The mighty river of the Mekong

A lighter moment … taking an ox-cart near the ancient capital Oudong. PIC: Sandra Burn White
A lighter moment … taking an ox-cart near the ancient capital Oudong. PIC: Sandra Burn White

The Mekong River flows through six countries — China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — but that doesn’t really measure its size or its impact on the many millions of people whose lives depend on its broad flow.

By any standards, it is a huge river — the twelfth longest in the world, the seventh longest in Asia.

There are times sitting in the middle of it on a river-cruise vessel that you have trouble differentiating both sides from the horizon.

By Australian standards, under which a largely dried-up Darling is big, the Mekong is a bloody huge river, bloody huge. Would you like me to stress that once more? Bloody huge. Only politeness limits me to the ‘b’ descriptor.

A matter of learning early. PIC: Sandra Burn White

A matter of learning early. PIC: Sandra Burn White

We’re on a seven-night APT adventure on board its AmaLotus, from near the Mekong’s southern Vietnamese delta mouth to Cambodia’s Siem Reap.

The latter has its own charms, including, of course, the temples around Angkor Wat, quite possibly the world’s best examples of ancient art. That itself should make the city subject of its own story.

The quality of accommodation on the AmaLotus is, as would be expected from APT, immaculate, both in terms of beautifully furnished and tended suites, and public areas that you just can’t wait to get back to.

Life on the Mekong … but normally it’s pretty tough. PIC: Sandra Burn White

Life on the Mekong … but normally it’s pretty tough. PIC: Sandra Burn White

The food is outstanding, and comes in local versions and, lets call them ‘European’ dishes, for the totally unadventurous.

Drinks and shore excursions are complimentary. The latter are well guided and conducted, when necessary, by attentively managed tenders.

It certainly doesn’t take long to realise that we’re in Buddhist territory, and I take some time out to burn a few sticks of incense for my recently late father.

Life on the Mekong … it can be fun, too. PIC: Sandra Burn White

Life on the Mekong … it can be fun, too. PIC: Sandra Burn White

He was far from being a religious man — “it’s just bull-bloody-shit”, he would likely have said — but I have a feeling that the Buddhist philosophy of doing no harm was one he could have lived with.

It also doesn’t take long to realise that were in parts of Vietnam — and soon Cambodia — that are virtually accessible only by water, that is only by the Mekong, and that almost all of the population lives either on the river or very close by.

People seems to learn to look after each other — and, more importantly, themselves — from a very young age indeed. First mistakes seem often to be punished.

Learning young … life on the Mekong. PIC: Sandra Burn White

Learning young … life on the Mekong. PIC: Sandra Burn White

The only time that passengers on the AmaLotus really had to make a decision came early after entering Cambodia — whether or not to take the optional journey from Phnom Penh into the notorious Killing Fields where more than a million people (some estimates put the figure at 2.5 million) were brutally slain by the Khmer Rouge in the second half of the 1970s.

We chose to take the tour. It was a sobering exercise indeed.

A much lighter moment comes near the ancient capital Oudong, near the village of Kampong Tralach, where guests are given an ox-cart ride through the countryside and back to AmaLotus.

Hopefully you won’t find yourself seated immediately behind a beast suffering from diarrhea.

Not for everyone … the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Killing Fields. PIC: Sandra Burn White

Not for everyone … the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Killing Fields. PIC: Sandra Burn White

The locals do a fine job of smiling and pretending it’s a new experience, even if it must be an almost daily occurrence.

Look, it isn’t the way many young people would choose to spend their holidays or spare cash, but for many others it’s the only practical way to experience an otherwise unreachable world.

And the Mekong River is certainly worth discovering.

IF YOU GO

APT — Phone 1300 336 932 or visit www.aptouring.com.au 

John Rozentals was a guest of APT.