05. Cruising Cambodia

  1. 01. To The Rescue
  2. 02. Last Minute Minutia
  3. 03. Spiritual Me
  4. 04. A New Approach
  5. 05. Cruising Cambodia
  6. 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
  7. 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
  8. 08. A Day on the River Limbo
  9. 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
  10. 10. Saigon Reunification
  11. 11. The Way to Huế
  12. 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
  13. 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
  14. 14. Southeast Asian Rescue

There are a couple drawbacks to taking a Mekong River cruise downstream from Siem Reap, particularly during Cambodia’s brief but convincing dry season. First, the Mekong River doesn’t go anywhere near Siem Reap, making the proposed excursion an impossibility any time of year. Instead, the cruises usually start on nearby Lac Tonle Sap, crossing its length before proceeding down the Tonle Sap River, which meets the Mekong at Phnom Penh. During the dry season, even that is an impossibility, as the lake drops nine to twelve meters. At the moment it is only a half-meter deep, making it easier to hike than cruise.

We boarded a quite luxurious bus, if there is such a thing, for a five hour ride to a spot on the Tonle Sap River deep enough to float our ship. Our bus had only eight passengers, while the other identical bus had closer to thirty. We soon deduced that we had been segregated by language, our small group being the English-speakers, all Aussies. We’d be getting a lot of individual attention, the small group size an advantage to the late-season cruise. The other bus was teeming with French-speakers, presumably from places that speak French. IMG_8311Along the way our tour guide for the Cambodian leg of the cruise, Samath, was introduced, a well-spoken young man with a handsome toothy smile. He immediately ingratiated himself by providing snacks. As we travelled he rattled off random but useful information for those of us that hadn’t done their homework, like me.

Let’s see: Cambodia’s population is 16.5 million, geography is central plains surrounded by mountains, roughly the size of Washington state, with a significant coastline on the Gulf of Thailand, current form of government had its first elections in 1993, King Norodom Sihanouk returned, died 2004, now it’s his son King Norodom Sihamoni.

We passed countless families enjoying the long holiday break in the cool shade under their houses which are built on stilts due to the seasonal flooding. IMG_8334The more prosperous families were joined by their cattle. No one looked happier than the farmers idle in their hammocks who had waited an entire year for a chance to do exactly nothing, relatively free from toil until the end of the dry season — which would be any minute now. IMG_8323One town had a full fledge parade in progress as we passed, many happy youths slapping their elders silly with white goop. IMG_8343Another village highlight was the candied arachnids (that is, chocolate covered spiders) at the market.

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At Prek K’Dam we crossed the Tonle Sap River on “The Australian Bridge”, so-named because it was paid for by Australian foreign aid, something the current government of Australia has seen fit to ensure never happens again. The RV Mekong Prestige II appeared on the river bank, down a flight of earthen stairs carved out of the clay. The ship, less than a year old, promised clean, comfortable, modern living. After a quick orientation, our luggage exploded throughout our stateroom, as it does for an eight day stay.

The Cruise Director was a lovely French woman named Gaby. She explained that we were on an unusual cruise for a few reasons. It was the last cruise of the season. Most of the other fifteen Mekong River cruise ships (15!) had already ceased operation, so we had the river largely to ourselves. Gaby noted “ourselves” was rather an odd lot, too, being entirely French and Australian. She confirmed that while “there’s always a few Aussies on board”, the line usually marketed to Germans and English.

IMG_8366We were served a light late lunch, during which passengers cliques began to solidify. The language segregation continued, this time by choice. The food was excellent, including an abundance of sausage aimed at the German and English palate, but the French influence of the line ownership, the chef and Cambodia itself was dominant, thankfully. The local beer was good, the local wine bearable, and all of it free — well, paid for and included, anyway. By dinner, each of the Aussies had determined that the others were tolerable, even enjoyable. A good sign. But could it last eight days? Most families cannot survive eight days of such togetherness.

After dinner Gaby explained that the only cost not included in the cruise price was tips for the tour guides, and even that was entirely discretionary. “I suggest $15 per person, which I give to the guides in the envelope daily.” Australia is not a tipping culture, but Australians are pretty good at math. Each of us shifted uncomfortably in our chairs as we multiplied eight days times two people times fifteen dollars. Neither do Australians like to be seen as complainers, so not a word was said in protest.

I don’t think I was the only one that grumbled himself to sleep. In the morning the Aussies bonded with a round robin of grumbling one-on-ones, with more questions than answers. Weren’t all the excursions supposed to be included? Who are we supposed to pay? When? Does it just go on the bill? What bill? There are no tours on the first and last days, so is it $15 times six, seven or eight days?

As we left for the morning tour, I attempted to extract some answers from the purser at the front desk, but he could only say it was completely optional and that only Gaby could answer my questions. IMG_8363She was nowhere to be seen at the moment, so I dawned the mandatory lifejacket and boarded the launch for a tour of the floating village at Kampong Chhang.

The village was reported to have a thousand families totaling about ten thousand inhabitants, you do the math. IMG_8369IMG_8377The floating part of the village was largely Vietnamese, many if not most having arrived as refugees. In a flood plain where the difference between high and low water can be twelve meters or more, a floating house makes a lot of sense. IMG_8394Several houses had satellite dishes and solar panels, inside children huddled over their smartphones. Unlike the Cambodian farming families, these fishing folks were less inclined to smile and wave. I got the sense that when it came to tourists gawking at them, they were over it.

IMG_8418Onshore we climbed up the considerable banks to the centre of town where a few French colonial era buildings remained, crumbling from having been flooded every odd year for the past ninety or so. IMG_8400The dwellings on the village fringe were on stilts, simple structures but more appropriate to their environment. The merchants were not the least bit aggressive trying to IMG_8464sell their wares, instead patiently waiting for questions or offers. IMG_8447This was something of a relief, as I, for one, get tired of fending off hawkers. Our group rejoiced in the beauty of “Hello Beer” packaged much like Heineken, and purchased electric fly swatters.

All in all Kampong Chhang was an interesting excursion, although I subscribe to the traveller’s credo that any place closely observed is fascinating.

Back on board, as everybody filed into lunch, I caught Gaby at the front desk.

“Excuse me, the tour guide tip money, is it fifteen dollars per day for six, seven, or eight days, and how do we pay?”

Gaby regarded me carefully, as one might on coming across a porcupine for the first time. “Ah, it is one fifteen dollars, fifteen dollars per cruise, not per day, and you pay me, but it is not required.”

“Oh, really?” I replied, pleased and relieved. “I suggest you re-explain that to your English-speakers, because I can assure you every one of us thinks it is fifteen dollars per person per day!”

Gaby’s eyes bugged out and jaw dropped. “Oh, NO! I’ll fix that right now!” She dropped her task at hand, hustling into the restaurant where she explained the misunderstanding to our misdirected mob. The mood lightened considerably.

We might make it eight days after all.

SK