Heart of Lightness: Journeying up the Mekong

There’s something about traveling up a river. Going downstream is not the same – it’s just going with the flow. Rivers at their end are tame, civilized, and known. Upstream is the wild, the unknown. That’s part of the power of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.

So our Mekong trip had to be upstream. From Saigon, chaotic, bustling, energetic – to Kampong Cham, a typical Cambodian town – with a coda in the heart of the Khmer empire’s temples, including Angkor Wat. In this case: the heart of lightness.

The darkness of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War) and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge sit just below the surface of any conversation or rural scene. Any questioning of people in Southern Vietnam about their parents seems to bring up stories of re-education camps and villagers negotiating their way between loyalties demanded by US troops (by day) and the Viet Cong (by night). And in Cambodia you don’t see many older people. A casual enquiry of one man in his 30s revealed that he grew up as a refugee and an orphan. One third of the Cambodian population died between 1974 and 1978.

So how can people be so happy, spontaneously friendly, and generous? Maybe that’s the only way you can cope with such a legacy. Maybe it’s Buddhism, which for most is a way of life, not just a label.  Go into a temple in Vietnam or Cambodia and you will find it bursting with life as people come to offer daily devotions or to participate in community events.

I’m no expert. These are just musings after our trip in June to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It was our first time abroad since we lived in the US in the early 1980s, which followed extensive backpacking through out Europe, Morocco, Indonesia and NZ. In the meantime we raised four children. We couldn’t afford 6 airfares. But now our youngest is 15 and all of them have had at least one overseas trip (almost all at our expense). So it was our turn!  Jill wrote 30,000 words in her trip diary. I can only give impressions and vignettes.

Some people hate flying. I’m not one of them. I love looking out the window. On our flight there we saw Lake Eyre in flood, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) the endless ridges of the Great Sandy Dessert, Bali, Mt Bromo (Java), hundreds of ships in Singapore Harbour, and the Mekong Delta, carrying water from the Himalayas, each of its many tendrils many times wider than any Australian river. That’s a holiday in itself! On our return flight we saw the Angkor irrigation systems and a sunrise to die for.

On arrival in Saigon we changed $50 and became instant millionaires (in Đồng)! A slightly dissolute French Colonial era hotel on the Saigon River made an excellent introduction to the city. Crossing the roads made me glad we were insured. Riding in a tuk-tuk was like being in one of those video games. There are 9 million people and 5 million motorcycles in Saigon. That’s two per bike, but you’ll often see 4 or 5 on the same bike. And they’re all in a hurry. We visited the Củ Chi Tunnels – a powerful echo or the war experience, but verging on being a theme park. The propaganda video was a highlight.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-4itVtdzKU

Our boat, the Saigon Pandaw

The river cruise started on the delta near Saigon. Our boat was brand new, but designed in Colonial style, with lots of wood paneling.

We’ve never had a holiday like this before: our every need was catered for, and we were traveling without having to organize transport, seek out meals and find accommodation. The world passed us by as we ate, sipped cocktails and chatted with other passengers and the crew. The food was stunning. The cabin was small and comfortable, not luxurious – but oh, the views!

After the first day, once we had passed the heavy industrial downstream section, river life was busy but gentle. Always a family or two in their boats casting, dragging or pulling in a fishing net, a ferry plying the river, larger boats transporting goods. From the banks, there always seemed to be children waving excitedly and running alongside as we gently swished by. There were more temples than you could imagine. Many of the towns and villages were beautiful. Some were polluted with industry, such as the dark satanic brick kilns.

The river didn’t appear to have much rubbish floating in it, but it is difficult to say how polluted it is. Things are definitely changing. China is planning a huge dam upstream, and so is Laos, the effects of which can only be imagined. The tour company rep on the ship said that she sees fewer and fewer fish being pulled up in the nets as the fish are disappearing due to fishing practices such as the use of dynamite. We visited a fish farm – most of the basa sold in Australia comes from Mekong farms – but I’d be careful of the chemicals and drugs they are given.

We did a side trip up (or down?) the Tonlé Sap River. It flows from the Mekong into the huge Tonlé Sap lake in the wet season, and reverses its flow as the dry season progresses.

We visited floating markets, where each boat specializes in a particular fruit of vegetable, and the buyers (punters – literally) tootle around between them in their boats.  Many of the boats are prepelled by people standing and operating two oars in a most serene and balletic fashion.

There are also floating villages, such as Kampong Chhnang.  Because the river height varies enormously, houses on shore have dizzyingly high stilts.  The more elegant solution is floating houses built on pontoons of bamboo or something more modern. These homes rise and fall with the river.  They are simple dwellings, but of course most have TV aerials or satellite dishes and the skyline bristled with mobile phone towers.

Floating village, Kampong Chhnang (note the satellite dish)

Every day we visited one or more villages. Most were off the beaten tourist track and had nothing to sell visitors, so the posse of kids chasing us were mostly there just for the fun of it, not as a ploy to get us to go to their family’s factory or shop – though there was some of that. We visited a couple of schools, and the kids were such a delight.

Village school, Angkor Ban

We visited a monastery school, and the sight of saffron robed youths on swings and play equipment was one that took me some getting used to. We had guides who spoke the local language who helped us have conversations with people sitting under their stilted houses, and we learned more about life that way than we might have had we been traveling independently.

Monastery school, Wat Han Chey

Cool line dance caller, Phnom Penh

We discovered that line dancing is an extremely popular activity at dusk in parks, especially by rivers, from Phnom Penh to smaller villages.

On the boat it wasn’t all canapés and cocktails (and crickets – did I mention I ate crickets?). There were lectures on history and culture, as well as on board performances of traditional music, dance and crafts. I was entranced by the musical instruments, including the dàn bầu (Vietnamese monochord zither) which is played using harmonics. I was delighted to pick one up here in Melbourne by chance recently.

Dàn bầu

Any visit to Cambodia is confronting. Phnom Penh is a place of such contrasts, with big European boulevards, and with towers of commerce under construction reflecting times of past and current boom –the period of Khmer Rouge rule in between only short but had such a huge impact. The Choeung Ek killing fields just outside Phnom Penh are a place of unspeakable horror where each new rain uncovers more clothes and remains.

S21 prison, Phnom Penh (internet photo)

The museum at the S21 prison, a former high school is utterly harrowing. Rule 6 on the billboard: “Do not cry out while being tortured.” The place is full of rooms with walls lined mug shots of the frightened or often simply bewildered adults and children who had been kept, tortured then executed.

Our holiday ended with some extraordinary days visiting the temples of Angkor Wat and the surrounding area. I can’t describe them. You just have to go there.

Preah Palilay temple ruins

We were transported by the wonderful Thun Chanthet in his tuk-tuk, who we are still in touch with. We were there off-season, so it was possible to get some peace and quiet at times and in some places. A delightful surprise was a trip to Kbal Spean, a clear stream tumbling over tiers of rock brimming with sacred carvings. It was a place of ritual purification and the water is spiritually purified by flowing over the carvings. And we were the only tourists there.

A fitting end to our journey into the heart of lightness.

Kbal Spean

There are more photos on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150912976589607.414072.604839606&type=3


3 Responses to “Heart of Lightness: Journeying up the Mekong”

  1. 1 Glenys Anderson November 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Hey Bruce, Loved reading about your adventures. I know that your read my “On the Road News” when we travel and I wanted to return that interest. It sounded like a great trip and you transported me to the places with your words. Did you write any songs? Look forward to catching up with you at – I think you are on the Woodford program!!! Love Glenys Anderson xxx

  2. 3 For no one November 20, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    Very good made me feel like I was there

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