3. Dispatch from the Mekong

Like slavery and other such human vices, colonialism is now considered bad. It had its period of respectability that has come and gone. But if we can admire the antebellum mansions that American slavery made possible … then it is OK for me to lust after the old river steamboats that once carried the colonial masters up the great rivers of the world. Mark Twain glorified life on the Mississippi; Kipling told the British Empire of the "great grey greasy Limpopo”; and Indochina served up even better sounding rivers like the Irriwaddy … and the Mekong.

Years back, Jean and I sat with dusty backpacks on the bank of the Irriwaddy, and watched an old river steamer work her way past the ruins of Pagan, Burma. That, we thought, is the way to travel! And so too did a Burmese company that has put back into service two of these boats on the Mekong – local built copies of the ones that once injected our Western ways into the watery veins of their Orient.

The SV Mekong Pandaw sails out of the Vietnamese port of My Tho - up the Mekong into the heart of Cambodia. More than a week of slowly passing through this great delta - where roads are few and life happens by the water. Anchoring mid-stream at night, and then nosing a plank to the shore, or allowing small local boats to deliver us into villages and markets. Perfect travel - easy physically, rich visually, and constantly reveling new and interesting facets of this jewel of a river. I highly recommend it.

This is NOT the Swift-boat from Apocalypse Now, or even the African Queen … no pigs and chickens or sacks of onions. Varnished teak and polished brass everywhere - a uniformed crew from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam - and 44 lucky travelers. Jean has a knack for digging out travel gems like this. I also highly recommend finding one like her to travel with … a queen of diamonds as well as hearts.

Ashore, a Mr. Thanh buys me a chilled coconut. He is from Hai Phong and uses his BA in English from Hanoi University to stay solvent until his swimwear company can ice a deal with buyers in Australia. He is of an age that knows of my war. We sip and talk. He tells of growing up hiding in the banana grove while American bombers leveled his town and mined its harbor. His is more interested in internet sales strategies.

Then he warns me away from 5 old Viet fishermen who sit nearby - motioning to share their Pepsi jug of rice whiskey … at 11 in the morning. I don't heed his advice. The whisky is killer. Shooters followed by a slice of jackfruit and a small rock of salt. It even tastes a little like Tequila. Mr. Thanh does not join in. He is educated, well off, and from the north. The divide is palpable.

Aboard, again the common language is English. Even the crew slips into it when national tongues need straightening out. The chef is Cambodian and Jean is quickly in his good graces with her refined interest in his art. The strange fruits and local spices are a treasure to justify colonial conquest. Food is varied and fresh - and that most important item of western invention is always available – cold beer.

We will ride as far up the Mekong as the dry season water level will allow. From there, we plan on flying to Hanoi and dig into the main course of this trip. But first, a side dish that is mandatory in this part of the world - Angkor Wat.

- Riverine Rod