Up the Mekong with my granddaughters

My granddaughters are teenagers who live on a different island to me.  Although we are a close family and they used often to come and stay with me, as they have grown older, their friends have become more important and I felt that we were growing apart. I knew that once they were at university the gap would widen. While at Calder & Lawson I picked up a booklet on a cruise on the Mekong River. The first thing I noticed was that the ship was called La Marguerite - my mother's name. Good start.

My travel agent found there was a cruise in the school holidays, there were two cabins left (one on the lower deck with a porthole for the girls and one further up with a window seat and balcony for me.) Would my granddaughters aged 16 and 17 be interested in coming up the Mekong with me? They are modern young women who love their mobile phones and Facebook. Maybe this would be too much like their school teacher grandmother taking them on a cultural and historical school trip?

They had no second thoughts and nor did their parents. Would their parents trust me to take care of their teenage daughters? "Mum, we're sending them to look after you!"

And so it was. It was not a trip for young people and the others on the trip were all older, mainly Australians, with their children off their hands. The girls found that they had many grandparents who were fascinated by having teenagers on the trip.

The first surprise for them (and for me) was an optional ride on the back of a motorbike around Ho Chi Minh City. Off they went, eyes shining to join the other two million motor bikes in this fascinating city. They were amazed to see how much one motorbike could carry. Mum, Dad and three children, even a pillion passenger with an electric fan to keep the driver cool. A great beginning to the holiday.

The next day we boarded La Marguerite. My mother would have been delighted. Her life was not quite as exciting as  Marguerite of the Mekong fame (who had a Vietnamese lover) but I know she would have approved of the ship bearing her name. It didn't take the girls long to adjust to having their beds made, clothes folded and clean towels twice a day. The service on La Marguerite was impeccable and the food was delicious - the clean fresh taste of lemongrass and ginger.

There were only 75 passengers on our trip which meant that it didn't take long to get on talking and smiling terms with everyone. Each day local boats came to take us to floating markets and villages. One of our day trips was to Tan Chau, a small river town virtually untouched by tourism. Our little river boat navigated narrow tributaries where people lived in very squalid conditions but were always smiling and friendly .

We were told very sternly not to give money to children as if we did their parents would keep them home from school to beg. We were always surrounded by children selling things or encouraging us to buy from their parents - usually scarves and cotton goods. We had taken pens, writing paper, caps and NZ souvenirs which we gave. The girls stripped off their bracelets and gave those. We never came across a child begging for money but it was so difficult not to. They are so very poor. Houses are all on stilts to protect from the floods and whole villages are situated on boats on the banks of the river.

We floated seamlessly to Cambodia. On our day trips we rode in cyclos and ox carts, saw rice paper made, the girls were photographed with a large python around their necks and drank 'talking' water, a fierce spirit flavoured with a small snake. We did not sample other local delicacies, fried tarantula and crickets. 

In Phnom Penh we were taken to the killing fields. I thought this might be too much for the girls - it was for me! Having been to Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Sarajevo I needed no further evidence of man's inhumanity. However they had done their homework and had watched the movie so were somewhat prepared. However, the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum was horrific. It is estimated that 17 000 people were tortured and killed in what was formerly a school. Our local guides were excellent and had so much personal experience to share with us.  They made the history come alive and there was no problem with the girls losing interest. Something that made an indelible impression on me was seeing trucks with women standing packed into them coming home to their villages from factories where they are employed making clothing for about $50 a month. We were so impressed that in spite of their hideous history the Cambodians we met were so positive about the future. They have lost a whole generation thanks to Pol Pot but are so smily and friendly. 

The girls loved the markets and at Phnom Penh bought cotton skirts and trousers as well as gifts for family and friends.  (Probably made by the poor women we saw coming home from work). They enjoyed bargaining which was all part of the experience.

Chong Koh was one of the villages we visited. It is part of the commune of Koh Dach. The families of this village have a long tradition of producing Kymer handcrafts and weaving. As in all ports we visited there were large numbers of children eager to talk to us and encourage us, very enthusiastically, to buy locally made goods.  Economic activities of the local people in this commune include crops such as corn, sesame, beans and bananas.

Life on board La Marguerite was always busy - well as busy as one wanted. There were interesting talks, concerts and cooking demonstrations. After each excursion on shore we were greeted with tropical fruit juice and a cold face cloth and there was a swimming pool to flop into.

Before dinner each night there was a briefing by the tour director on the following day's programme and at night there were items by children from local schools, a concert by the crew and quiz nights. With the only other teenagers (young men from Melbourne) the girls managed to find local Vietnamese dress from the crew and delighted the other passengers by dressing up for dinner one night.

And so our cruise sadly came to an end. The girls were amazed at how in a week they became so friendly with the crew and other passengers that they felt they were saying goodbye to good friends.   My abiding memory of the La Marguerite cruise was lying on a deck chair floating past the life of the Mekong. Fishing boats, floating markets, families living on boats, villages, Buddhist temples - even a wedding group having their photos taken.

We then had three nights in Siem Reap. On the first morning we had a wakeup call at 4.15 am to alert us it was time to travel to see the sun rise over Ankor Wat. How pleased I was to have loving granddaughters to help me walk the almost kilometre over rough and uneven ground and over a causeway in the pitch dark to our vantage point. Well the sun never rose - not that we saw anyway. It rained! I thought that this would be the first complaint from my granddaughters. I found a seat with a good view while they then went on a two and a half hour clamber over the temple.

'It was long but so interesting Gran'. This was thanks to their guide who had been a Buddhist monk for eight years but while giving a blessing at a wedding he had fallen in love with the bridesmaid and married her. He told the girls that he could give them a blessing but it would only be a third as strong as before because he did have sex and sometimes even drank wine! They found his documentary fascinating. I'm not sure what else they remember of it.

The highlight for me in Siem Reap was the Tuk tuk ride with Jess and Emily. At 73 I thought I had had my last Tuk tuk ride years ago in Bangkok where one was in great danger of expiring from carbon monoxide poisoning. There was no such danger here as there were not so many cars, though plenty of motorbikes and push bikes and no one taking too much heed of traffic lights.  On our last night when we were coming back from dinner at a Cambodian restaurant, ($24 for three lovely meals and wine) Emily asked our driver to take us a long way back to the hotel.  Off we went through markets dodging other Tuk tuks and motorbikes. This was the most fun a 73 year old grandmother could have with her teenage granddaughters.

"It makes me feel so young" I laughed.

"But you're not old Gran," said Emily.

She had paid for her trip!

Written by Marion Slaney at 10:00

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