On Chong Koh, a dusty arc of an island carved away from mainland Cambodia by the persistent southward surge of the Mekong, a wizened old monk consecrated a 58-metre-long luxury riverboat. Stooped and bony as a picked-over chicken, the little brown man wore pumpkin-coloured robes that contrasted neatly with the cobalt silk and varnished teak interior of the Jayavarman. Crouching on a damask throw pillow, he chanted and blessed the boat for safe passage, then half-hopped, half-hobbled around the ship, wafting pungent smoke from a fistful of joss sticks and sprinkling sacred water.
Even without the monk’s benediction, I felt blessed. It was only a few days into a week-long cruise from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Cambodia’s ancient temples at Angkor – part of a 14-day cultural immersion – and so far the experience had been nothing but comfort and bounty. Lots of tourists take more expedient routes to Angkor, the complex of ruins and monuments built by the Khmer Empire a millennium ago: just book a flight to Siem Reap, and in one short day, you can get an express tour, hop an outbound plane and by evening be at a beach resort in Thailand. But packing one of Southeast Asia’s greatest empires into a day or two is like trying to learn Japanese in a week. Prior to this trip, I’d spent months traipsing around the region on countless assignments, including two previous visits to Angkor, and I still felt like I’d only scratched the surface.
The Jayavarman, which was christened in late 2009, buoyed my determination to see Angkor the right way. Crafted in the spirit of the Normandie, the 1930s-era steamer still considered by many to be the greatest ocean liner ever, the Jayavarman marries the romance of Golden Age travel and the mystique of French Indochina with the comfort and amenities of a 27-room boutique hotel. More to the point, a week of churning upriver lulls travellers into the rhythm of the region and delivers infinitely deeper insight than a half-day temple tour.
The scraggy, saffron-robed monk had incanted his way down the gangplank back to his village. “For the people in Cambodia living along the river, their lives are better than those in the interior,” one of the shipboard Cambodian guides told me as we watched the monk shamble into the green canopy. “It brings business and allows them to sell beyond their village. The Mekong is life.” A few minutes later, as we steamed into the river, a staff member traced the monk’s path onboard with a mop and pail. Holy water is well and good, provided guests don’t tumble on the slick mahogany deck.
The journey had begun days earlier in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Two days into the trip, the Jayavarman had floated from Vietnam into Cambodia, and the river had immediately slipped into new attire. The hive of traffic that had crisscrossed the river most of the way from the South China Sea dwindled, as if we’d veered from an interstate highway onto a sleepy, country two-lane. And the thick, sylvan canopy and emerald rice paddies that had swathed the banks faded to a drier, umber landscape of prickly trees and gangly palms. The Mekong became flat and wide and hushed.
For those who don’t consider themselves cruisers, chugging up the Mekong is different. All day, a pastoral tableau unfolds, and a series of intimate vignettes gives a feel for life on the river. One moment, six little boys splashed and played in a cleft on the banks, pinwheeling from the stuffy midday heat into the cooling, chocolate-brown water and cheering as the Jayavarman glided past. A few minutes later, a snaggle-toothed elderly woman wrapped in a krama, the traditional checkered scarf worn by men and women alike throughout rural Cambodia, peeked out from the dark, open door of a house teetering on thin stilts as two tall white cows chewed straw in the home’s shade. Farther along, two monks in custard-coloured robes sat reading under a towering teak tree, the red and gold of the wat, or temple, glinting in the dusty distance like a Christmas bauble.
photo by Keithusc, Flickr, Creative Commons
We stopped in Kampong Tralach, a tranquil village where locals led us, driving crude oxcarts pulled by leggy cows, to a nearby wat. “After the Khmer Rouge, having a cart like this was like having a Lexus,” our guide informed me. In such a placid setting, it’s easy to forget that one of the most horrific pogroms of recent history took place here just decades ago. Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot’s communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, wiped out some two million Cambodians in waves of murder and starvation that targeted the intellectual elite. After a half-dozen visits to Cambodia, this still strikes me as the real conundrum of the place: that a country with such a turbid recent past is now so peaceful and friendly.
At Wat Kampong Tralach, fading, 150-year-old paintings depicting the life of the Buddha covered the inside of the temple. The scenes mirrored the countryside we’d been passing through for days, with a patchwork-like quilt of rice paddies and farms and a broad, snaking river arcing through the background. “There aren’t many paintings like these left in Cambodia,” our guide said as we rode our carts back to the river. “If the weather didn’t destroy them, the war did.”
From the Mekong, the Jayavarman eased onto the Tonlé Sap River, which links the capital, Phnom Penh, to the second largest freshwater lake in Asia by way of a narrow, 97-kilometre-long throat of waterway. During the summer monsoon, the Mekong becomes so bloated that it reverses the flow of this tributary, pouring water into the shallow Tonlé Sap Lake. By September, at the height of the wet season, the river rises nine metres and the lake quadruples in size, replenishing the fish stocks and flooding the surrounding plains with nutrient-rich silt. As we crept upriver, a tangle of greenery carpeted the shores, with curls of ivy nearly touching the ship’s bow and islands of water hyacinth clogging the water. When the banks widened, we drifted into Kampong Chhnang, a dozy little market town where whole neighbourhoods drift with the water’s annual ebb and swell. The village looks like any other Cambodian town, except all the homes stand on pontoons and waterways separate the grid of buildings instead of streets. Vendors in small boats trawled the canals hawking produce, bags of chips and automotive parts. Like the unhurried current of the Tonlé Sap, life here seemed to advance at a meander.
I caught the eye of one woman, and she waved my sampan over to her floating home. As the household of 16 looked on, she showed me her house, two small rooms plus an indoor/outdoor kitchen. They had a TV and what looked like an Internet hookup, and the front yard was a fish pen. They moved to the river almost a decade ago to supplement their catch with farmed catfish and wouldn’t think of leaving. “We like it here. It’s cooler than in town and quieter, and we can feel the seasons,” she said. “Giving up the river would be like giving up our life.”
I’ve been to Angkor several times over the years, arriving in Siem Reap both by land and by air, but there’s nothing quite like skimming up the Tonlé Sap and dropping anchor just 30 minutes from this World Heritage Site. Angkor becomes the great reward at the end of the journey.
This region in north-central Cambodia was the seat of the Khmer Empire, which began in 802 with the rise of Jayavarman II, namesake of the boat, and eventually extended into modern-day Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Malaysia. It’s believed that Angkor was the world’s largest pre-industrial city, with more than one million people spread over 960 kilometres of hilly forest and farmlands. Hundreds of stone temples litter the region as reminders of the empire’s greatness – some little more than piles of rubble reclaimed by the jungle and others masterpieces of engineering and architecture that rival Machu Picchu or the pyramids of Egypt.
After disembarking the Jayavarman, I checked in at Amansara, the royal guesthouse of Prince Norodom Sihanouk that’s been transformed into a leafy retreat in the heart of Siem Reap. With meals served in Sihanouk’s old movie screening room and the sights accessible in his 1960s stretch Mercedes, it’s like a historical exclamation point to any Angkor visit, and I settled in for a few days of temple touring.
The next morning, when I finally arrived at Angkor Wat, the biggest and best preserved of the ruins, I found myself as dumbfounded as I was on my first visit nearly a decade ago. Around five million tonnes of sandstone were shaped and moved and carved into grandiose Angkor Wat, with miles of precisely sculpted bas-relief and towers soaring more than 60 metres. Standing at the far end of the outer gallery, visitors can look down a 305-metre-long corridor at a line of supporting columns that’s still as straight and flat as a mirror. Unlike the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap, where the beauty constantly changes with the weather, the season and the water levels, Angkor’s magnificence rests in its timelessness. “I come here almost every day,” my guide said, “and I never get tired of it. It’s a testament to what Cambodians can do.”
Central Angkor’s structures are a must, but remote, lesser-known temples such as Beng Mealea, lost in the overgrown jungle some 40 km east of Siem Reap, provide a more intimate experience. Here the forest has slowly reclaimed the inner courtyards and towers of this once imposing monument, which is ringed by still moats choked with fist-size lotus buds. Vines and bushes clamber over intricately carved lintels, and the roots of soaring ficus trees pry at splitting walls, sending great blocks of sandstone tumbling into heaps like huge piles of bones. Travellers can spend hours climbing over decaying libraries, silent with the weight of time, and studying sculpted tableaux full of mighty gods and bulging-eyed demons. With few other tourists around, it was easy to feel like an explorer of yesteryear just happening on this great, lost ruin.
At the end of the day, we took a small sampan onto the lake, and, over a glass of champagne, our guide placed the day’s tour in context. “The Khmer [Empire] chose this location because of the proximity to the Tonlé Sap,” he said, motioning out over the water. “They built a canal and floated in the stone for the temples from quarries [40 km] away, and the huge floodplain let them cultivate rice three or four times a year, not just one. But most important, the river gave them access to the Mekong and the sea.” Though it’s tempting for visitors to flock to Angkor and take in the monumental spectacle of the temples, a true understanding of the place begins on these great waters.
We sipped our wine, and the late afternoon sun bounced low off the glassy water, turning the dark storm clouds at the south edge of the lake into billowy mountains of obsidian. Dragonflies flickered in the glint, and wisps of lotus flower stems sparkled on the wind like spiderwebs. Millennia from now, when the fig trees have dismantled the temples and the heavy jungle overstorey prevails, the Tonlé Sap will continue to rise and fall, and the river will course to the sea.