Day 3: River cruise on RV Mekong Pandaw

This trip was hosted (what does this mean?) – I travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam and experienced the RV Mekong Pandaw cruise as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.

Also in this post: what I did for internet access while overseas.

Day 3: Kampong Tralach and Kampong Chhnang

On Day 3 of the Mekong river cruise I was one of the first to the dining room at the sound of the gong (who am I kidding, I was among the first eaters every meal of the cruise). This morning, I was chuffed to see stir-fried noodles on the breakfast buffet. I joined the line at the egg station and ordered myself some scrambled eggs to go with my noodles, tomato, sausages with onions and bacon. It was so hard to resist that beautiful crispy bacon each morning. The scrambled eggs were soft and curdy but made without butter.

My plate – fried noodles, scrambled egg, tomato, bacon and sausage and onions

Shortly after breakfast, we landed at Kampong Tralach for our morning excursion, an ox cart ride. As the ship neared the river bank, we could see oxen with wooden carts and village children waiting for us.

Village children waiting for us on the river bank

Village children waiting for us on the river bank.

The children greeted us enthusiastically and gave us flowers. One little girl clutched a drawing of kangaroo which she shyly presented to a surprised (and thrilled) passenger.

Disembarking the ship - greeted by village kids

Disembarking the ship – greeted by village kids with flowers.

On each cart, a woven mat was laid for you to sit on. Our Vietnam Airlines chaperon Burt and I shared a cart, climbing onto the mat to both sit facing backwards.

Ox cart drivers were waiting for us.

One or two children ran along each cart for the entire ride. A boy and girl latched themselves onto us, hanging onto the cart, keeping steady eye contact with us the whole time. The little girl who ran with our cart kept giving us flowers. I was worried that one of the kids would fall down and get injured by a cart, but they were nimble and sure-footed, clearly having done this many times before.

This boy was one of two kids who ran along with our cart

This boy was one of two kids who ran along with our cart.

This little girl ran along behind the cart too. She kept giving us flowers, which I handed to Burt, as I had my camera in my hands. Burt had quite a bunch of flowers by the end of the ride.

We passed by a section of the village where market stalls had been set up, with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat for sale. It was difficult to take photographs as the uneven ground made a bumpy ride. I really enjoyed the ox cart ride, but my bottom felt every bump and dip in the ground.

We passed village market stalls selling all sorts of fresh produce, meat and drinks.

We came to a stop so our tour guide Sean could show us the local Buddhist temple. As the ox carts were ‘parked’, many of the oxen decided it was now the perfect time to drop a poo. Big, steaming, wet, smelly ox poo. Watch where you walk! Our ox cart driver grinned (though not unkindly) as we scrambled off the cart with wobbly legs and the elegance of elephants.

Burt’s and my ox cart driver.

In the temple, we were greeted by a smiling monk who was quite happy for us to take his picture. Anyone who wished for a blessing was given one, along with a lucky red string tied around his or her wrist.

Monk with  his lucky red strings

Monk with his lucky red strings.

We climbed back on the cart just as inelegantly as before, probably even more awkwardly this time as I was conscious of the muddy undersides of my shoes and didn’t want to drag dirt onto the woven mat we’d be sitting on. We placed our now slightly tender bottoms on the scratchy mat and braced ourselves for more bumps on the ride back.

We passed this motorbike and cart carrying women and children. Looks like some of them have been shopping.

More village children would see our carts and run with us.

Ox cart convoy as we neared the end of the journey. You can see each cart has at least one child hanging on beside it. The cart directly behind ours was quite the tailgater, and I was worried for the safety of the children running with our cart.

We returned to the ship where we were greeted by the smiling crew. Before the gong sounded to summon us to lunch, there was time to freshen up, relax and have a cool drink at the bar on the sun deck or sit in the saloon and listen Sean our tour guide talk about Cambodian geography, history and culture. As usual, a feast awaited us in the dining room.

Devilled eggs

Devilled eggs served in Chinese soup spoons.

Eggplant salad

Eggplant salad – my favourite salad of this meal. So delicious I went back for seconds.

Fish cake salad

Fish cake salad, with vegetables, mint, chilli, ground peanuts and strips of rubbery fish cake.

Green mango salad

Green mango dried shrimp salad. Some people find the dried shrimps on the stinky side, but me, I love them!

Attacking the buffet

Attacking the buffet. Over the course of the cruise, my fellow passengers grew accustomed to me taking the customary “attacking the buffet” shot each lunch time.

My salad plate

My salad plate. Once again, corn kernels with crispy bacon bits.

This lunch’s soup was winter melon. It reminded me of a clear broth my late grandmother used to make with white radish and carrots.

Serving up the soup

Serving up the soup. It’s steaming hot. Don’t burn your tongue like I did.

Winter melon soup

Winter melon soup

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw what the main course was! A roast turkey and roast duck. Chefs in their whites and toques stood smiling and waiting to carve up the birds.

We couldn’t believe it! Roast turkey for lunch!

Roast duck with gravy and shallot sauce

Roast duck, gravy and shallot sauce.

The lunch carvery

The lunch carvery

And if roasted birds weren’t exciting enough, the chef at the end of the counter was slicing up salmon pie, served with creamy dill sauce. This was one of those classic “I’ll have one of everything” meals.

Slicing the salmon pie

Slicing the salmon pie. To go with it: creamy dill sauce.

It was one of my favourite lunches of the cruise. I still think about that flaky, delicate salmon pie. To go with the roast birds and pie, there was spaghetti with a simple napolitana sauce. I couldn’t resist grabbing a little more of the eggplant salad.

My plate – lunch main course. Roast turkey, roast duck, salmon pie, pasta napolitana and a second helping of eggplant salad. I tried the gravy, shallot sauce and had a blob of cranberry sauce on my turkey.

And still there was more to delight us: the dessert table, laden with goodies – mini chocolate cakes, peeled rambutans, and a rather tempting slab of creme caramel. I thought the melons were for decorative purposes only, but once we’d finished main course and began to hit the desserts, a chef stood by, slicing creme caramel and carving slices of melon for anyone who wanted some – red, yellow or “both, please!”

Dessert table – carved melons, fresh rambutans (partially peeled), chocolate cake and a slab of creme caramel.

As enticing as those shiny little chocolate cakes looked, I chose a slice of creme caramel with some of the fruit salad garnish.

Creme caramel, served with fruit salad

Creme caramel, served with fruit salad.

After lunch, we piled into a smaller speedier boat, the Pandaw Explorer, which took us to see the floating village at Kampong Chhnang, on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake.

The Explorer boat we rode to the floating village

Fishing boat

The boy in this boat was holding tightly to a live chicken.

In among the rickety decks and thatched and rusty roofs we would see splashes of vivid colour, including brightly painted boats.

Children and adults alike would wave and call out to us as we passed. We waved back, of course.

Just a little precarious!

At a few homes, women washed dishes directly in the river water.

Towards the end of our tour, it began to rain heavily. We retreated to the centre of the boat as the rain pelted through the open windows.

The ladies on the boat with the umbrella were food vendors of some sort; I couldn’t get close enough to see what.

It was absolutely pouring when I took this picture.

This little boy was determinedly rowing on his own.

Our sister ship, the RV Mekong Explorer

We passed RV Mekong Pandaw’s sister ship, the RV Mekong Explorer, a number of times on the cruise. It’s smaller than the RV Mekong Pandaw and holds fewer passengers.

Welcome back!

We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting up on the sun deck while the ship cruised along narrow channels of the Tonle Sap River. At cocktail hour, we munched on fishballs on skewers with sweet chilli dipping sauce.

Cocktail hour nibbles - fish balls on skewers with sweet chilli sauce

Cocktail hour nibbles – fish balls on skewers with sweet chilli sauce. The fish balls had a chewy, bouncy texture but were quite delicious.

Dinner time. I was keen to take a photo of tonight’s starter, tomato and mozzarella mille-feuille. The dish was composed of alternate layers of sliced fresh tomato and mozzarella placed on a chunk of cucumber, all topped with a grape tomato garnished with a basil leaf and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar on the plate. The tomato and mozzarella were lovely, but the cucumber had been sliced very thickly and there was a little too much on the plate.

Tomato and mozzarella mille-feuille

Tomato and mozzarella mille-feuille

The soup was comforting carrot and ginger cream.

Carrot and ginger cream soup

Carrot and ginger cream soup.

For my dinner main course (chosen at lunch time), I selected the lamb chops. This was probably my least favourite dish of the cruise. There was not much meat on the cutlets and while I don’t mind pink, this was too rare for my taste.

Lamb chops

Lamb chops

Dessert was Cambodian pandan cake. I was surprised by its jelly-like texture – very different to the Malaysian pandan chiffon cake I’m used to.

Cambodian pandan cake

Cambodian pandan cake

After dinner, we had the option of watching the movie The Killing Fields, in the saloon. The next day’s itinerary included a visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial. The ship was moored at Phnom Penh overnight.

This trip was hosted (what does this mean?) – I travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam and experienced the RV Mekong Pandaw cruise as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.

If you’re the kind of traveller who doesn’t need online access while you’re away, don’t bother reading the next section; the post ends here for you. For me, it’s important to have internet access when I travel so I can continue to check and respond to email, moderate comments, stay in touch with Jac and keep my readers updated on my travels via social media.

What I did for mobile internet access while travelling

The first thing if you plan to use your mobile phone overseas for internet (or making calls): make sure the phone is not locked to a particular mobile network.

Local SIM is cheapest
When I went to Malaysia last year, as soon as I arrived in Kuala Lumpur en route to Kuching I made a stop at a mobile service provider kiosk right there at KL Airport and got a local pre-paid SIM card with pre-paid 3G internet (a data pre-paid plan rather than a voice plan – I had no interest in making or receiving calls while travelling). Getting a local SIM card is usually cheapest option when you’re in a foreign country – but do your research beforehand to find out how easy it will be to get one, and what the call/data rates will be. International roaming is ridiculously expensive and everyone I know who has used it has suffered a huge bill afterwards.

On this trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, I wasn’t sure I’d have the time to get a local SIM as the itinerary was not set by me, so I made my own arrangements before the trip.

Don’t assume there will be wifi – check ahead if you can, if it’s important to you
There was supposed to be wifi onboard the RV Mekong Pandaw but as it turned out, for much of the journey, the ship’s router was not working. This proved a source of frustration for the others in my group who are journalists and travel writers and were unable to access the internet/email for work purposes. A new router was purchased by staff when we reached Phnom Penh, though it took them sometime to get it up and running. While we were docked at Phnom Penh, a few of the guys visited the local Gloria Jean’s to use their free wifi, and towards the end of the trip, we made use of the free wifi in the Rex Hotel Saigon. But I was able to use the internet on my phone wherever we went (wherever I could get a mobile signal), without the need for rely on anyone’s wifi.
Before my trip, I ordered two SIM cards via, one for Cambodia and one for Vietnam. For a fixed amount per day, I had a data allowance of 100MB per day, which was enough to check email, tweet and update Facebook daily. On my busiest day of internet activity, I did hit my 100MB limit, which meant I had to wait for the next day (at midnight Central European Time) for my quota to be reset. I paid US$8.99 per day for each country. This may seem a lot, but compare it to international roaming charges and it’s very economical. There’s a cheaper 50MB per day option, an unlimited data only option and an unlimited data + voice (call charges apply) option. The pricing varies for different countries – you can get a quote without placing an order.

Ordering the SIM cards online before my trip was very simple and they were delivered to me in Australia within three working days (shipping options vary depending on the shipping address). I was sent the SIM cards I ordered plus a backup card for each country. The instructions to set up were easy to follow – make sure you login to your account before you leave and take a printout of the instructions with you, as you will need them to get yourself connected while you’re abroad. I also made sure I had a safety pin with me to poke into the hole in the iPhone so I could pop my Australian SIM card out of the SIM card slot and replace it with the SIM for Cambodia, and then later on the trip, the one for Vietnam. Make sure you also have a case or some sort of receptacle for keeping all the SIM cards safe. The cards worked in my 3G iPad too.

Throughout my trip, my phone connected to the local 3G network whenever possible; otherwise, the slower GPRS network, which was frustratingly snail-like but good enough for text tweets. I was able to connect to a network most places we went, more often than not.

Jac and I communicated by email while I was away. I emailed Jac photos and wrote her a long email each night before bed, telling her about my day and what was coming up for the next. The data-only option won’t suit everyone, but this worked very well for us.

For my upcoming trip to Dubai, I’ve ordered the unlimited plan instead of 100MB, which will cost me $14.99 per day. So my dear readers can expect updates and tweets about my adventures while I’m out and about in Dubai. If you don’t really care about having internet while out and about (I tweet and update Facebook while I’m on the move), using your hotel’s wifi might be a better option. Though of course, that can also be expensive, depending on the hotel and the country you’re in. It’s all about knowing what you want to do while away, doing your research, working out what will best suit your needs and then getting organised as necessary before you leave. I know what I’ve described isn’t for everyone; internet access is very important for me, but it may not be worth the effort and cost for you (I think my Facebook and Twitter followers enjoy my travel updates, anyway!).

Nano SIM for iPhone 5
iPhoneTrip does not have nano SIMs available yet for iPhone 5 owners; I have upgraded my iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5 but will use my old iPhone 4 on the Dubai trip. I’ve asked them when they expect the nano SIMs to be available – they have advised they definitely will have them sometime in future, but no ETA yet.

Note: This is not an ad for iPhoneTrip! A number of people have asked me about what I did for internet access while I was in Cambodia/Vietnam, so I thought it would be helpful to mention this in a blog post. There are other similar services available and other ways to get internet access while abroad – this post simply describes my personal experience.

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