On Mekong, triumph over tragedy

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A floating house on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia.
A floating house on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

Sailing along the Mekong toward Phnom Penh onboard Uniworld's magnificent French colonial-style, teakwood-appointed River Orchid, I felt more than a tinge of excitement mixed with a good dose of trepidation.

The latter because I associated Cambodia's capital with the horrific scenes generated during the time of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime.

What I found instead was a vibrant city that, while never forgetting its recent past, has focused on its promising future. The same can be said for the cities and towns we visited throughout Cambodia and all along the Mekong as we passed seamlessly into Vietnam's section of the 2,700-mile-long river.

After obtaining a multiple-entry visa for Vietnam and packing an extra passport photo for a Cambodia visa that Uniworld would obtain for me directly, I joined its southbound Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong tour in Hanoi. The precruise section of the trip begins with an exploration of Vietnam's capital, then a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a visit to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. It's impressive to see how the new tourism mecca of Siem Reap has developed a solid tourism infrastructure in the short period since its recent Khmer Rouge-induced dark ages.

Triumph over tragedy

After a half-day drive along the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, we boarded the 168-foot, 27-cabin and two-suite River Orchid at Kampong Cham and got our first glance at the mighty Mekong.

In addition to being home to one of the world's longest bamboo bridges, Kampong Cham has its own sacred sites worth visiting, including the twin holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey (Man Hill and Woman Hill) with massive gilded Buddha statues and an endless parade of monkeys.

After a great night's sleep aboard the River Orchid, we cruised upriver to Wat Hanchey, a strategically situated temple complex with a spectacular overview of the Mekong River. Over the next few days we explored life along the Mekong and Tonle Sap River, including the floating village of Kampong Chhnang.

Boys take turns jumping off a bridge in Chau Doc, Vietnam.
Boys take turns jumping off a bridge in Chau Doc, Vietnam. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

And then it was time for Phnom Penh. The bright lights of the city observed from the deck as we sailed down the Mekong toward the capital were the first indication that the reality of the capital was far different from what I had imagined. A late evening stroll through the vibrant night market confirmed it. Life had returned in full stride to Phnom Penh.

As the next morning's sun rose over the Mekong, I set out by cyclo (a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw) to explore the city with two hours put aside to explore the spectacular Royal Palace complex, built in 1866 to house the kings of Cambodia.

Two must-visit locations for those who want to gain a better understanding of the Khmer Rouge's years of terror is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa. The museum grounds were once Security Prison 21, a former high school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture and interrogation center. An estimated 17,000 men, women and children were taken from the prison to what became known as the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It's hard to reconcile the peaceful, pastoral beauty of present-day Choeung Ek with the horrific mass executions that took place here during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Tiles being loaded onto a cart in a brick factory in Sa Dec, Vietnam.
Tiles being loaded onto a cart in a brick factory in Sa Dec, Vietnam. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris

After two days of exploring Phnom Penh, our floating hotel set sail for the Cambodian/Vietnam border.

Vietnam's Mekong is lined with one bustling town after another, including Chau Doc, Cai Be and Sa Dec, where we explored traditional floating markets and homes on a sampan excursion before hitting terra firma.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut made this very special cruise even more unique. He had been invited as a Uniworld guest to talk about his 10 years covering the Vietnam War for Associated Press as well as the story behind one of the most important photographs in history, that of a young napalm victim named Kim Phuc fleeing her village of Trang Bang on June 8, 1972. After his presentation to a spellbound audience made up of passengers and crew, Nick and I adjourned to the sundeck.

"The last time I was on the Mekong between Cambodia and Vietnam, the Viet Cong were shooting at us all along the way," he recalled. "I could not imagine at that time that I would be doing this trip years later in such luxury."

Luxury was not unknown to a small segment of the society much earlier in the Mekong's history as I discovered with fellow passengers on the walking segment of the Sa Dec tour, where we visited the Huynh Thuy Le House, a late-19th century structure made famous by its connection to best-selling French novelist Marguerite Duras.

Duras spent her teenage years in Sa Dec, and her prize-winning novel "L'Amant" ("The Lover") is said to be based on her doomed love affair with Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese landowner.

The next day my own love affair, with the beautifully handcrafted River Orchid, had to come to an end, as well. As my fellow shipmates and I disembarked at My Tho for the hour-and-a-half transfer to Ho Chi Minh City, we were bid a fond farewell by a captain and Vietnamese/Cambodian crew that for the past week had treated us more like family than passengers as we sailed through history.

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