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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"It makes me feel so young" I laughed.
"But you're not old Gran," said Emily.
She had paid for her trip!