The most treasured sights of a great journey aren’t the temples, urban skylines or mountain vistas — they’re the faces of the people you meet, as A&K Managing Editor Dan Wiencek learned on a recent trip to Southeast Asia.
For ages, I have wanted to see Angkor Wat and the ruins of the Khmer Empire, the bustling streets of Bangkok and the rapidly rising nation of Vietnam. I had the opportunity as part of a seven-night cruise down the Mekong River, which began (after a few prefatory days in Bangkok and Siem Reap) at the port town of Kampong Cham, Cambodia, and ended in Saigon at the river’s mouth. Yet as great as these places are, what drew me irresistibly day after day was the people in the riverside towns along the way. I was astonished at the openness, curiosity and friendliness we encountered, without exception, everywhere we went. Most “vacation photos” — my own especially — are shots of the same sites thousands of other people have taken (only not as good). When it came to exploring the Mekong, the “sights” that stand out for me are the faces, each one unique, each one bringing the destination to life in a way no building or natural wonder ever could.
An impromptu stop outside of Kampong Cham, where we were to meet our riverboat, afforded the opportunity not only to stretch our legs, but to walk along the village streets near the highway. This snack vendor wasn’t on hand when we arrived — she simply saw us gathered on the roadside and stopped to see what was going on. (Those treats in her basket? Fried grasshoppers.)
Once embarked on our cruise, we made our way southward down the river. Our first stop was a village near Angkor Ban, where we spent a fascinating morning exploring, our guide stopping to chat with whoever was out and about. We came upon this woman and her mother, who was preparing food to donate to monks at the nearby temple.
Crossing into Vietnam, we stopped at the village of Hong Ngu. These girls saw our group wandering through their village and decided to tag along. They followed us for perhaps a quarter of a mile, eagerly posing for pictures along the way. Their reward was a piece of chocolate each, dispensed by our Resident Tour Director, Luc, before their mother came and took them home.
The highlight of Hon Ngu was meeting Uncle Six and his wife in their home. Uncle Six (seen above with our local guide, Han) was a proud veteran of the Vietnam War and was happy to welcome his American guests; he even let one of our group try on his uniform. The war is not forgotten here — it is still possible to see salvaged American military boats on the river — but there are no hard feelings or bitterness.
The Cai Rang Floating Market was a bustling panoply of boats selling every variety of food item. At one point, this coconut vendor pulled up alongside our boat, and we got to enjoy fresh coconut water.
A brother and sister pose in Hon Ngu, Vietnam. Throughout the journey, it was often children who were the most curious, outgoing and eager to talk to us. The young people we met in Cambodia, in particular, spoke excellent English, and a girl of 14 in Phnom Penh even chatted with us about the recent presidential election.
My Mekong journey was one of the best I’ve ever taken, and a helpful reminder that when it comes to travelling, sightseeing certainly has its place — but it’s the people you encounter who enable you to take an authentic piece of your destination home with you.