Indochina really does have many ‘Hidden Charms’! I was looking forward to this adventure because I have always wanted to see the carvings and mystical towers of the world’s largest temple - Angkor Wat. I was not sure of what to expect on the cruise down the Mekong River and in the end, I was very pleasantly surprised and pleased with the entire Indochina experience.
We started our journey in Siem Reap, Cambodia and spent the first few days enjoying the renowned archeological sites at Angkor, considered to be some of the most magnificent wonders of the world. Our first stop was at Angkor Thom and it did not disappoint as we walked through the south gate past the rows of warrior like statues that line the walkway. We walked around the corner and there were the temple’s 54 central towers, many of which have four sides with huge mysteriously smiling faces gazing off into the distance. Incredible! I took so many pictures of this unforgettable spot. We also visited Ta Prohm, a temple site reclaimed by the jungle and only recently rediscovered. The giant banyan trees have grown over and around this mysterious temple and you really get a sense of how the jungle can swallow up these ancient wonders.
And then there is Angkor Wat! The single largest religious monument in the world. Built in the 12th century and complete with a moat and thick walls, it is truly an imposing, impressive site. The wide causeway leading up to the main entrance gives a spectacular view of the 5 towers. The central sanctuary has a steep climb up to the top which many of us completed. The view from the top was wonderful and you began to realize that you are definitely still in the jungle.
A highlight for many of us on our second day was a Cambodian cooking class out in the country. We all put on our chef hats and aprons and cooked 3 dishes for our own lunch with the help of several local cooking assistants. The food was delicious and the experience was great fun.
We had done all of this in the first 2 days of our journey. What a way to start our trip!
Next we boarded the very luxurious teak and mahogany Mekong Pandaw boat for our seven day cruise down the Mekong River. This boat is specially designed for the shallow river and our group of 24 almost took over the entire small boat with only a few other travellers. The Mekong is wide and slow moving. I was worried that there would be many boats on the river. That is definitely not the case with only 4 or 5 boats on the entire river. I was again pleasantly surprised that most of the time we were the only boat in sight. The river is quiet, still unspoiled and it takes you back to another slower, less hectic time.
Every day on the river we stopped two or three times in small remote villages to visit local markets, silk shops, fish farms, monasteries and also the capital of Phnom Penh. We travelled by cyclo, ox cart, boats of various sizes, dugout canoes and small buses to see the sites. If a village did not have a docking area- which happened frequently- the deck hands would get out their shovels and dig steps into the hill side and construct a railing out of bamboo poles. We were often the only foreigners at a destination and the local people were always smiling and friendly.
The food on the Mekong Pandaw was wonderful, most drinks were complimentary and there was even special local entertainment on a couple of evenings. We were pampered and well looked after on this delightful cruise. Whenever we returned from a village we were greeted with a welcome drink, a scented cold towel and our dirty shoes were whisked away to be cleaned by the staff.
The cruise ended in Ho Chi Minh city which we also explored before flying to Hanoi to see the highlights of this city.
The final adventure of the trip was an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay. We were wined and dined in 5 star style while we cruised through the many rocky outcrops that have made this a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World. We sat out under the stars at night on our luxurious vessel drinking local cocktails. During the day many of us kayaked in a beautiful protected bay, hiked through an enormous series of caves up to a spectacular lookout, went swimming at a small, sandy beach and relaxed on our brand new, intimate boat.
I returned home with many wonderful memories of a spectacular trip, jam packed with adventures, wonderful accommodation and great local food. This trip is not to be missed!