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Culture close-up on a river cruise from Cambodia to Vietnam

October 4, 2018

At a sprawling monastery complex in Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia, a bald, saffron-robed monk showered me and my fellow travelers with lotus and jasmine petals, part of a blessing ceremony. His accompanying chant — soothing and hypnotic — could have lulled me to sleep if I wasn’t so uncomfortable. I sat on the ground, bare feet to the side, my weight on one hip.

For Buddhists in Southeast Asia, this position is as natural as walking, but for non-Buddhist Westerners, at least those who don’t practice yoga, it can induce squirming.

Eventually, the intoxicating scent of jasmine and the beauty of my surroundings took my mind off the discomfort. As the chant carried on, I stole a sideways glance at an enormous Buddha that looked down on us benevolently — and I wondered how many blessing ceremonies he had witnessed.

I was on my first river cruise — with AmaWaterways, on its Riches of the Mekong River — and it was shaping up to be more meaningful and authentic than the many ocean cruises I’ve sailed on, as if the immediacy of land fueled more intimate experiences.

The 124-passenger AmaDara, a riverboat with French colonial charm, was my home for the eight-day sail, which began in Siem Reap, Cambodia, gateway to the ancient temple ruins of Angkor, wended through several port cities and fishing villages in Cambodia and Vietnam, and concluded in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, and millions of Cambodians and Vietnamese who call the Mekong Delta home depend on the river’s bounty for their livelihood. Fishing has been a way of life here since time immemorial.

The upper deck of our ship proved to be the perfect vantage point for observing women expertly navigating flat-bottomed sampan boats around tangles of water hyacinth that undulated in the waves like mythical sea monsters. Floating villages perched on stilts in the middle of the murky water, and modern TV satellite dishes sprouted incongruously out of the antiquated rooftops of ramshackle houses.

Ugliness of the Killing Fields

On an ocean cruise, the scenery is sometimes limited to a vast stretch of waves, but there are no “sea days” on a river cruise, so picturesque views play continuously, like a never-ending film. Without the dazzling nightlife, glitzy shows and cavernous casinos of a typical oceangoing cruise ship, such views were our entertainment. Also, locals perform traditional songs and dances.

Most cruises only showcase the “pretty” side of life, but this journey shined a light on the good, bad and the ugly. I welcomed the approach because you can’t know a foreign culture by only visiting architecturally stunning temples and historic monuments.

I had to remind myself of that before gathering the courage to see the ugliest of the ugly: the notorious Killing Fields just outside the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where the brutal Khmer Rouge regime carried out its genocidal mission from 1975 to 1979. Under the Marxist dictator Pol Pot, about 1.7 million Cambodians — almost a quarter of the population — died of forced labor, starvation, torture and execution.

I stood in stunned silence before the soaring Choeung Ek Memorial that displays thousands of human skulls behind glass, a monument to honor the men, women and children who died horrifically during the darkest chapter in Cambodian history.

Touring this extermination camp was emotionally exhausting. I was glad I came, but I was glad to leave.

Back on the tour bus, my somber mood gradually lifted as I witnessed the frenetic action playing out on the streets of Phnom Penh. Owning a car is little more than a pipe dream for most Cambodians, so they get creative when it comes to transportation.

Motorbikes jam the streets; it’s not uncommon to see a whole family crammed onto a single vehicle. Drivers zip around hauling everything from live chickens to mattresses to bags of rice. In the midst of this chaotic traffic, remorks dash and dodge; the ubiquitous vehicles are a bit like golf carts pulled by a motorbike. I wondered how drivers avoided crashing into one big heap of bizarre wheeled contraptions and squawking chickens.

When we at last arrived at the Royal Palace, I was enchanted by the walled compound of gilded halls. The structure was constructed in the late 1860s under the reign of King Norodom, when the capital moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh. Today, it’s the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni. I particularly enjoyed the Silver Pagoda, named for more than 5,000 silver floor tiles. It houses a regal golden Buddha that sparkles with thousands of diamonds. To my disappointment, photos of this breathtaking artifact weren’t allowed.

Good morning, Vietnam

The next day, breakfast chatter was all about how the AmaDara had crossed into Vietnam during the night, and the port cities to come.

My favorite stop was Sa Dec, a peaceful town with tree-lined streets and faded colonial villas. We made our way to “The Lover’s House,” an ornate remnant of French Indochina that was made famous in the 1992 film “The Lover.”

A bustling open-air food market showcased another side of the city. Shoppers arrived on bicycles to buy vegetables, fruits and, of course, fish. The unmistakable piscine odor had me covering my nose before we even entered.

The resident cats were in feline heaven, squatters in a place where there’s an infinite supply of their favorite food.

I couldn’t help but think of my pristine supermarket back home, where I push my carefully sanitized cart to the mellifluous notes of classical music, selecting polished produce. It’s pleasant, but there are no photo ops of children joyfully chasing dogs while their mothers shop, and, most important, there’s no mangosteen, my favorite Asian fruit. It has a hard, purple shell that when opened reveals delectable, snow-white segments of sweet, floral-scented flesh.

As my time on the AmaDara came to an end, I had developed a deeper understanding of a culture that I initially found bewildering, thanks in large part to shore excursions that seemed unscripted and real. Genuine interactions with the people of the Mekong Delta created a more culturally immersive experience, and that’s more important to me than playing blackjack or dancing the night away in a disco.

Indiana-based Tracey Teo writes about food and travel.

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