Back in 1955 Graham Greene compared Vietnam’s polished illusions to a lacquered table: lovely, but so tough it takes no scratches. Today he would scarcely recognise Ho Chi Minh City with its designer boutiques along Dong Khoi Street exuding a glistening 21st Century patina. This metropolis is also the southern starting point of a cruise along the Mekong – known as the ‘Mother River of Southeast Asia’. From its source in the glacial waters of Mount Guozongmucha in the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s 12th longest river flows for 2,718 miles before reaching the Mekong Delta where the floodwater dumps so much rich sediment that rice crops flourish three times a year.
The Mekong is the lifeblood of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. A cruise along this sinuous watercourse that connects a kaleidoscope of diverse cultures is one of travel’s most rewarding experiences. As well as thriving cities, rural communities, floating villages and thatched markets; endless rice paddies, pagodas and temples add to the enchanting pastiche of this land formerly known as Indochina.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s bustling capital city and the ‘Pearl of Asia,’ is filled with French Colonial buildings edged by a European riverfront boulevard, and huge Angkorian complexes such as the magnificent Royal Palace, where the king resides. The flip side to the palace’s grandeur is the malignant legacy of Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge genocide in the Killing Fields refuses to die. Further north, at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak River, the ‘Golden Triangle’ is a compact region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, all of which can be seen from a vantage point at Sop Ruak.
Legend has it that Buddha left a 10-ft imprint of his foot as a sign of his immortality at the Wat Siphuthabaht Temple, perched on an outcrop in the centre of Luang Prabang. This city of golden temples nestles at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. Long regarded as the cradle of their civilisation, the Lao people have built dozens of resplendent palaces and venerable temples, none more evocative than Wat Chom Si with its golden stuppa, gloriously set like an aerie at the summit of Mount Phousi.
The undoubted highlights of any cruise on the Mekong are the vast Khmer temples at Angkor. These venerable monuments are the sacred skeleton of the vast political, religious and social empire that stretched from Vietnam to Burma. Built between the 9th and 16th centuries, the most spectacular temples are Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm, each one appearing dramatically from the lush jungle. As anyone who has cruised through these tranquil lands will affirm this is a voyage filled with serendipity. For further information about our selection of cruises along the Mekong River call our cruise specialists on 0800 484 0314 or click on www.barrheadtravel.co.uk.