On the bus ride from our hotel in Siem Reap to the riverboat that would carry us along the Mekong into Vietnam, we had a taste of what makes Cambodia so unique. It was a five-hour trip through rural areas, towns, poor villages and barren farmland. There were haystacks, rice spread out on the roadside to dry, people bagging grain and loading it on to trucks, and school children in navy skirts or trousers and spotless white shirts riding bicycles. A dead pig went past, tied to the back of a motor scooter with its legs pointing skyward, amid ducks and houses on stilts.
En route we stopped in the town where Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and Comrade Duch came from. A very sombre thought. Only now are the people managing to drag themselves back into the modern world. There are signs of increased prosperity but there is a long way to go and with a huge drop in population it will take some time to fully recover. Tourism is helping and we felt welcome.
A seven-night cruise on the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam was a chance to catch a glimpse of this fascinating area. We travelled on the RV Mekong Pandaw, a charming teak riverboat, a replica of the boats made famous in Burma from the mid-19th century for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Our boat was built in 2002 and refitted in 2012 to a high standard. It has only 26 cabins, far smaller than some of the other tourist boats plying the Mekong, so we were certain to be a small group. Our fellow-passengers ranged in age from mid-30s to mid-70s, all keen travellers, and from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. We couldn't have imagined a more congenial group.
On our first night onboard we sailed up river to view the sunset, and then back to the mooring spot in the attractive town of Kampong Cham. Here tables with candles were attractively set on the little jetty for our dinner.
The next few days passed quickly. Sitting on the sundeck we had great views of farmland, fishing boats and people going about their busy lives. Each day we moored somewhere different. One day we visited a village of silversmiths, where we watched them hammering and decorating beautiful silver jewellery, trays, bowls and utensils. We were taken to a school where the children rushed out, grabbing our hands while others exchanged high-fives. They were keen to try out their English and seemed to enjoy our visit as much as we enjoyed visiting them. The classrooms were bare but the children seemed happy and the teachers grateful for the gifts we had brought — picture books in English, stickers, calendars, exercise books and pencils.
One evening we stopped at a village. The local men hacked out steps on the dirt bank for us to clamber up. The crew acted as a chain gang to help the less fit reach the top. Then they carried tables, nibbles, drinks and a "boom box" to the flat area of land in front of the houses. We had bought gifts of french bread from a local market to share with the children. Then the music and dancing started, the locals joining in with great hilarity, children, adults, passengers and crew all weaving in and out. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
We visited a village where rice paper and candy was being made, cruised by sampan through bustling floating markets, walked through markets on the riverbank where everything imaginable was sold — live fish, chickens, frogs, skinned rats ready for the pot, vegetables, flowers and fruit. One of our guides showed us how to eat a local delicacy — baby ducklings not yet out of the shell. We abstained. And weaving in and out of the crowded markets were motor scooters tooting, pushbikes with bells clanging, people carrying bundles of goods for sale or pushing laden trolleys.
As we continued downstream we saw people swimming or washing in the river as water buffaloes wallowed. We were hailed by excited children waving until we were out of sight. Water hyacinths were in abundance. They weren't flowering at the time but they created a sea of floating bright green leave. Local fishermen set their nets among the greenery. It was all very attractive but the hyacinths are a real problem, as they get tangled in the boats' rudders and block the waterways. At one corner of the river it reached from bank to bank and we wondered how our boat would pass through this mass of thick foliage. The crew managed with much revving of motors and skilful manoeuvring.
In Phnom Penh we visited the elaborate Royal Palace, the immaculate grounds and the richness of the pagodas and the palace contrasted greatly with the poor towns and villages we had passed. From here some of our fellow travellers visited the Killing Fields and found it a sobering experience. We opted for a ride around the streets on cyclos — fun but scary.
Once we crossed into Vietnam, the scenery changed. From bare, scruffy land we began to see the bright greens of well-cultivated rice paddies, banana plantations and corn fields. The river was alive with boats, dredges, fish farms, container ships, and barges so laden with shingle that water was lapping over their sides. Small fishing boats bobbed up and down in the wake of bigger vessels. The more prosperous economy was evident the closer we came to the more populated areas, with big industrial complexes and modern warehouses lining the riverbanks. A land getting a taste for the prosperity and progress their neighbours in Cambodia still seek.
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Siem Reap, via their hub in Singapore.