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Mekong Cruise, Day One: Siem Reap to Chnok Tru

DayOne

I chose the Mekong River cruise by G Adventures because of the price and the stated values and objectives in their online brochure. I had never been on a cruise before and always had been a DIY kind of guy, so I didn't have any idea on what to expect... but I thought this would be a good way to see the area between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.

Myself and the other travelers met at a fancy hotel near the airport and were herded onto a bus with our luggage. It was a strange ride because the roads got smaller and worse as we went along. After about a half hour we ended up at a small floating pier on Tonle Sap Lake. Kenny, our CEO (Chief experience Officer) then got us onto a small, rough boat lined with flimsy deck chairs; here is the captain with his children as part of the crew.

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This boat, like all the others have some strange contraption at the back to lower the propeller into the water, and he started it, and off we went to find our cruise boat .
Tonle Sap Lake, during the dry season is 250 square KMs with an average depth of 1.5 meters, but this being the rainy season grows to 12,000 square KMs ... and it was "water as far as the eye could see", except for a few village clusters of house boats, just off the shore.

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After about 15 minutes of cruising, we arrived at our boat, the Toum Tiou II, anchored in deep water, waiting for us..

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One of the things that concerned me was that I would be sharing a cabin, (single supplements were designed to be prohibitively expensive), but the ship only holds 28 passengers, and luckily for me I was the only single male traveler, so I when I arrived at the boat, I was happy to find a whole cabin to myself.
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We soon set off and the heat of the late afternoon was mitigated by the breeze we created as we cruised. The clouds started closing in just before supper time, and there were some ominous dark gray patches and sheet lightening in the sky, as we went into the dining room for supper.

Weather on a shallow lake can turn nasty quite quickly, and as we ate, the rain and the wind both showed their fury... We could see it from inside, but only when we left the comfort of the dining room, could we feel the torrential rain and the strength of the wind. It was so strong in fact that when it slammed the dining room door, glass in the door shattered. That pretty much sent almost everyone back to their rooms.

During the night, the boat was buffeted by the wind and waves, even after it anchored at Chnok Tru around 10PM. Fury like that however, tends to wear itself out and by 5 AM the hardy souls who had gotten up early, we're rewarded with a beautiful sunrise .

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Posted by tedvanrossum 02:16 Archived in Cambodia Comments (3)

Mekong Cruise, Day Two: Chnok Tru to Kampong Tralach

Day Two

We cruised further down the Tonle Sap Lake, and saw many fishing boats with the engine on one end of a long shaft and the propeller on the other. This is a very interesting design because, you can go quite quick without having the bow raised by the torque from the propeller. This also makes the boats extremely manoeuvrable since you can swing the shaft almost 270 degrees..

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You could also clearly see areas that would be dry land in the dry season, but now only accessible by boat.

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We arrived in Kampong Chhang in mid morning for our first excursion. This town is situated where the Tonle Sap Lake empties into the Tonle Sap River (this is a tributary of the Mekong) and we got into a small boat to take us ashore. Kenny got us into 3 vans and we drove through the market street and into the country side to see a pottery maker.

This woman buys clay from the rice farmers and makes large pots without a pottery wheel. As you can see here, she moves around the pottery piece, rather than it spinning in front of her. She is a wonderfully talented crafts person but also is quite poor; she only earns a few dollars a day making pots. A number of us bought some of her smaller pots, and Kenny gave her a tip for showing us how she made them.

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At the farm next door, we visited a 65 year old palm farmer who made palm sugar and palm wine (actually it was more like strong moonshine than wine). He collects palm sap by scoring the palm fruit and letting it drip into bamboo buckets (like maple syrup). It takes 30 years before a palm tree can be harvested, and he showed how he can climb the palm trees with a bamboo ladder he made. He even dressed up a couple of travelers in local costumes... I think it suits them.

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On the way back to the boat, we cruised along the river to see the floating village. As you can see there are a lot of fisherman's homes and some stores as well.

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We then got back on the Toum Tiou and sailed down one of the smaller arms of the Tonle Sap to a small village where ox carts were waiting to take us to the Wat Kampong Tralach Pleu pagoda. As we rode, children would yell hello and wave, ... we would wave back... It felt like we were royalty.

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Here we took our shoes off and went into the pagoda so the monk could give each person a blessing. On exiting we were surrounded by little kids who would give us small wild flowers or rings made from palm fronds. They didn't ask for money, but their eyes did. Kenny gave them each some crayons at the end of our visit.

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We took the ox carts back to the ship, and boarded the boat just in time to beat another early evening down pour. Luckily the channel was narrow, so we didn't have large waves rocking the boat like the previous night. We stayed there, docked in the mud, over night. It was a good day, and what I really liked the most was meeting the crafts people and being able to support their industry.

Posted by tedvanrossum 16:34 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Mekong Cruise, Day Three: Kampong Tralach to Phnom Penh

Day 3

The next morning the Toum Tiou pulled itself out of the mud and sailed on towards Phnom Penh.

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On the way, we stopped at a small town called Koh Chen to visit a silversmith workshop. There was no dock there, so the captain again brought the boat right up against the shore. This was an intricate process, but in the end, the travelers could easily walk ashore.

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The workshop was a family business, dedicated to pure, good quality products. The daughter who knew English showed how unscrupulous manufactures could easily make something in cheap copper then plate the item with a very fine coating of silver by rinsing it in a "acidic silvering solution". They could stamp a 92% silver mark on it and the buyer will have no way of knowing if it was solid silver or only plated. (She also showed us how we could test if something was solid or plated silver by using silver cleaner. If it polishes nicely it is solid silver, but if it stays dark, it is not.)

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It appears the silver Barong ring I bought in Bali is not solid silver after all.

This woman pastes on a paper template and then hammers in the design onto the copper pot. Note that she first fills the pot with a resin that solidifies so the pot does not deform when she is working on it.

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These workers are heating up a copper ring to solder onto the copper pot. Note that the torch they are using is powered by gasoline fumes. That was an interesting contraption.

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Here are some of the beautiful pieces for sale at this workshop.

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We then went for a walk in the village and saw a number of silver smith workshops, a beautiful temple and ended up at an outdoor math classroom where this 82 year old man teaches remdial math. There was no class today, but he did tell us about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge. They threw all the teachers and intellectuals into jail and sent everyone else to the country side to farm. Many, many people did not survive or were killed, he was lucky to be alive.

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Lunch on board was a more somber affair after hearing his story, but we soon reached Phnom Penh, and Kenny had something special in store for us.

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As we came into Phnom Penh, it felt like we were leaving the wilderness and arriving into civilization again. These were the first tall buildings I had seen in Cambodia.

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The piers were very busy with river cruise boats, so we doubled up and docked against a Viking cruise ship. When we got off our boat there were 28 Cyclo Cabs waiting for us. Kenny was going to give us a Whirl Wind Tour of the city's highlights... the King's Palace, Independence Monument, Wat Phnom and the Day Market.

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We only had 45 minutes at the market before it closed, but I made the best of it by buying some nice tee shirts, including one with Tin Tin on it. Kenny then organized Tuk Tuks for us to go to a good, but inexpensive restaurant for supper. It was on the second floor and we felt the cool, early evening breeze through the large windows as we drank beer and ate supper.... but then it started to rain, and then rain hard! Since we were protected from the rain in the restaurant we lingered over the meal. A bonus was the huge fire works show that suddenly appeared out over the river... we had a wonderful view even though it was still raining hard... I don't what they were celebrating, but at the end there was a huge boom but nothing in the sky... some of us were guessing that the heavy rain might have caused a short and killed the show prematurely.

The rain was not letting up, so we all got soaked as we went back to the boat.

Posted by tedvanrossum 02:20 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Mekong Cruise, Day Four: Phnom Penh

Day Four

As always seems to happen on this cruise, the morning was clear and beautiful, and since we were not sailing anywhere toay, we could have a late start. The excursion plan was to go to the "Khmer Rouge Killing Fields" and the notorious "S-21 Prison" which is now a Museum.

I personally don't have to be convinced of the cruelty that man can inflict on his fellow men in the name of some ideal, nor could I do anything about it since it was in the past, so I decided to skip this morbid excursion and tour Phnom Penh instead. I wasn't the only one "playing hookie", Gary, Ligita and Meira were my fellow slackers.

We started our tour at the Royal Palace; our glimpse from outside the complex yesterday was very enticing, so today we were going to explore it at our leisure. It wasn't guarded with pomp and ceremony like Buckingham Palace; there was only one soldier on guard, and he was standing in the shade of the guard house... but since it was very hot and sunny, I didn't blame him.

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Once inside the complex we could see the impressive main temple, unfortunately we couldn't go inside and photograph its golden Buddha.

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Here is his Majesty King Norodom's Stupa.

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This is the temple of the Emerald Buddha
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In one of the lessor temples I found a "serenity" of Buddhas.

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Next it was off to the market in a Tuk Tuk where we could explore all the myriad necessities, curiosities and treasures on offer. The market is covered, and in the centre we find the treasures, like watches, jewelry and money changers. If we take one of the wings we can find the curiosities, like t-shirts, scarves and fridge magnets, (mainly for the tourists), but if you go to the very back, you can find the necessities of life, like a lunch of roasted squid, or fried crickets.

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You can also find your live fish, ... maybe you want it dried, or maybe you don't want fish at all.

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Having completed our souvenir shopping, we took a Tuk Tuk back to the waterfront to find a nice sidewalk restaurant ... in the shade ... with a breeze.

At the next table was an Norwegian oil worker, in for the weekend from Thailand. After a nice conversation he casually mentioned that the drop in temperature of the breeze indicated that it would rain soon... so we headed back to the boat to wait for the Apsara Show on the upper deck at 5PM.

Apsara is a classical dance style dating back to the Angkorian era. The dance is characterized by precise movements and gestures of hands and feet, each representing some concept or story. You often see wall carvings depicting it.

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Apsara nearly vanished in the 70's when the Khmer Rouge killed almost 90% of the Cambodian artists and intellectuals. Our dance troop was from a local high school and they were studying this and other dance forms to be professional dancers.

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As you may have guessed, the show was interrupted by a real torrential downpour... but since the "show must go on", they did the last dance under the canopy...
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The rain didn't stop when they finished, so they had to pass all the equipment and costumes, through the rain, to the cruise we were docked against, so we could get on our way. As we left Phnom Penh, the Tonle Sap River finally joined into the Mekong. Tomorrow morning we would cross the border into Vietnam.

Posted by tedvanrossum 18:51 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

Mekong Cruise, Day Five: Phnom Penh to Chau Doc

Day Five

We were finally on the Mekong River, and when I woke up, the Toum Tiou had anchored at the border waiting for the Vietnamese border guard to stamp our passports and let us in. The purser had taken our passports at the outset of the trip, and now he was dealing with the border guards on our behalf.

You can see below, all the cargo ships queued at the border.

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And here is the border.

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We left the Mekong a little further down stream and took the Vinh Te canal to the Bassac River. This canal was lined with fish farms, each of these floating houses had a fish pen underneath, 10 meters deep. Below, you can see a new one being built. The factory in the background makes fish food for these farms.

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As we went along we saw a lot more farming and river traffic than we had seen in Cambodia.

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When we arrived in Chau Doc we had another first, the Toum Tiou was able to tie up to its own pier.

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Tra Su Bird Sanctuary

We drove to the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary in 3 mini-vans, and then walked for about 10 minutes until we reached a boat launch in what seemed to be a swamp, filled with Lotus and water hyacinths. These motorboats took us through the swamp into a forest of cajuput trees, also flooded with water.

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The boats landed in a protected part of the forest where ladies in small boats were waiting to paddle us through the bird nesting area. It was difficult to photograph the birds as we glided along; as soon as you lined up a shot, a tree would get in the way. I did get one, but I don't know what kind of bird it was.

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We then took the motor boats to the Observation Platform and restaurant at the Centre of the park. Kenny was able to translate the menu for us, since he was Vietnamese, and he exhorted us to try the strange delicacies on the menu. In particular, he was recommending the "long tailed chicken"... (he later admitted it was also known as rat).

Here is the view from the bird observation tower. You can see Sam Mountain in the background; that is our next destination.

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Sam Mountain

In the late afternoon, as we were leaving the Bird Sanctuary, the sky changed from fluffy white to a more ominous grey. We all knew what this would hold in store, but in spite of that we pushed on to tour the summit of Sam Mountain. Thirteen of us had opted to ride up the mountain on the back of motor-scooters, while the rest rode in luxury and comfort in the mini-vans.

The 5 minute ride up was steep, twisty and fun. My driver was very good at taking the curves and missing most of the pot holes. He was so good in fact that he even though he started at the end of the pack, he finished third.

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The view from the look out was amazing and we all enjoyed taking pictures, though the grey clouds seem to be building very quickly. I went to the second look out area, which resembled a temple, and came across a woman selling finches you could release and get good karma.

Being the kind hearted soul I am, I naturally bought one... (I wouldn't be surprised if these are trained birds that fly home, like homing pigeons.)

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The rain held off so far, so we took the scooters back down the hill... more fun ... and drove through part of downtown, till we came to the parking lot where our van waited.

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Just as we started to board our van, it started to pour... not just rain, but a strong torrential rain. Of course we congratulated ourselves on our good luck, having missed riding through that on the scooters... Only to realize that we haven't completely dodged the bullet; we still needed to make the 50 meter dash from the van to the boat... Yes, I was soaked.

Posted by tedvanrossum 04:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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