The Mekong river has been a constant presence through our time in South East Asia, but it was the delta region we were keen to explore. The delta is a heavily populated area where life is lived on the water – houses, markets and restaurants float on the canals, interspersed with islands that have their own distinct communities and cultures. We booked a 3 day trip which promised to show us the highlights of the area, but at the risk of sounding like cynical travellers, it didn’t really live up to expectations. Whether it’s because we’ve been spoiled by what we’ve seen so far, or if the delta isn’t what it used to be, who knows.
Our trip took as to a collection of islands and communities along the Mekong Delta. What I’m sure were once private and natural communities have become giant tourist traps. We were herded from one tradesman to another, being encouraged to buy something, try something, or just give a donation. The purpose of our whistestop tours of a honey farm, a rice paper workshop, and a coconut candy store felt like sales pitches, rather than to give us an authentic taste of life on the delta. Eating fresh mouse was a fun experience, though I’m not convinced the locals eat too much of that, it was more bone than anything else! At one point we were pushed onto some rickety old horse drawn carts, only to go on a pointless loop along the main road. Everyone looked a bit confused as to why. We never found out.
Day 2 started with a trip to the floating markets. I was really looking forward to this as it was the perfect excuse for me to buy ridiculous amounts of fruit and veg. This market is the biggest floating market in Cambodia, but unfortunately there were hardly any sellers, just lots of tourist boats. We had one opportunity to buy pineapples, and then we were off. I guess we got there after all the real action had taken place first thing, and we just saw the tourist dregs. Paul assures me the floating markets in Bangkok are much better, so we’ll have to give them a try.
The highlight of the trip was a row boat trip on Unicorn Island. Because of the jungle like greenery and seclusion, this really did feel like a hidden gem – if you ignored the long queues of tourists to get a boat and being told ‘tip tip tip’ for the final 20 minutes of the ride. Taking a moment to zone out and take in the scenery, it really was pretty beautiful. This was the Mekong Delta experience that I had been expecting, and probably what it was like 10 years ago, before tourism went crazy.
We’ve learnt over the past 5 months that organised trips generally aren’t for us. The fact that the Mekong trip got us into Cambodia was it’s saving grace, and arriving into Phnom Penh, we were happy to be free to explore at our own pace.