|AS THE MEKONG RIVER drifted past the window and Eat got to work it was a case of going with the flow, in every sense of the word. I had no idea what to expect from a traditional Khmer massage, but when in Cambodia it was the obvious way to go - coupled with the fact that you get plenty of back pummelling for your buck.TLTB has always loved luxury (the clue is in the name), but we also like value for money.
After the eye-watering spa prices I’ve experienced on some ocean-going cruises this 55-minute treatment costing $15 was an absolute snip. The only thing that deterred me from forking out $5 more to stretch it to 85 minutes was a slight fear of the unexpected. I needn’t have worried, and at the end of the firm but wonderfully relaxing treatment I returned to my cabin in a blissed out state, eager to book another.
It was just one of the many experiences that set the scene for an unforgettable trip along 416 miles of south-east Asia’s longest river. Our journey started in Siem Reap at the Tara Hotel, which is only 6km from the entrance to the Angkor temples that form the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire. The jewel in the crown, 12th century Angkor Wat, is at its most atmospheric at sunrise and sunset and we skipped a later coach tour with the rest of our group to head there at dawn. Travelling by motorised tuk-tuk was part of the fun, and again only cost a few dollars - the universal currency in Cambodia and Vietnam. Our driver waited for us with others, many lounging in ingenious makeshift hammocks strung across the tuk-tuks, while we joined fellow early-birds to watch the spectacle.
Another day we followed in the footsteps of Indiana Jones and video game adventuress Lara Croft to explore Ta Prohm temple, deep in the jungle surrounding Siem Reap. Over the centuries massive tree roots have become entwined with the ruins that have been featured in the films Temple of Doom and Tomb Raider.
We had our own mini adventure the next day when we boarded CroisiEurope’s RV Indochine, our floating home for the rest of the tour. While the majority of cruises start on the Mekong, the Indochine crosses Tonle Sap, south-east Asia’s largest freshwater river, to reach it. A UNESCO-listed biosphere, the lake’s flow changes direction twice a year and it swells to four times its size during the rainy season, flooding fields and forests which creates a spectacular sight for visitors.
Minutes after boarding a tender to take us to the Indochine, anchored in deeper waters, a couple of small wooden fishing boats pulled alongside. One family sold water and fizzy drinks from a cool box and the next one upped the ante when a young girl stood up with a snake wrapped around her neck and offered to climb aboard so we could touch it in return for small change. Unsurprisingly there were no takers.
We sailed on past some of the floating fishing villages that house around 1.5 million people throughout the whole country. Our inquisitive eyes and ever-clicking cameras were met with amused smiles from people cooking, washing and generally going about their daily routine, and children ran out to wave at us.
Soon we reached the Indochine, a handsome colonial-style vessel decked out in shining wood. With only 24 cabins it’s an intimate boat, and by the end of the week we’d got to know most of our fellow passengers. That said, with a spacious air-conditioned lounge and bar, shaded al fresco areas and spaces on the sun deck to sunbathe or sit and relax, there’s a surprising amount of room to spread out. Most days invariable ended in the bar, swapping stories of the day’s exploits. TLTB particularly liked the cocktail of the day which was sampled nightly in the interests of research.
The food was fresh, imaginative and delicious, with the chance to try many delicately flavoured Asian dishes along with Western food. Breakfast and lunch are hot and cold buffets with an a la carte served dinner plus a weekly gala meal with extra courses. The trio of ever-smiling waitresses wore beautiful silk clothes each night, changing from traditional Cambodian to Vietnamese outfits when we crossed the border. As CroisiEurope is French-owned there’s even a dedicated baker on board who produced mouth-watering croissants, baguettes and pastries fresh out of the oven.
It’s a breath of fresh air to visit countries that are not stifled by health and safety regulations, with restrictive barriers and countless signs warning of potential perils. With guides on hand to steer us over roads teeming with motorbikes, we always felt we were in safe hands and having a really authentic experience as we visited chaotic markets, rustic villages and serene temples, rarely seeing other tourists. As well as the tuk-tuks, we travelled by ox cart to visit a remote temple surround by paddy fields and took a tiny sampan, a flat-bottomed wooden boat, to explore a remote waterway. One day we sipped fiery fruit ‘wine’ (in reality a rocket fuel liquor) at an orchard filled with exotic fruits on the island of Binh Hoa Phuoc and then tried (and spectacularly failed) to make rice wafers at a village that produces all kinds of confectionary. Other days we visited a beekeeping farm, a village renowned for silverware, a pottery and an entertaining water puppet show where half the fun is working out how it’s done.
Each day brought a new retail opportunity. Helpful hint: Pack light and take a suitcase with room to spare. The markets and craft workshops are fantastic places to stock up on krama, the traditional scarves with a multitude of uses, baggy cotton trousers that a perfect for sightseeing, jewellery, bags, carvings and more. It was fun to visit markets such as Ben Thanh, in Ho Chi Minh, which are mainly used by locals. Unique items include paper ‘possessions’ bought by friends and relatives of the deceased to ensure the spirit of the dead person is comfortable in the afterlife. At one time they were mostly confined to fishing boats, paper money and modest items, but today boxes are filled with paper models of mobile phones, tablets and designer suits.
We made a small contribution of our own at the Cholon temple, in Ho Chi Minh’s bustling Chinese neighbourhood. We were invited to make a wish and light a large coil of incense that was hoisted high into the ceiling where it would burn long for weeks after we returned home. With memories that would last much longer, we left feeling we’d had a truly authentic taste of the Mekong and its surroundings - not least having a massage with a therapist called Eat.
Jeannine Williamson 9/2/15