Cruising the MekongApril 5 in Cambodia
After having read too many books about river adventures, not to mention having agreed to 6-1/2 weeks of constantly moving and traveling, Arie wanted a room and bed that he could call his own for a solid week. His solution was a river cruise on the Mekong. To say that I was skeptical would be putting it mildly. I like big adventure — new cities, tracking down interesting restaurants, walking down alleyways, etc. But, he was not only adamant, but had been a good sport about coming to Southeast Asia, which was my choice of locales, so I agreed.
We choose a 7 day cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City, that traveled down the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River. It is a relatively small ship — just 18 cabins. Since we are in the dry season, Tonle Sap is too low to allow cruising, so we had to fly to Phenom Pehn and then cruise back up into the lake. We met the rest of the guests at a hotel in Siem Reap, and quickly learned that the other 26 guests (so 28 in total) had toured Siem Reap as a group, so we were the last to come to the party! We boarded a bus to the airport. Even the bus was an experience, with the windows decorated with richly embroidered curtains that has tassels, and the seats decorated with matching embroidered covers.
After flying to Phenom Phen, we took another bus to the dock and boarded the Avalon Siem Reap. The vessel, which was first used in 2015, is in mint condition. The rooms are just lovely, and are larger than some hotel rooms that I’ve stayed in. The food is quite tasty, and there is plenty to drink.
As we met the passengers, we learned that we are the only Americans. Apparently, this is pretty unusual, as the cruise line (Avalon), primarily sells cruises to customers in the US. The majority of our fellow travelers are from Canada, although there are 2 couples from the UK, 2 from New Zealand and 2 from Australia. I also discovered that we are not actually the youngest couple on board, although the youngest couple were only a few years younger than us. There are 4 couples in their 50s, and the rest are in their mid-60s to early 70s. Our cruise director told me that this is an extremely young group, as most cruises are filled with people in their 70s and 80s, and our oldest guest is about to turn 79.
There are 28 members of the crew, about 60% of whom are from Vietnam and the remaining 40% are from Cambodia. Everyone on the ship speaks some English, and the crew with whom we interact all speak English and are eager to improve their language skills. The company is a joint venture between a Swiss family and a Vietnamese family, as all foreign companies operating in Vietnam have to be operated as a joint venture with the majority ownership (51%) held by the Vietnamese investor.
Our cruise director is a Vietnamese man named Phiem. He is a super interesting guy. He was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh city, and is the second youngest of 9 children. His family all survived the “American War,” but both of his parents died young, leaving him an orphan at 21. He attended University and earned a law degree. He had great difficulty finding a job when he graduated in 2000, as there were only 3 law firms in Ho Chi Minh. He says that he left the practice of law because his English language skills were not up to the task. Frankly, I find this hard to believe, as his English is fantastic, and I suspect that the reasons for his leaving were far more complicated. After leaving the law, he moved into tourism, and he has been working for Avalon for 4 years. Phiem is both gracious in answering all of our questions about life in Vietnam, and, more generally, about Southeast Asia. He is also extremely curious about life in the countries of the passengers. And, he has been extremely open about the challenges faced by Vietnam, including the incursion of Chinese money, the two child policy which is necessitated by economic difficulties, and changing social mores.
We also have local guides, who provides information about the sites that we see during land ventures.
For the first half of the cruise we are in Cambodia, and our guide is Sophea. He is in his late 30s, married, with a 7 month old daughter that he refers to as the “little princess.” Like Phiem, he is happy to share information about his life, family and views on life in Cambodia. He told me that his father’s family made it through the Khmer Rouge “genocide” due to actions of his paternal grandfather who worked for the government before the war. His grandfather astutely realized that the government was failing and that the Khmer Rouge were going to repress anyone who was an intellectual or aligned with the government. So, his grandfather took the family and move hundreds of kilometers away, so that they could hide their identities. Along the way, his grandfather went to the monastery in which his father was studying, and insisted that he leave and join the family in the countryside. There is no doubt that these actions saved the entire family.
Sophea, who has 5 sisters and 1 brother, was raised quite traditionally. He told me that his mother essentially ran the family. I gather that matriarchal families are the norm in Cambodia, in large part because girls remain with their families after marriage, and inheritance is passed through the girls. Sophea went to university to study electrical engineering. Early in his university career, his mother arranged a marriage for him with a woman from the neighborhood. Sophea refused to enter into the arrange marriage, causing his mother to deem him a bad son and stop speaking to him for quite some time. Sophea told her that he wanted to complete his education, and that he would make sure that his sisters received an education. Years later, after Sophea made sure that all of his sisters could go to school, his mother finally forgave him for refusing the wife that she had chosen for him!Read more