The ruins of Angkor Wat were famously discovered by the French explorer, Henri Mouhot, in the mid-19th century. The word “discovered” is used rather loosely here, of course – at the time the lost naturalist stumbled upon the ruins, Khmer people were happily living among them – but Mouhot’s descriptions of the vast size, soaring towers and elaborate carvings certainly put Cambodia on the gentleman explorer’s to-do list and Angkor Wat remains firmly on the bucket list of modern-day adventurers.
I visited the ruins in the final days of an expedition of my own; a 550 kilometre, 11-day trip along the Mekong Delta, from southern Vietnam to Cambodia’s Siam Reap, travelling on a riverboat, the Cruiseco Adventurer.
Cruising is a surprisingly effective way to see life on the Mekong Delta. Much of life in the riverside communities takes place on the river itself – the Mekong provides food, drinking water, irrigation, entertainment and a key transport route for the local people.
So from the moment we board the Adventurer in My Tho, a port town just out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), there are other boats around us, tiny fishing sampans, larger trading boats which whole families live in (often with a television dish attached to the roof) and flat dredges loaded with river sand.
We get off the boat a lot, too, every day decanting onto smaller long boats for at least one “excursion” (cruise ship speak for an off-the-boat activity). Cruiseco prides itself on the calibre of its excursions; the company’s owner, Steve Lloyd, who joins us for the first half of our trip, still sources a lot of them himself and looks for ways to connect tourists with genuine family businesses and real cottage industries.
In Vietnam we visit a factory where eight members of one family make candy from coconut milk – we eat a piece that’s still warm (it’s quite nice, like a coconut-flavoured soft toffee). They turn out 8000 pieces a day, each one wrapped by hand.
We see the woman who makes rice paper at work, effortlessly creating one translucent sheet after another. One of my fellow passengers is prevailed upon to try to make paper. She is rubbish. The rice-paper maker laughs and says something to our Vietnamese guide, Thinh. She is 46, he translates, and has been doing this job for 35 years.