Vietnam & Cambodia: Intimate, Up-Close Cultural Experiences Abound
The floor of my balcony aboard Jahan is so close to the Mekong’s surface that I can almost dip my toes in the water. When I open the curtains, I see the red sun rising. I open the sliding door to let in both the heavy air and the sound it carries; boats thrum by and the river laps at water hyacinth. The earthy smell of wood smoke reaches our boat from shore. Today, this river will carry us from one country to another; I head up on deck to watch it happen.
Our days in Vietnam have been busy, some would say “bustling” which sometimes means crowded but also (and always) means full of life. Our last morning is no different; as we head for the border with Cambodia, we travel through knots of boats. The small ones carry coconuts, jicama, rose apples or bananas. I see a woman alone in a small canoe. She crouches at the very tip of the bow, and, using a single paddle, swivels the boat around herself like a weathervane. Mid-sized boats putt by, powered by car engines connected to tiny propellers by long steel pipes. Drivers use the heels of their hands and feet to raise, lower and twist the propellers through shallow water. The larger boats spill rice husk from piles three times my height, and the biggest vessels carry tons of silt and soil to the cities for construction; workers walk barefoot over the cargo to shovel it into perfect pyramids.
I wander the deck after breakfast to catch so many glimpses of life—men together packing fish, women hanging laundry from the stern decks. I don’t yet know how different the river will look two hours from now in another country.
The border is calm and uneventful. The Mekong carries us effortlessly; this river is an ancient trail that has seen political boundaries change countless times. By mid-afternoon we are the only boat on the river. Green branches trim the riverbanks, then give way to the fabric of fields. I see some smoke trails, wooden houses, and the occasional temple in shapes entirely different from what we visited in Vietnam; we could be back to that country in two hours, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s hard to believe we are barely across the border.
Children bathe and splash in the water up ahead, and the closer we get the more enthusiastically they wave. Further on, two men bring their white cows to the river for a drink. Anything white, like a cow or an ibis, stands out against the red earth and the green forest. On this first day in Cambodia, the natural world steps forward. The river is quiet, and I find myself thinking about borders and transitions.
I overhear someone say that it’s like traveling back in time, but that implies forward and backward as though progress looks a particular way. It doesn’t feel like the past to me; in fact, it feels more like what I hope for the future. I wonder what I’ll see when I pull back the curtains tomorrow.
Jennifer Kingsley is a field correspondent for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, who is currently working on #MeetTheNorth, a project about the lives of the four million people living above the Arctic Circle. She is the author of Paddlenorth.
PHOTOS: © Michael S Nolan (Phnom Penh); © Nguyen Qui Duc (Angkor Wat Sunrise); © Karen Copeland (Woman Paddling, Protective Eyes Boat, Bamboo Bridge)