I was enthralled and appalled in equal measure at the BBC’s wonderful programme, where Sue Perkins followed Asia’s greatest river from its delta in Vietnam up through Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar & China to its source in the Tibetan Plateau.
Enthralled at some very familiar sights & sounds plus other unfamiliar ones, but appalled by the truth behind the Khmer Rouge & by man’s destructive nature that threatens flora, fauna and a way of life that has stood for many centuries.
Damn the dams, lose the loggers, cancel the casinos, hijack the hunters.
I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the Mekong in both Vietnam & Laos (can’t wait to add the rest!) and although I did not undertake the epic journey that Ms. Perkins did, I still have wonderful memories, the majority of which I will recount fully in a book that I will write in the coming months and publish towards the end of 2015.
The Mekong Delta was memory number one in November 1998. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City and after experiencing two days of bedlam (and a fair few hairy incidents), we decided to do a two day delta trip to take in the authentic Mekong, including the floating markets of Can Tho and a never to be forgotten dugout canoe ride along one of the Mekong’s tributary channels.
The watery trip started with a motorised wooden boat ride across the wide river close to its delta, before in groups of three or four we transferred into small paddle boats, each steered and powered by a single oarsman/guide. At one point the tributary was not much bigger than a ditch, meaning we needed to be alert to sweep low hanging trees away from our vulnerable faces.
Before long, the river widened once more, our small flotilla of six canoes were now back in civilisation. This was where we got our first sighting of the famed wooden houses built on stilts standing firmly in the river bed. Our guide helpfully explained the toilet facilities enjoyed by the locals – holes in the floor with direct access to the river! Any temptation any of us may have had for a swim went right through the trapdoor.
My thoughts turned to the Oscar winning film, The Deer Hunter starring Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken. In the film they played US soldiers during the Vietnam War, who had been captured and imprisoned in cages in the water below the houses, the like of which were viewed now.
The vision of being in a complete backwater was shattered somewhat by a neon Coca Cola sign, some men playing pool and the flickering of TV screens. Everything seemed to be in motion. Bikes and motorcycles speeding along narrow paths & bamboo bridges, kids playing ball games, women washing & drying clothes, men filling a barge with river silt, fishermen casting their nets. Nobody of any age seemed to be sitting or standing still, with none of the televisions seeming to be watched despite all being switched on.
We soon ‘docked’ for our first Mekong treat, a visit to a riverside orchard. Here we picked papaya, mango and star fruit off the trees to eat. The freshest, juiciest and most delicious fruit I had ever tasted, a record that remains to this day.
Back on the river, we passed acres of lush vegetation, palm trees with Jurassic sized leaves, paddy fields, orchards, dates & coconuts, the odd water buffalo, soaring eagles, gaggles of geese. Women toiled in the fields in their conical hats, designed to keep their faces as fashionably pale as possible.
Our accommodation for the night was a cheap hotel in Can Tho. We used up all of our sticking plasters repairing the holes in our mosquito nets. My travelling companion was also to learn the hard way never to buy water from a street urchin. I will recount the gut wrenching tale in my book.
Next morning we visited Can Tho’s famed floating markets, where the morning grocery run meant boarding your wooden vessel and getting up close and personal to the vendor’s boats selling virtually every crop known to man and much more besides.
It was a buzzing hive of activity, noisy negotiations, spluttering outboard motors, cries of ‘shop’ keepers advertising their wares, gawping tourists clicking away, the odd horn sounding to boats that were getting too close for comfort.
We spent a fascinating hour or so taking in the sights and sounds, before we motored off down river for our last stop of the tour, a visit to a noodle factory. Quite Interesting as Stephen Fry might comment.
The tour was an overwhelming success and a fabulous introduction to the authentic rural Vietnam. Little did we know that we were about to experience the worst floods in Vietnam’s living memory…………….
Fast forward to February 2010 and a visit to majestic, spiritual, mythical Luang Prabang in Laos, situated on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
The former capital of the Laos Kingdom is absolutely stuffed full of highlights, dominated by monks and wats. My ultimate stress buster memory is consistently the time I rode an elephant into the Nam Khan River to scrub its neck. Not your usual Monday morning!
Amongst my most glorious memories are the incredible Mekong sunsets. Golden skies, turning the plethora of wooden boats that shuttle back and forth all day long into silhouettes, as the blazing sun sinks for another day.
It was to be a day trip to Pak Ou Caves that were to give me the best insight into this stretch of the great river. The 25KM motorised boat trip to the caves showed the Mekong as a working river, providing food, transportation, irrigation and leisure.
It is amazing how an old inner tube can entertain a group of kids for hours. Who needs computer games?
We chugged along the river cutting a swathe through limestone monolithic cliffs that loomed like Mordor Towers all around us.
We passed scores of fishermen, bathers, farmers, a few working elephants and crowds of enthusiastically waving children, before mooring at the popular tourist site. We had to climb over other boats to reach the steps up to our destination, but happily most visitors were heading downwards, so some peaceful contemplation was to be possible.
The caves themselves were choc full of Buddha statues and we all made orange flower & lighted candle offerings to the thousands of idols.
On the way back we stopped at a village called Ban Xang Hai (Whisky Village), with its large monastic complex, complete with its own distillery! I could not resist buying a souvenir from one simply beautiful female stall holder. Always a sucker for a pretty face!
The Mekong is rightfully lauded as one of the world’s greatest waterways. Sadly it’s natural water levels and wildlife are under threat in the name of man’s need to tamper with nature. I just hope we can believe what Sue Perkins was told on the TV programme about conservation and respecting the environment. I have my doubts.
I am planning a trip to Cambodia in 2015 coupled with a return to LP, this time with Mrs. Wilbur. The wanderlust juices are flowing just contemplating the prospect.