As it is the world’s 12th longest river, and travels through literally every country we would be visiting on mainland South East Asia, it was inevitable that the Mighty Mekong would feature heavily in our lives, particularly with our ongoing fetish for being near water.
Our affair started properly in Cambodia, with a night in Kampong Cham, before crossing over for the first time and taking a potholed track that followed the eastern bank through dusty rural villages. This was exactly why we’d brought the Beaut, and it was wonderful. We took wrong turnings; drove down tracks far far too narrow for us; and generally had a brilliant time, with waving children running alongside (and overtaking on mopeds…).
Our destination was Kratie, another key provincial town on the river bank, but after stopping for provisions in the market, the lure of freshwater dolphins to the north drew us out again before nightfall. After being refused a camp spot at the dolphin watching centre itself, we continued on another kilometre or so to Kampi. Here we were greeted with the unexpected – a kind of Butlins for Cambodians. A holiday resort with wooden walkways built on the river – stretching for hundreds of metres out in all directions, and lined with hammocks. There were children jumping in and playing; surfing rubber rings in and out of the gangways, with their families relaxing, drinking beer and eating picnics on dry land. The few tourists we did see arrived on tour buses, and were whisked round at pace, but needless to say, we dived straight in – and took the opportunity for a well needed wash!
The following day we returned to the dolphin watching centre and, for once, paid the tourist price ($9 per person) willingly – after all, there are only supposed to be 85 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong. We were worried that it would be a bit of a disappointment, and the critically endangered species would elude us, but we were in for a treat. We spent the vast majority of our allotted hour gazing in delight at a small frolicking pod, and returned to shore utterly satisfied.
Little did we know that our day was to only get better. Just as we were climbing into the Beaut, we were hailed by Thomas, a missionary from Singapore, who was with two of his sponsored children and his ‘soul brother’, a master monk.
If I’m honest, I can’t really remember how it happened, but after an hour or so of photos by the Beaut and general excited conversation, we were driving down the road after them, completely failing to keep up with their Land Cruiser, having been invited to spent the night at the temple. It turned out that this was no ordinary night at the temple. It was the climax of a 3 day ceremony (not party – as we were frequently reminded), in honour of the finished build of a school on the edge of the temple grounds, financed by Thomas’ charity. It was a truly impressive ceremony, and we only caught the final afternoon/evening. There was a show by authentic Khmer dancers; fireworks; fire lanterns; games; food; an incredibly dubious-looking Ferris wheel; and most amazingly of all: a large open air rave tent. Slightly embarrassingly, it all proved a little much for us, and we retired back to the temple and spent the rest of the evening chatting to monks who were only too delighted to get the chance to practice their English.
The ‘ceremoning’ continued until 4am, and, with the morning prayers (chanting) starting at 5, it is fair to say that it wasn’t the most restful of nights. However, being literally dragged off to breakfast almost as soon as we emerged from our tent firmly reminded us of the incredible Buddhist hospitality we were shown. We said a fond farewell (how many of you can claim to have been hugged by a master monk?!), and we were finally on our way – at least as far as the next temple which we had been invited to!
This one is actually in the guide book, for it sits atop the only hill around, and has pretty special views of the surrounding Mekong valley. The steps up are worth it – I promise! Be sure to take a book to donate to their new and slowly expanding library – it will be welcomed!
Next on our Mekong tourist tour was the turtle sanctuary at Sambor. If I’m honest, it wasn’t much, but does shelter rare hatchling freshwater turtles when they are at their most vulnerable, and, arguably more importantly, help to educate the local community about the human impact on this endangered species.