Lindblad Expeditions - From the Jahan in Southeast Asia - Tom O’Brien, expedition leader; Photos: Jen Martin

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From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Jan 16, 2013 - Jahan

Boats working in the Tan Chau canal at sunset
Many varieties of cultivated plants in the Mekong Delta

Cruising the Mekong/Cambodia-Vietnam Border

With the striking orange of the holy Buddhist robes, the large and molten sun emerged over the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers at the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh. Some of us rose early to walk the waterfront promenade, while others ventured up to Gloria Jean’s Coffee House for a morning latte. But everybody was back on board by 0830 for the riveting lecture by University of Phnom Penh professor Jean Michel Fillipi on the history of Cambodia from 1953 – 1993. His animated talk, full of gesticulation and personal commentary, tied together so many of the disparate fragments of the puzzle we’d been piecing together. With a twist of the kaleidoscope Cambodia, Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, King Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Pol Pot, French Indochine, and the “American War” all fell into place. It’s a complicated story that can only be understood after seeing and experiencing the land and the people.

The Jahan cast off at 1000 and we were out on deck to pass Wat Ounalom and the Royal Palace, as the brown muddy waters of the Tonle Sap River merged with the clearer flow of the Mighty Mekong that drains the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand to Cambodia and Vietnam. It took about five hours for us to cover the 100km to the Cambodia-Vietnam border. National Geographic expert Paula Swart gave an inspiring talk on the revival of Cambodian arts and culture, while our ship’s agent handled all of the visa and border crossing administration for us.

The differences between the Cambodian and Vietnamese cultures were immediately noticeable as suddenly everything seemed much more active and busy. The riverbanks were more intensely cultivated with a diversity of agricultural products being whisked off to market in boats of every size and shape imaginable. Corn, rice, melons, squash, and soybeans were weaving through large and small barges that were transporting river sediment out from the Mekong to be used as building materials and beach sand throughout Southeast Asia. Fish nets were strung to bamboo poles along the shore and hung from floating plastic bottles in the river, while houseboats stacked piles of fish traps and aquaculture pens. Everybody seemed to be doing something.

We finished the day cruising the Tan Chau canal, a man-made canal that connects the two primary branches of the Mekong Delta. Small ferries hustled back and forth in the sunset light, taking flotillas of motorbikes the few hundred meters to the opposite shores. An unforgettable sunset melted into the palm trees near Chau Doc, as we anchored and took on our Vietnamese guides to prepare for tomorrow’s visit to the fishing hub of Chau Doc.