The Road Ahead : December 2010
TRAVEL OFFER: RACQ Travel is offering 20 percent offan8day escorted luxury Mekong River cruise, departing November 14, 2011. Prices start from $2776 per person twin share and with our wonderful package before and after the cruise, you will stay at some of the best hotels and take in the amazing sights that this region has to offer. Call RACQ Travel on 1300 888 449 or see pages 3 and 61 for details on our information sessions. PHOTOS, PREVIOUS PAGE: PART OF THE MONASTERY IN GIANG ISLAND. ABOVE FROM LEFT: MARKET IN CHAU DOC. THE LE HOUSE IN SADEC. NEXT PAGE: FLOATING MARKET ON THE MEKONG. WWW.ROADAHEAD.COM.AU THE ROAD AHEAD DEC 2010/JAN 2011 26 TRAVEL DEPARTURE INTERNATIONAL REALITY AND FICTION blur as we step aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw, an accurate facsimile of the colonial-era Irrawaddy Steamship Flotilla which dates back to the days of Kipling, Orwell et al in Burma 1865. Think teak panelling, brass fittings, crew in snappy white outfits. Marry this with the mystique of the mighty Mekong River, and it's a truly enchanting journey. I am reading The Lover (the French classic known as L'Amant) by Marguerite Duras. It is set in pre- Second World War Indochina and details a forbidden fruit affair between an adolescent French girl and a Chinese man she meets on a ferry ride up the Mekong. My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these. In the surrounding flatness stretching as far as the eye can see, the rivers flow as fast as if the earth sloped downward. Duras's words still ring true, as we cast off from My Tho in the Mekong Delta, the seafood basket of Asia, with US$2.5 billion of seafood hauled out of its fish farms annually. Duras spent six years in the town of Sadec where her novel is set and the house of her lover still stands. We walk through fruit markets bursting with the largest tropical produce you could imagine: pineapples, dragon fruit, tamarinds, bananas, baguettes, coffee, and live frogs and snails. He says he's just back from Paris where he was a student, that he lives in Sadec too, on this same river, the big house with the big terraces with blue-tiled balustrades. And here is the house formerly belonging to Monsieur Huynh Thuy Le. Gaudy as a Chinese temple, with gold leaf flourishes and floral tiles. Ceilings and walls are ornately carved with bat motifs, a symbol of prosperity. Monsieur Huynh was indeed prosperous, but when South Vietnam fell to the Communists his family made a run for the West and the house was converted into a police station. French architecture punctuates the shoreline; a cathedral spire here, a house there. And on Giang Island, a raft of monastery buildings dating back to 1890. Church bells ring out with a melancholy chime of former grandeur allowed to flake and fade. On the Pandaw, you are time-warped back to the colonial era, especially as you watch another magical blood-orange Mekong sun set to the tinkling soundtrack of ice in long gin-and-tonic glasses. We cruise the more languid sections of the Mekong described by Duras: In the misty sun of the river, the sun of the hot season, the banks have faded away, the river seems to reach the horizon. It flows quietly, without a sound, like the blood in the body. At Chau Doc a flash new pier adjoins the promenade where the colonial-looking Victoria Hotel holds forth. French music, in the Edith Piaf mould, blares from Tannoys. A tri-shaw ride puts us further into The Quiet American colonial oeuvre. Raffish Phnom Penh is the capital of a once- powerful kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia. Fishermen work the waters, laying nets in the morning mist. Several of Cambodia's 6000 pagodas from the 6th-9th century come into sharp focus. Then the French-inspired buildings of the renascent city ...