders. Then it powers through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying in the South China Sea. At 4,350 kilometers, it is the seventh longest river in Asia and, arguably, Southeast Asia's most important natural resource.

Dams built along the upper parts of the river by China in recent decades have wreaked havoc on the river's flow, lowering water levels and damaging its ecology. Still, the river's fertile delta region -- called cuu long or nine dragons in Vietnamese -- is one of the world's largest producers of rice.

Though steep descents and swift rapids make the upper reaches of the Mekong difficult to navigate, its lower part in Cambodia and Vietnam is a gentle ride. It is this section of the river that I travel on the Orient Pandaw, a Pandaw Cruises boat.

Pandaw operates six boats in Asia with a seventh under construction. They ply the Mekong and the Irrawaddy as well as rivers on Borneo, and from later this year, in India. All the boats are built from a late-19th-century design of a paddle steamer operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. that was once a common sight in Burma. The boats carried everything from tamarind to rice to elephants -- and people.

In the mid-1990s, Paul Strachan found a 1947 version of the steamer called the Pandaw, originally part of the Flotilla fleet, in Mandalay. It was ferrying locals and goods, but badly in need of restoration. He had it repaired and launched Pandaw Cruises on the Irrawaddy. Mr. Strachan's company has gone on to make six replicas, each one hand-finished. Two of those boats, the Tonle Pandaw and the Mekong Pandaw, now ply the Mekong. (The Orient Pandaw has just been moved to Borneo.)

[Cambodia, Vietnam River Trip]

Pandaw Cruises

The trip: Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap over seven nights

The fare: $5,137 for two in a main-deck room during peak (high-water) season, from October to March.

The shorter trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh in peak season costs $2,640 for a couple. The fare covers meals, bus transportation, excursions and some alcoholic drinks such as local beer and basic cocktails.


On a Pandaw "steamer" -- the four deck-high boats are actually engine-powered -- there is no mistaking it: You are on a river boat. There are the knob-end metal light switches, an old-fashioned horn that blows before departures and the polished brass and teak throughout. Each of the 30-odd state rooms -- Pandaw boats can carry about 60 passengers -- has a ship-like efficiency that displays more river-boat charisma than five-star hotel lavishness. Still, the navy blue bedding and wood walls and floors make it cozy.

On the Orient Pandaw, the sun deck on top -- shaded by a cheerful yellow awning -- is so inviting that it's tempting to skip some of the land excursions, which some passengers did on my trip. Lounge chairs with navy blue cushions face the shore, so you can enjoy a drink and watch the banks as you coast by. Comfortable rattan sofas take up the deck's middle space, a perfect spot for reading.

Next time, though, I'll make sure the boat I'm on has plenty of indoor common space, as the Mekong Pandaw and Tonle Pandaw do. Unlike the Orient Pandaw, both have a saloon bar, a large indoor area with comfortable sofas where you can read or socialize in air-conditioned comfort yet still see outside.

I boarded at My Tho, a trading hub west of Ho Chi Minh City. As we headed toward Cambodia, one of our first stops was the town of Cai Be, where we visited floating markets, local rice-paper makers, an elegant historic residence known as the An Kiet house and An Binh, an incongruous French-Gothic church.

The next day, we stopped at Chau Doc, a pleasant Vietnamese delta town where we walked through a bustling market and were pedaled around on rickshaws. We also visited a Muslim neighborhood inhabited by the Cham, a group that traces back to the Champa kingdom that ruled the area centuries ago.

During the early part of the trip, the Mekong delta was so vast I couldn't see land. But as we neared Cambodia, the river narrowed and the shores drew nearer, affording glimpses of local life, like kids playing in the water and cattle cooling off in the mud.

Unfortunately I had to disembark in Phnom Penh and missed the rest of the cruise up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. I now regret not clearing my schedule -- three days on the Mekong is not enough.

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