19 Sep 2011
Their shoes long worn out and discarded, the men continued on undaunted as the weeks turned into months and the months into years.
The search for the source of the Mekong, and the presumed river road to the riches of China, obsessed them to the point of madness. The ill-prepared but typically defiant French soldiered on for two years, leading them into China but tantalisingly short of their ultimate quest.
Once considered among the wildest rivers of the world, the 4350km Mekong (or Mother of Water) is the 12th longest river in the world and seventh longest in Asia. Its daunting rapids and narrow, raging gorges thwarted the French as much as the turbulent politics that festered along its banks. For the men of the 1866-68 Mekong Expedition, it would ultimately bring them undone and, albeit a century later, so too the French colonial administration.
Today we are reminded of the hundred years of French influence through the surviving ornate architecture, orderly civic planning, nostalgic cinema classics and a few anachronistic place names. But for the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian residents who served these European masters, there is little fond sentiment.
Now, after centuries of internal and cross-border argument, a relative calm has descended on the former protectorates that once comprised L'Indochine. The great Mekong River, the life-giving watercourse that binds the people, their kingdoms and regimes, is now playing host to a new invasion; one not bent on conquest but discovery and enlightenment. Beginning (or ending, as the case may be) in the sprawling delta that incorporates nine discrete rivers, a small fleet of luxury river vessels operate itineraries for travellers eager to uncover the allure of this majestic South-East Asian waterway.
My vessel, imperiously dubbed the Jayavarman after a succession of great Khmer kings, also sails under the less salubrious title of MV Mekong Explorer. Launched in 2009, the ship's owners claim design inspiration from the great French liner Normandie yet inside it is bedecked in colonial-flavoured decor down to brass bedside clocks and bathroom plumbing.
We dine in fine fashion in the Indochine single-sitting restaurant with dishes heavily influenced by local flavours and produce. Fish, pork, chicken and rice in countless variations appear each day, but staunch Western tastes are not overlooked.
Much as French explorers Francis Garnier and Ernest de Lagree would have done a century and a half earlier, our shore excursions transport us by local sampan all around the delta, visiting local villages and sampling their peculiar wares and products.
Hectic delta port towns like Cai Be, Chau Doc and My Tho reveal the importance of the Mekong trade route as the entire region's produce concentrates itself in these manic commerce centres.
The contrast across the border in Cambodia is immediate. The pace of life is more relaxed, as if a throttle is released and we cruise serenely toward the capital, Phnom Penh.
To imagine this peaceful country in the grip of Khmer Rouge terror is a difficult mental contortion and it's clear that the population just want to get on with their lives. Our stopover in Phnom Penh demonstrates the contrast of fading French civil engineering overshadowed by gaudy new high-rise construction.
In Phnom Penh, our day tours comprise the predictable, yet mandatory, visits to the killing fields, S21 and national museum, but I'm not up for repeat exposure to this. Instead I call on an acquaintance from an earlier visit, Kem (Srah) Sereyvuth, who featured in the gritty 2002 thriller, City of Ghosts, starring Matt Dillon and James Caan. Clinging to the back of Srah's moped, we tour the backstreets, revisiting the movie locations that made this low-budget drama so memorable.
Just as the valiant Gallic enterprise was thwarted by the vagaries of the Mekong, so too are we halted in our progress. With insufficient water in the tributary Tonle Sap, we disembark north of Phnom Penh and proceed by coach to our final destination, Siem Reap. In the years immediately preceding the French Mekong Expedition, another Frenchman with more humanitarian ideals, Henri Mouhot, popularised the great Angkor Wat, long a symbol of the once mighty Khmer civilisation represented by our namesake vessel in photographs.
And just as the members of the Commission d'exploration du Mekong gathered for the camera on the steps of the great Wat in 1866 in Mouhot's now famous photograph, we too glorify ourselves with snapshots among this sprawling regal structure. While the tempestuous Mother of Water may have led the over-ambitious French to ultimate collapse, the modern, comparatively luxurious equivalent stands in contrast as a pathway to equally entrancing, albeit more modest discovery.
Source - news.com.au