So far I'd experienced the thriving city of Saigon in Vietnam and the ancient and mystifying temples of Angkor. Now I was to enjoy life on the river, cruising along the Mekong and its tributary Tonle Sap, watching everyday rural scenes play out along the river banks and on the waters, visiting villages, colourful Buddhist temples, and Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh...

Aboard the Jahan

The mighty Mekong is one of the most famous rivers of Asia, and flows through six countries: from China, through Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally to Vietnam. Like the great temples of Angkor, the Mekong is one of the great icons of Cambodia, and one of the country’s most popular attractions to visitors. Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, sits on the confluence of the Mekong and one of its greatest tributaries, the Tonle Sap. After our two nights in Siem Reap, we transferred to Kampong Cham to join the stunning Jahan river cruise. Named after Shah Jahan, the creator of the magnificent Taj Mahal, the Jahan would take us for four nights along the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers, where I looked forward to catching glimpses of daily life in rural Cambodia.

The Jahan is a deliciously elegant ship, sophisticated and beautiful, with a style echoing the grandeur and opulence of British colonial India. We were warmly greeted by the crew as we stepped onboard, and shown to our cabins. I was staying in a deluxe cabin, and as soon as I stepped through the threshold, I was impressed! It was quite a ‘wow’ moment, as my eyes took in the four-poster bed, the delicate reflections of Indian style in the décor, and the spaciousness of the cabin, complete with a living area, private balcony outside, and well-appointed bathroom which boasted one of the largest showers I have possibly seen on a river ship.

After a delicious lunch - which was served daily as a buffet, offering a smorgasbord of food, with predominantly local flavours, but some Western offerings too – and a charming dance performance from local school children as part of a project to give greater access to free education, we headed out on our afternoon excursion. Because of the water levels of the Mekong, itineraries can be subject to change - but this is becoming increasingly true of European river cruising too - and our excursion this afternoon had originally been planned for the following morning, rising very early. We were taken by bus to Wat Hanchey, a 7th century Chenla-era temple sitting atop a hill offering brilliant panoramic views over the Mekong. Made out of brick, rather than the sandstone typical of Angkorian temples, the structure was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, but the site also boasts a colourful and contemporary Buddhist monastery. From there, we were taken to the equally colourful monastery, Wat Nokor, which was built within the ruins of a 12th century Angkorian temple site; the crumbling sandstone structures, statues and carvings were reminiscent of the impressive monuments we’d explored just the day before at Angkor.

For me, the river cruise was a real highlight of the trip. I’m used to cruising – and have enjoyed a few river cruises in Europe – so this felt like home to me! The crew’s level of service was second to none that I’ve experienced, they were just so friendly, personable, attentive, and could not do enough for you. They seemed to instantaneously learn your name and even your preferences, and they would always greet you with a warm smile, and ask how you were, was there anything they could do?

There were generally two excursions a day on the river cruise, one in the morning before returning to the ship for lunch followed by some scenic cruising, and one in the afternoon. The exception was our final full day onboard, when we were in Phnom Penh, as we were docked there for two nights. Our excursions gave us great insight and access to daily life in Cambodia, from rural villages, to learning about traditional skills such as pottery and silk weaving. Each day felt very fulfilling – the ability to see an entirely different way of life is, to me, one of the greatest parts of travel.

The first village we visited, Angkor Ban, was an unspoilt community, with traditional stilted houses – one of which we were able to visit. I’ll never forget meeting the little boy who was so proud of learning English, he happily read his English book to us. It was fascinating being so up close to an entirely different way of life, being greeted warmly by smiling, waving villagers.Afterwards, we returned to the Jahan where we had the opportunity to witness a traditional Theravada Buddhist Monk blessing ceremony. After lunch, we were treated to a traditional fashion show as the crew showed us how to wear the Cambodian Krama, Sarong, and Sampot, and our cruise guides taught us basic Khmer greetings. The afternoon excursion took us to Koh Okhna Tey, where we saw and learnt how silk is produced. Travelling by tuk-tuk, we first went into the village and visited a group of women as they worked, before continued onwards to the ‘Silk Island community’. That evening as we cast off and continued cruising, we enjoyed a beautiful sun set sailing past Phnom Penh, and its Royal Palace. Enjoying canapes and cocktails as we reached Phnom Penh, the confluence of the Mekong and its tributary, the Tonle Sap, we soon left the mighty Mekong and started sailing down the Tonle Sap.

The next morning, I woke early to try the daily Tai Chi on deck… but soon changed my mind when I saw the rain. During breakfast, I was fascinated by the views of the floating villages of Vietnamese immigrants. Fortunately, by the time we were about to head out on our morning excursion to Kampong Chhnang, the rain had long stopped. Here, we joined a motorboat to take us ashore, before continuing by air-conditioned minibus to a small community where we learnt how they produced pottery. We were first shown how some of the villagers continued to use traditional methods, working entirely with their hands to fashion pottery. The woman who showed us expertly produced a clay vase in about five minutes, and I loved watching her go about her work happily, with real pride shining on her face. It was astonishing how perfectly formed the pottery was, and her hands – having been working with clay for decades – were soft and smooth. We saw other villagers using other, more sophisticated, methods, including a kiln. But the first lady, to me, seemed to have the most pride and satisfaction in her work. We also saw which products you can make from the sugar palm tree, and watched as a man in his sixties shimmied up a tree, and went from one tree to the next, with a real element of showmanship, posing and waving at certain points along the way up.

Returning to the Jahan, we enjoyed some truly serene and scenic river cruising, and I made sure that I was at the front to enjoy the best of the panoramic views, excitedly looking out for snapshots of daily life, for people out on boats, or stilted houses along the river banks. Occasionally I could hear children equally excitedly calling out ‘Hello! Hello! Helloooooo!’ from the river banks, but I could never quite see them. It was incredibly relaxing, and I wasn’t the only one to end up having a bit of a snooze out on deck! Our afternoon excursion took us to the small riverside village of Kampong Tralach, where we visited a school sponsored by the Jahan. The children were rushing up to greet us with flowers they’d picked from one of the bushes, and sang us a song in English (I think it was ‘If you’re happy and you know it…’), and it was just so charming, and the children’s sweetness and enthusiasm was very heartening. Hopefully we weren’t too much of a disruption to them. Afterwards we enjoyed a ride on a traditional two-wheeled Oxcart – it’s a pity that the trip had to be cut short due to ominous rain clouds up above, as it was certainly very enjoyable and memorable, although I wasn’t sure what our driver was saying to us, but he seemed very jolly and was laughing a lot.

We’d docked in Phnom Penh by evening on our penultimate night onboard, and our final day was devoted to exploring the city. The morning was a sombre and hard-hitting start, as we visited the notorious Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former S21 Torture Centre. This morning excursion was an optional one, but our group all went. On the way Sopaul, our local guide from the Jahan, told us about his family’s own history with the Khmer Rouge. His eldest brother had been an intellectual, and so had been arrested and disappeared – his family never knew what happened to him, although they had visited the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng in the mid-1980s to try to find out. Sopaul had been in a mobile working unit with one of his sisters, where they both worked in the rice paddies from sunrise to sunset, and he recounted how – both starving, working hard for so long with not enough food – one day he had stolen three frogs to eat, and she had asked him for some, and he could only give her one frog. Shortly after that, Sopaul woke one morning but was unable to wake up his sister. She could not be woken up, and Sopaul was later told that she had ‘gone to sleep forever’, but he was too young to understand. By the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Sopaul had lost about twenty aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The Killing Fields made my spine tingle, there was a very sombre atmosphere. It was an unforgettably moving experience, and as our guide showed us round and told us about the history, a lot of it was very hard to hear. Tuol Sleng was just as haunting; one of the prison cells they show you literally still has blood spattered on the walls from when the prisoner was beaten to death. A former school, classrooms had been converted into tiny cells and torture chambers. The desolate faces and haunted eyes of prisoners pierce you as you look at the rows of photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge to document the prisoners upon arrival. In one room, art work created by a former inmate depicts some of the torture methods the Khmer Rouge used to extract information and confessions, while another displays some of the rather rudimentary weapons. The atrocity is further brought to light by the presence of the two final survivors of S21, who have both published books which recount their experiences. The whole experience made me feel raw; it is gut wrenching and makes you feel quite speechless at the full extent of the horrors. While it’s a harrowing experience, I personally feel it is important to visit places such as the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, to better understand the history and the country. In fact, it makes the Cambodians’ friendly, warm spirit all the more remarkable.

After a sobering morning, we all enjoyed lunch at a Khmer fine-dining restaurant called Malis. Afterwards we headed to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda for a tour, and then visited the National Museum, before heading back to the Jahan by cyclo. The cyclo ride was thrilling, and I thoroughly enjoyed dashing past all the markets and street scenes, whizzing through the traffic.

Our final night saw another taste of Cambodian culture, with local Apsara Dance performances, which started out on the sun deck. The grace, elegance and skill of the dancers was amazing, and their traditional clothes and headgear were beautiful. Apsara dances can be traced back to the ancient Khmer empire, and hundreds of figures of Apsara dancers are carved into the temples we visited at Angkor. The rest of the dance performance – which included some exuberant and joyful Cambodian folk dancing – had to be taken downstairs in the lounge, as the heavens above started to open. As with most European river cruising that I’d experienced, the Jahan offers low-key onboard entertainment, with some local entertainers coming onboard. Each night, they offered a different documentary or film about the region. The BBQ dinner had to be eaten inside rather than al fresco, but was delicious nonetheless. After dinner, our group headed out for drinks at the FCC – a perfect end to our wonderful four-night river cruise.

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  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Deluxe cabin, four poster bed

    Deluxe cabin, four poster bed

  • Jahan, deluxe cabin

    Jahan, deluxe cabin

  • Wat Hanchey

    Wat Hanchey

  • Wat Hanchey

    Wat Hanchey

  • Wat Nokor, the 12th century Angkorian ruins

    Wat Nokor, the 12th century Angkorian ruins

  • Wat Nokor, Buddhist monastery

    Wat Nokor, Buddhist monastery

  • Wat Nokor

    Wat Nokor

  • Angkor Ban

    Angkor Ban

  • Angkor Ban

    Angkor Ban

  • Angkor Ban

    Angkor Ban

  • Angkor Ban

    Angkor Ban

  • Koh Okhna Tey

    Koh Okhna Tey

  • Koh Okhna Tey

    Koh Okhna Tey

  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Kampong Chhnang

    Kampong Chhnang

  • Cruising the Tonle Sap

    Cruising the Tonle Sap

  • Kampong Tralach

    Kampong Tralach

  • Kampong Tralach

    Kampong Tralach

  • Phnom Penh

    Phnom Penh

  • Phnom Penh

    Phnom Penh

  • Phnom Penh

    Phnom Penh

  • Phnom Penh

    Phnom Penh

Read more about Amy's trip to Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys...
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part One, Motorbikes and Pho
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Two, Iconic Angkor
Exploring the iconic temples of Angkor was one of the highlights of Amy's trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Insider Journeys - read the second part of her blog series to find out what made it so special
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Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Four, Coastal Serenity
In part four of Amy's blog series on her trip to Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys, Amy heads to the coastal town of Kep to discover one of Cambodia's best-kept secrets and indulge in a taste of 'barefoot luxury'.

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