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Inspirations Mekong Cruise – another post

It has taken me too long to get down to writing about this fabulous cruise so I am now going to drop all the other pressing tasks that I have and just get on with it. After all, I finished writing my book a few weeks ago and I am no longer being bitten by fleas, so there’s really no excuse.

Our first stop on this trip was Siem Reap in Cambodia.

For those of you that don’t know, Siem Reap is the gateway city to the Angkor Wat (and other Angkor) temples. From the moment we walked into our hotel it was evident that this was going to be no ordinary trip. Apart from the beautiful surroundings and the scent of something in the hotel lobby (we never found out what it was, but it was scent-sational), the hospitality was more than outstanding. One knows that South East Asia has that reputation, but this was my first experience of it. At first one doesn’t know how to respond, but eventually one realises that one just needs to appreciate it, to react with similar respect and kindness, and to smile, because there is quite simply no reason not to.

Because we had all come from different parts of the world, we had arrived in dribs and drabs throughout the first morning. It took just a few hours, though, for all of us to find each other and only another short space of time before we had become a unit, banded together and got ourselves onto a fleet of tuk-tuks to visit the markets in Siem Reap. Driving through the disorderly streets of Siem Reap in a fleet of swaying tuk-tuks was a bonding experience like no other.

As I mentioned in my first post, South East Asia is an assault on the senses and this was our introduction. All manner of different smells, some spicy, some fishy, some identifiable and some, um, let’s just say, pungent.

Then the sights:

Colourful silks

Um, food

And my personal favourite:

The wiring.

Look, I live in Africa and we have huge electricity problems (I’ve recently bought a generator) but I had never seen anything like this. It seems to work though, which much of the time ours doesn’t, so who’s complaining.

By the end of that first day, our group had bonded. It was so easy to do that because despite the fact that the group consisted of Australians, Americans, Brits and two loud-mouthed South Africans – of which I was one – we all had a common interest and we were all keen to have fun. Well, Scott and Crash (our two men) weren’t mad stitchers, but what fun they were and how nice it was that they came along too. Rather brave chaps.

On our only full day in Siem Reap, we were picked up by a garnished tour bus (curtains, anti-macassars, tassels, fur on the dashboard – delightful) and taken to see the temples. Our tour guide, Mr Chum, was like everyone we met in Cambodia. An outstanding person, and full of interesting information.

Like many people, I never really knew what had happened in Cambodia or Vietnam. When those troubles were in the news I was either a disinterested teenager or a young mother pressed for time. Naturally one is curious and Mr Chum satisfied my curiosity. I now know of the horror and, as a result, admire the Cambodian people even more for the way they are today. Hardworking and happy, pulling themselves out of that horror with an attitude that one can only admire. Of course those that lost loved ones, or experienced the horror first hand, are affected but they seem to have put that behind them and are getting on with rebuilding their lives and their country. So inspiring.

As a group, we came to the conclusion that if one were thinking of visiting Cambodia one ought to do so soon. In five or ten years’ time one would not see the Cambodia we saw and loved because there is a lot of development happening, things are moving fast and it will be a completely different place.

It might have better roads, though.

The distance from Siem Reap to Kampong Chan, where our boat, The Mekong Navigator, was waiting for us is about 250 km. I would have said normally a two to three hour journey on a tarred road, it took us six hours! We bumped, we hit potholes, we were diverted onto detours and, after the initial shock, we just laughed (I also congratulated myself for having bought new underwear – foundation garments – shortly before I left home. Dread to think of how bruised my face would have become if I hadn’t.) For me, it was reminiscent of a trip I took from Lusaka to Victoria Falls in Zambia about 30 years ago. The same kind of road and one that would have been better without any tar. Because it was the state of the tarred surface that was the problem.

But then, we came around a corner and look what was waiting for us.

The Mekong Navigator

From the moment we were guided onto the boat from the muddy river bank, it was a five star experience. Once again, superb hospitality, sumptuous cabins, beautifully appointed communal areas and really good food.

We gathered in the upstairs bar every evening – where we very quickly learnt that it was cheaper to drink gin than it was to drink water – for a briefing on the next day’s events or outings. On some of the days we were stitching – those that weren’t stitching were taken on an outing – and on other days we were taken to places.

At this floating village, we snapped a Cambodian lady stitching on her verandah.

We bravely rode through chaotic traffic on cyclos to see the royal palaces in Phnom Penh;

We marvelled at the fact that entire families could fit onto one small motorcycle;

We took a ferry to Silk Island to see how silk is made;

And I took photos of dogs.

I could go on forever, but you will probably become bored. Remember when family friends went abroad when we were children? When they got back you were invited round for full evening of slide show. The most boring thing that every happened in my childhood and I don’t want to do that to you.

Besides, you may ask, what about the embroidery – the reason why we were there in the first place. For me, as one of the tutors, it was an enriching experience.

Because the classes were small and also because we were together for an entire week, we had the time to not only get to know one another, but also to really get into the nitty gritty of the stitching that we were doing. So often, when a class is large and the time is restricted, one has to almost gloss over the techniques, do them in a hurry and, as a tutor, feel that perhaps one hasn’t covered enough of the detail. Not so on the Mekong. We had all the time in the world and for me, personally, I felt that by the time we got off the boat all of my students knew exactly what they needed to know to complete their projects. That was very satisfying.

Needless to say, we had a beautiful room to stitch in.

We took over one end of the dining room and, the best part was that we could leave our stitching paraphenalia there for the entire week. Nobody touched it or moved it so we could keep going back to it either for a formal stitching session, or just to dip into it for a few quick moments while waiting for supper, a tender boat to fetch us, or whatever.

When I look back on it now, some three months later, the feeling that overrides all others is that everyone was so kind. Apart from being hardworking and terribly organised Fiona, who put the cruise together, is the kindest person in the world. And so is Susan. If someone was a little uneasy or nervous, the two of them made that person feel better. If someone needed to know something, Fiona or Susan gave them that information and if they didn’t know the answer to a question, they found that answer. Nothing was too much trouble.

That kindness didn’t stop with the two of them. Everyone in the group was kind. One or two people developed ailments on the boat (myself included) and if a bit medication was needed, there was always someone in the group prepared to share something they had in their luggage. The younger members of the group always made sure that the older participants could manage to walk over or climb up things. If someone seemed to be missing from a group activity, she was looked for and found. And so on……..

Yesterday afternoon I received an unkind email from abroad. It was completely unnecessary and I was dumbfounded. It did, however, make me look back fondly on the cruise and all of my fellow travellers. It also made me realise that whilst that may not be unique, it was also not inevitable. It came from the top and filtered down to everyone. For that alone, if Inspirations Magazine were ever to ask me to teach on another of their cruises, I would say yes. Even if I didn’t really have the time, or want to go to that part of the world. It is also why, when they do future cruises, you should consider taking part.

After we got off the boat at the end of our cruise, we parted ways in Saigon, having made fabulous friends. Fiona, her sister Lynnear, Susan and I didn’t go home. We went up to Hanoi and over to Ha Long Bay. We saw some ‘gobsmacking’ embroidery up there. I am going to write about that in another post. What I will say about that, for now, is that Fiona went home armed with a huge amount of information about the north of Vietnam. She is going to research it all and I am fairly sure that in the future, Inspirations Magazine will be making something happen in that part of the world. Watch out for it.