Another early start to the day began with breakfast and a tender ride to Sa Dec. Sa Dec is a small river port and an agricultural trading center. We walked through the market which was filled with a variety of fresh vegetables and numerous types of fish. The fish were still swimming and very much alive. We then walked to a house known as The Lover’s House.
The story behind The Lover’s House dates back to 1928 when a fifteen year old French girl met and fell in love with the son of a wealthy Chinese family. It was a love story that was not meant to be and was the subject of the 1984 Grand Goncourt-winning novel, ‘The Lover’. We continued on to the Cao Dai Temple. The Cao Dai Temple is an interesting temple that incorporates different aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and even Catholicism.
Following lunch on the ship we boarded the tenders and saw the floating market en route to Cai Bei. Our first stop was the French Gothic Cathedral and we continued on to see the rice paper making factory. Here we watched first hand how they made rice paper for spring rolls and also rice wine. Once back on board the AMA Lotus we were treated to a traditional folklore performance by local musicians and dancers followed by a farewell cocktail reception and the farewell dinner.
On our arrival into Vietnam we were met by individual rickshaws in the village of Tan Chau. Rickshaws are two wheeled vehicles pulled by an rickshaw driver pedaling an attached bicycle. We each had individual rickshaws and our rickshaw drivers took us through the village where we could get a glimpse of the local life. Tan Chau is well known for its silk production and particularly for its high quality black silk. We stopped at a traditional silk factory and got to see how they weave the silk.
Of course, the opportunity to purchase silk was offered at the end of the tour. Back on the rickshaws we continued to a rattan factory. The rattan factory that we visited was quite small and employed about thirty people most of whom are family members.
The term factory is somewhat misleading. Most Americans envision factories as large warehouses with assembly lines and automation. This is not the case here at all. Most factories are family owned and the products, whether they are silk, rattan or other specialties, are made by hand or with the help of a manually operated loom.
After visiting the town we boarded small boats for a tour along Tan Chau’s waterways. Nearly all of the communities along the Mekong rely on the river for their livelihood. Fishing is abundant as is rice production. The canals and the tributaries are somewhat similar to Louisiana’s bayous. Tan Chau features floating fish farms, rice factories and you frequently see fisherman casting their nets hoping to catch fresh fish to sell at the market.
Before heading home our tenders stopped at a small village where we visited the home of one of the families. Throughout the village everyone greeted us with a wave and a “Hello” and the children came up to us to practice their English. The home that we visited had a fairly large living room / dining room area and two bedrooms. It was neat and perhaps a little staged but still gave a glimpse in to the village lifestyle. Five people lived in the house (the parents and three children). On our way back to the tender we were met by the children from the village who sang us the Vietnamese national anthem. We then headed back to the ship for lunch and a relaxing afternoon at the pool.
After so many days traveling we were able to relax and enjoy the AMA Lotus as we sailed down the Mekong River en route to Vietnam. The AMA Lotus carries about 124 guests with a total of 62 staterooms. We had the opportunity to upgrade from a standard cabin to a junior suite. While the standard cabins (226 square feet) are quite nice, the junior suites (290 square feet) are much roomier. The luxury suites (624 square feet) actually have a separate bedroom and two bathrooms. With the exception of the cabins on the lowest deck all of the staterooms offer balconies. The junior suites and luxury suites offer complimentary internet (although service was sometimes limited depending on the location of the ship). Complimentary Wi-Fi could also be accessed in the Saigon Lounge and on the Sun Deck. The feeling of a warm Asian colonial inspired decor complete with wood floors throughout was very fitting with the destination.
With such a small number of guests you really get to know your fellow travelers and establish a camaraderie. The Cambodian and Vietnamese staff are simply delightful.
During our day on the river we relaxed in the pool, enjoyed massages, read up on future excursions and caught had the chance to catch up on the blog. They offered a cooking class where you learned how to make traditional Pho (Vietnamese soup) and fresh spring rolls. There is a small gym on board for anyone who felt that the steps of Angkor Wat were just not enough. It was a perfect day to relax and re-energized.
The cuisine onboard was fabulous. Breakfast and lunch featured a full buffet along with the opportunity to order ala carte options. Dinner options included fresh salads, local seafood and traditional Cambodian and Vietnamese specialties. Complimentary sparkling wine was offered at breakfast and house wine was offered at lunch and dinner. The variety of desserts made the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon and took a short walking tour through a local market and continued on to the Wat Phnom Temple. Some of us headed back early as the temperatures reached in the high nineties – it felt at least a hundred degrees! Time to cool off a little in the pool on board the ship as we had the entire next day in the countries capital. That night we took a Tuk-Tuk to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) for dinner. The FCC (as it is known to locals) was the meeting place for journalists and expats during the Cambodia conflict and many of the pictures in the restaurant document that history.
The next day we took a motor coach tour of Phnom Penh which included the Royal Palace, the spectacular silver Pagoda and the National Museum. The king was not in residence but the buildings and the history were amazing. During the Pol Pot regime the king was under house arrest at the Palace and many of his family members were killed. Eventually he fled to China and returned after the end of the Pol Pot regime.
The history of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields is forever tied into the history of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge consisted of followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia and was linked to North Vietnam, the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. From 1975 through 1979, the Khmer Rouge was the driving force behind the Cambodian Genocide, a period of time characterized by famine, arbitrary deaths and torture and the death of thousands of innocents from treatable diseases such as malaria. This period of time is considered to be one of the darkest and saddest periods of time in the 20th century.
The afternoon was a sad and sobering experience as we visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek followed by a tour of the S21 Detention Center. The S21 Detention Center is located just a mile from the center of Phnom Penh and was the largest facility used to torture prisoners. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here. Prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed.
There are a number of Killing Fields in Cambodia where large numbers of people were also killed and left in mass graves. During the Khmer Regime from 1975 to 1979 about 2 million people out a population of 7 million were killed by torture, starvation and disease. During this time the genocide within Cambodia was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. In 1979 Vietnam invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge. Most of the Khmer Rouge were finally arrested. Pol Pot died in prison and one of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders is still on trial for his role in the atrocities.