Day 1 and 2: 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.

Breakfast at Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa, Siem Reap

Next time I visit Cambodia, I’d like to spend longer at the Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa. Our fleeting stay of two nights (including arriving the first night well past dinner time) and an action-packed day exploring the temples at Angkor meant I didn’t get to eat at the hotel’s restaurants nor relax and sip mocktails by that gorgeous blue pool. I did however enjoy two fantastic buffet breakfasts. On my second and final morning: freshly blended fruit juice, strong coffee, fresh fruit, rice porridge and this – a bowl of chicken noodle soup with rice noodles, chicken pieces, bean sprouts and green leafy vegetables, all in hot broth and garnished with lots of fried garlic.

My chicken noodle soup

My chicken noodle soup

While slurping up my noodles and tweeting on my iPad (gotta love wi-fi throughout the hotel), the resident cats loitered nearby, hoping for snacks. There was a third black cat, shyer than the others, who hid as soon as I made eye contact. See my note on animals later in this post.

The resident cats of Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa made me miss my own two furry babies back home in Perth.

I could’ve sat here relaxing for hours… but things to do, places to go, you know how it is…

Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa, I will be back.

Day 1: RV Mekong Pandaw

The Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa was the departure point for the Pandaw Mekong River cruise, where we and the other cruise passengers assembled. Once our baggage was loaded, we boarded an air-conditioned bus that would take us to Kampong Cham Jetty. Over the next 7 days, we would be cruising downstream on the RV Mekong Pandaw, a ship built as a replica of a colonial river steamer, our journey beginning in Cambodia and ending in Vietnam.

We said goodbye to Sam, our Angkor temple tour guide. Although lunch was provided for all passengers, our group of six had our own special lunches, provided by Sam, each packed in a woven box with multiple compartments like a bento box, lined with banana leaves. There was no lunch stop, so everyone ate on the bus. The other passengers had sandwiches, but our special lunch boxes included a parcel of rice, fried wontons and fried chicken wing, marinated cooked beef strips, a hard-boiled egg, a chunk of fresh cucumber and fresh fruit – a mandarin and two bananas. I ate tentatively to begin with, worried about motion sickness as the bus ride was a bit bumpy; but once I started eating, the food tasted so good I couldn’t stop. The marinated beef and wontons were especially delicious. Icy cold bottles of water and moist towelettes were handed around.

My packed lunch for eating on the bus ride. Bumpy bus ride, bad blurry food picture. It’s much easier taking photos of airplane food.

We drove through countryside where there were more trees than houses. Suddenly, we heard a loud bang near the back of the bus. Our driver pulled over and investigated – one of the back tyres had a puncture. Luckily, he found a roadside garage a short distance up the road where we were able to get the tyre changed. It was a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs, though it was very hot and dusty outside the air-conditioned bus.

Changing the bus tyre – the youngest garage staff member takes charge.

While the mechanics worked on the bus, I took photographs of the traffic that passed by.

Cambodian traffic – ox cart

Cambodian traffic – bicycles

Motorbike helmets are compulsory in Cambodia, but many riders don’t wear them. The sight of 3, 4 or even 5 people squeezed on a motorbike was a common sight throughout Cambodia. Quite often, as you see here, only the driver wears a helmet, with passengers and young children helmet-less.

Cambodian traffic – motorbike.

After the short garage stop, we reached our destination without further incident, where the RV Mekong Pandaw and her crew were waiting. This would be our home for the next week.

Boarding the RV Mekong Pandaw

My cabin was on the upper deck. Finished in teak and brass, the cabin is 168 square feet/15.6 square metres. Staying true to the colonial theme, there is no mini bar, TV, telephone or internet in the cabin. Thankfully, it is air-conditioned, with unlimited bottled water for drinking. There were two twin share beds, which I discovered were very comfortable. Each cabin had its own ensuite bathroom and toilet. A blue pouch was provided for passengers to carry a bottle of water on excursions and white bag was provided for laundry. In my closet were a bathrobe and slippers.

My upper deck cabin,  RV Mekong Pandaw

My cabin, RV Mekong Pandaw

The upper deck, just outside my cabin.

The uppermost level on the ship is the sun deck, where we spent most of our time onboard. Sun lounges and deck chairs line both sides of the deck. Because the ship was only half-full during our cruise (30+ passengers instead of full capacity 60+), for most of the trip, this half of the sun deck was closed while the crew carried out some painting and polishing.

Sun deck, RV Mekong Pandaw

Sun deck, RV Mekong Pandaw

Sun deck, RV Mekong Pandaw

Sun deck, RV Mekong Pandaw. The ship docked at Kampong Cham Jetty on our first night.

Here at the sun deck we were welcomed aboard by our purser and briefed on the schedule for tonight and tomorrow, as well as on ship safety. Every evening before dinner, cocktail hour and a daily briefing took place on the sun deck. As it turned out, the passengers on our cruise were all Australian, with the exception of two New Zealanders.

Bar and crew, RV Mekong Pandaw

Bar and crew, RV Mekong Pandaw. The drinks (as lined up on the bar) and snacks are free any time.

Meal time onboard the RV Mekong Pandaw is signalled by a gong. This became a sound we looked forward to.

Dining room, RV Mekong Pandaw

Dining room, RV Mekong Pandaw. This became our regular table.

Prawn cocktail

First night dinner starter: an old fashioned prawn cocktail, with two large prawns, creamy sauce and fresh tomato, onion and lettuce.

Radish soup

Radish soup, a clear flavoursome broth with radish cubes.

Diner buffet: pork Milanese with potato croquettes, Cambodian fish curry with lemongrass rice, steamed vegetables

Our first dinner was a buffet meal – pork Milanese with potato croquettes, Cambodian fish curry with lemongrass rice, steamed vegetables. It resembled something you’d get at a shopping centre food hall but was very tasty.

Deep fried banana spring roll with chocolate sauce

Dessert: deep fried banana spring roll with chocolate sauce, garnished with a sprig of mint. The spring rolls were fresh out of the fryer and almost too hot to eat. Inside the crisp pastry, soft ripe sweet banana.

We returned to our cabins each evening to find a printed schedule for the next day, placed on our beds. I took a photo of these schedules each night and emailed them to Jac so she could see what we’d be up to.

Day 2: Wat Hanchey and Kampong Cham

I slept very well and missed the sunrise. Every morning of the cruise, coffee and tea for early risers was served on the sun deck. At around 6.30am, the ship’s anchor was lifted and we began our journey towards our first stop of Wat Hanchey. I sat on the sun deck with a cup of strong sweet milky coffee and my camera, taking pictures of the boats that we passed along the river. The Mekong is very brown and murky and I must admit I thought it would smell unpleasant out on the deck, but I was surprised – I barely smelled it throughout the cruise. In fact, our very own Swan River back home has a much fishier smell at the best of times.

A boat carrying a family

Fishing boat

Fisherman with a huge net

We entered the dining room at the sound of the gong, eager to see what breakfast would be like. We were certainly not disappointed.

Every morning, a trio of fruit juice – apple, tomato, orange. One of the jugs was the ‘party’ jug, decorated with tiny colourful beads.

Fruit and pastries

Also every morning, a selection of local fruits. At this first breakfast, watermelon, papaya and bananas.


Later during the cruise, I found out there is a baker among the kitchen crew, responsible for the different breads and pastries we enjoyed daily.

A selection of cereals, also available each morning. I never eat cereal for breakfast unless there’s absolutely nothing else – so given all the more enticing choices on offer, I didn’t have any cereal during the cruise.

Cold meat and salad

Cold meats and salad with ranch dressing.

Breads and spreads

The breads varied each day – sometimes loaves, sometimes buns/rolls, including white, wholemeal and even fruit loaf. A variety of jams/spreads, including strawberry, marmalade and honey, and the slightly more exotic pineapple jam.

Sausage and onions, bacon

The breakfast buffet consisted of several hot dishes which varied each day – today, chunky sausages and fried onions, and bacon (bacon was available every morning).


Pikelets. No maple syrup though! I ate mine with butter and honey.

Boiled eggs and baked beans

Boiled eggs and baked beans. There was an egg cooking station (next photo) which proved very popular, so these boiled eggs were largely ignored. But I don’t think they went to waste – there was a dish of sliced hard-boiled eggs at the lunch salad buffet.

Egg station – another daily feature of breakfast on the Pandaw Mekong RV. Fried eggs, scrambled eggs and omelettes. More details and photos on those options in posts to come.

My plate

My plate – bread, butter and strawberry jam, bacon, sausages and onions, baked beans, omelette and pikelets. As mentioned, I went back to the buffet and got some honey to go with the pikelets.

Fruit: papaya, watermelon, banana

Fruit: papaya, watermelon, banana. My favourite fruits are durian (obviously not featured on a cruise ship of mostly western passengers!), papaya and banana. I ate so much papaya and banana on this trip. My late grandma would’ve approved, as she used to tell me those two fruits would help keep me ‘regular’. Maybe she was right, as I was indeed ‘regular’ throughout the cruise (that’s all I’m saying on that subject, don’t worry!).

At breakfast, we were handed the lunch menu and asked to choose our main course. This was the pattern of most meals – choose your lunch main course at breakfast, choose your dinner main course at lunch. As a proud glutton who doesn’t need an excuse to think about food, this was an enjoyable ritual that I eagerly anticipated.

After breakfast, we went on our first excursion, leaving the ship to walk up a hill to Wat Hanchey, a complex of Buddhist temples.

Wat Hanchey temple

Wat Hanchey temple

Wat Hanchey temple

Throughout the trip, there were local children at just about every temple and village we visited, greeting us with “Hello.” Some tried to sell us trinkets and books, some just wanted to follow us around, most were chuffed to interact with us and were happy be photographed.

Children at the temple

Offerings to Buddha. You are allowed to take photographs in most of the temples, but you must take your shoes off before entering (walking in with socks on is allowed).

Temple wall art

The monks live in houses towards the back of the property.

You can tell monks live here by the bright orange robes hanging to dry.

Inside one of the temples, ladies prepare a communal lunch for after prayers. Seeing this of course makes me feel a little hungry.

Sleeping dog. I saw many dogs on this trip, most achingly thin with ribs showing.

Note – animals
Rabies is a risk in Cambodia and depending on how long you’ll be there and what your planned activities are, your doctor may recommend getting vaccinated for rabies. Regardless of whether you’ve had the vaccination, you should always take care, keep your distance, remain alert and avoid direct contact with dogs, monkeys and other animals (not just ‘wild’ ones, domestic and farm animals too). You’ll need post-exposure shots if you get bitten even if you’ve been vaccinated for rabies, so it’s best to stay safe and avoid the additional stress, hassle and expense which may well ruin your holiday.

Big pineapple at Wat Hanchey. Probably the most memorable feature at Wat Hanchey are the giant fruit sculptures.

The giant fruits are scattered throughout the property, but in one particular spot, there are multiple fruit sculptures all in a line. There are animal sculptures too.

Yes, of course – there is a durian.

Thankfully, it is much easier walking down stairs. The banister is in the form of naga, the snake – a religious motif we saw at Angkor Wat and all throughout the trip. Some people may feel squeamish putting their hand on the ‘snake’.

Note – the heat
You’ll definitely need to put on sunscreen and take water to drink on these excursions. A hat is recommended. The Pandaw staff hand out icy-cold bottles of water as you disembark the ship (that little blue drink bottle pouch is very handy!). All our bus rides were in air-conditioned comfort but outside the bus, the heat/humidity was intense and my shirts were soaked with perspiration; I needed one shirt for the morning expedition and a new one for the afternoon. I had a great time but don’t miss that sticky sweaty feeling.

Back on the ship, there was time to freshen up before the lunch gong sounded.

Soup was served out of a large pot. We were free to help ourselves to bread and butter. Staff poured us glasses of water, and we were free to order other drinks e.g. soft drinks and juice, wine and beer. During the course, the staff got to know what our favourite/regular drink orders would be. Service was excellent.

The soup, bread and butter station

The soup, bread and butter station

The salad buffet, usually with three or four salad choices, was a feature at most lunches. Today, there were also little baskets of crisp garlic bread and green tomato salad, roasted pumpkin salad, wing bean salad and banana flower salad.

Every lunch time, a selection of salad dressings and side dishes, including chopped bacon bits (foreground).

Cream of sweet potato and curry soup topped with coconut shavings, garlic bread and bread & butter

Cream of sweet potato and curry soup topped with roasted coconut shavings, garlic bread and bread & butter

My salad plate – a bit of everything. The roasted pumpkin salad and wing bean salad were fantastic! This was the first time I’d eaten winged beans. I liked them. Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the hard-boiled egg topped with bacon bits (I couldn’t resist!).

Our main courses, chosen at breakfast, were soon served. I had the Cambodian style chicken with ginger and jasmine rice. Throughout the cruise, when choosing my main courses, I tried to select whichever dish was listed as Cambodian. The menu usually included at least one Cambodian option and a western option. Today’s lunch main courses, for example, were the Cambodian ginger chicken, sea bass with leek sauce, served with carrot and zucchini tagliatelle (a couple of the boys ordered this and said it was very good), and wonton shrimp soup Chinese style. My chicken was delicious and beautifully presented, with the rice shaped in a pyramid. As we soon learned, creative presentation is a hallmark of this ship’s kitchen.

As we ate lunch, the dinner menu was passed around and we made our main course choices.

Cambodian style chicken with ginger and jasmine rice

Cambodian style chicken with ginger and jasmine rice

Today’s lunch dessert included fresh pineapple and sapodilla as well as chocolate brownies. In Malaysia, we knew sapodilla fruit as “ciku” (chee-koo). This was the first time I’ve eaten it since leaving Malaysia at age ten. Many people describe its taste/texture as a sweet pear cooked in brown sugar.

Sapodilla, pineapple and chocolate brownie

Sapodilla, pineapple and chocolate brownie. Fruit and vegetable carving was a feature at meals. Today’s was carrots carved and assembled to make a bird.

The brownie was rich and moist – but it was the thick shiny icing that I liked most of all.

Sapodilla and brownie

Sapodilla and brownie

After lunch, we got into a bus that took us to the twin holy mountains, Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey, known as “Man and Woman Hill”, where there were more temples and religious statues to see.

When I asked this priest if I could take his picture he simply nodded, smiled and stood still just like this, ready to be photographed.

Big gold Buddha

Big gold Buddha

Our first encounter with the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This priest sat with a collection of skulls of people killed during Pol Pot’s reign, retrieved around the countryside. There are records of just some of many people imprisoned, tortured and killed during that time, but the skulls and bones that continue to be found remain unidentified. Later on the trip, we visited the Killing Fields and S21 Detention Centre in Phnom Penh, a sobering experience.

We got back into the bus to travel to our next stop: Cheungkok Ecotourism Village in Kampong Cham. The village is supported by AMICA (Assistance Mediation Internationale). One of the key AMICA projects has provided a ‘green’ water supply for the village, improving general hygiene and supporting cultivation of vegetable gardens as an additional source of food and income to traditional rice growing.

Tourists are welcome to visit, meet the local people and experience a little taste of Cambodian village life in this working example of rural sustainable development. The population of the village is 700, composed of around 140 families.

Boy with buffalo and padi fields, Cheungkok Ecotourism Village

Cheungkok Ecotourism Village

Cheungkok Ecotourism Village. Our Cambodian guide Sean tells us traditionally the homes are built high, not primarily because of floods, but to protect against wild animals entering.

Little girl saying “hello”

The little girl in black dress and pink shoes strutted most importantly. Wonder where she was off to?

The mother of this sleeping boy saw us with our cameras and gestured proudly towards her son in the hammock – “Photo, photo” she said, smiling.

Village children

There were cows and chickens under many of the houses.

These freshly caught crabs will be preserved in brine for eating later.

Watch out for the truck

Our guide Sean demonstrates using the ice machine – ice balls decorated with food colouring are a simple cold treat for the village children.

These women weave silk krama, a traditional Cambodian garment with many uses including as a scarf, bandanna, a sling to carry children and more.

In this photo, both women are wearing kramas, one on her head, one around her neck. They have handicrafts for sale. Because so many of these ornaments are made with plant materials such as coconut, bamboo and wood, I didn’t buy any as I didn’t like my chances getting them through Australian quarantine. At the end of our tour, the village people set up stalls selling their handiwork – ornaments, scarves, bags, purses and so on. I bought a little woven case to store my camera memory cards.

Banana tree

Banana tree

Back onboard, the late afternoon heavy rains began. We left the sun deck and retreated to the saloon. Pretty soon, we were munching on warm cocktail wieners and enjoying pre-dinner drinks mixed and poured at the saloon bar.

Cocktail hour in the saloon – you can see the rain splattered on the windows.

It was all very pleasant in the saloon, but eventually came the sound we were all waiting for… GONG! It hadn’t taken long to train us at all.

Bread and butter with cream of cauliflower soup. We soon realised every dinner included a soup course.

Asian style glass noodle salad with ground pork

Asian style glass noodle salad with ground pork and crushed peanuts. Delicious!

Beef lok lak

A Cambodian dish, beef lok lak – tender, marinated thinly sliced beef, one of my favourite dishes of the trip. When I first tasted it, I recognised the flavour, realising that the beef in my deluxe lunch box had been beef lok lak.

Coconut mousse

Coconut mousse. A delicate mousse topped with sultanas, eaten with a teaspoon. A lovely way to end the meal.

It was just a fried egg and heart-shaped is kind of cutesy, but I love the chefs’ efforts with presentation.

As we ate, the guys and I talked about our day and couldn’t help reflecting on how different our lives are to those of the local people we met… and how lucky we were to be able to enjoy the comfort and luxury onboard the ship, and how much we appreciate and try to make the most of all the opportunities that we have.

Table service was very attentive and always delivered with a smile, and dinners were relaxed and informal. You aren’t expected to dress up for dinner, something I think we all greatly appreciated.

RV Mekong Pandaw, a magnificent and eye-catching sight on the Mekong.

More of my Mekong cruise adventures to come. Also: on internet access – how I remained in touch and active on social media throughout the cruise.

Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa
Central Park, Siem Reap Town
Kingdom of Cambodia
Telephone: +855 63 760 428
See my post on the Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa.

Pandaw River Expeditions

Cheungkok Ecotourism Village

Read the rest of this travel series (in progress)
Cambodia/Vietnam 2012

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.

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