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BACKGROUND: WAR ON THE MEKONG

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We ‘discovered’ Angkor Wat in 1907. Of course, it was there all the time. History had to turn a few times before it became, slowly, a ‘thing to see’. At first it was the upper class; scholars, historians, archaeologists but word got around. Soon they were joined by the interested rich and the briefly-famous. The Grand Hotel D’Angkor rose like a giant puff-pastry on the edge of town to cater for the money. By the 1930′s Angkor came replete with all the mystery of the Orient.

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Luckily, the French were in charge – nothing could possibly go wrong.

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Then in 1965 ,  just next door in Vietnam, someone started a war .

Inevitably, conflict spilled over the border. Nixon believed North Vietnam was transporting troops and supplies through Cambodia into South Vietnam so, in his ineffable wisdom, in March 1969, authorized secret bombing raids to cut the supply chain. The bombing lasted four years, a hundred thousand Cambodians lost their lives, two million were left homeless. Their government seemed useless, a corrupt bourgeoisie propped up by religion and royal lineage. Victimised and angry, the relentless air strikes and some vigorous rhetoric from Pol Pot convinced many Cambodians to overthrow their helpless government, a revolution that gave direct rise to the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia became the country that ate itself.

CLICK ON THE KHMER FLAG FOR JOHN PILGER’S DOCUMENTARY

The national madness began. To this day nobody understands why. In April 1975, Siem Reap stood empty, the population evacuated by the Khmer Rouge and driven into the countryside. Everything stopped. Year Zero began. You know the rest; just like in the rest of Cambodia and body smart was killed – the intelligentsia, the artists, the performers, the teachers – all the elements of  Buddhism purposely destroyed; the religious leaders, the monasteries, the images, manuscripts were obliterated.

But the Khmer Rouge didn’t know what to do with the temples. Angkor Wat was long engraved on the Cambodian conscience. After all, she was on their flag; they couldn’t very well blow her up. Year Zero would just have to have some inconvenient history, after all.

As it didn’t quite fit the philosophy, the Khmer Rouge simply ignored the issue. To save face, they affected indifference – the monuments were, for the most part, just left alone to moulder. It was only when people realized the value of their crumbling treasure that the next round of damage began.

The Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 leaving a traumatised nation behind them. Nobody knows how many died. Best estimates suggest about 1.6 million – a quarted of the population. For what? Nuttin’. Vietnamese troops promptly took over the town of Siem Reap for three years and proceeded to use it as a base to loot Angkor. Land-mines lay strewn about like confetti, laid down by the conquering heroes to guard thei territory. Everything was out of control. The only thing that thrived was corruption.

An abiding sense of national shame, the madness of Pol Pot, family destruction, brutal military occupation, and years of severe poverty created a fine climate for venality. Everybody had a gun.

The Cambodians got about as venal as you can get. Khmer objects rapidly became prime targets for an illicit international art trafficking net-work with its regional base in Thailand. Over the course of the 1980s and particularly into the 1990s the illicit traffic in Kymer art became an organized industry.  It wasn’t the only illicit industry that flourished; kidnapping, illicit arms, smuggling, heroin trafficing and child prostitution were eagerly embraced. For years post-Pol Pot, Cambodia was a lawless state, run by military cadres. At the top end of town the Grand Hotel D’Angkor cooly received guests as if nothing whatsoever had ever happened. Nevertheless, a few intrepid tourists wandered in.

Combine a great attraction with local ganja and cheap guesthouses, you can be sure backpackers will find it. In the early nineties, Siem Reap began to feature on the Lonely Planet trail. Cambodia was then like Burma is now; still hidden yet available. For the first time in thirty years, Siem Reap hovered once more on the edge of Great Expectations.  The first construction trucks rolled in.

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There’s a war on the Mekong, and it ain’t very nice.

Pandaw Cruises began in Burma in 1995 and expanded operations to Vietnam in 2003. The R.V. Mekong Pandaw pioneered the Mekong cruise concept, grew the brand and reaped the not-inconsiderable rewards, It was a brilliant idea; a week spent sailing up the Mekong from Saigon to Siem Reap on an old-time river freighter. Intriguing, adventurous – in a safe kind of way – perfect for the cardigans. It didn’t take long to catch on. A year later R.V. Tonle Pandaw joined the fleet and together the two leap-frogged their way to a growing profit for the next five years.

Pandaw was running the river unchallenged. Prices crept up, occupancy climbed – soon you couldn’t get a berth. Each ship has about thirty cabins so, bar the odd tragic single, the fleet was running with a capacity of around one hundred and twenty intrepid cruisers a week. Each ship did one cruise every seven days – up river or down. In high season every cruise was full.

In early 2009 they added a third, mystery ship; RV Indochina Pandaw – this one reserved entirely for the kangaroo trade. Sold exclusively within the Australian travel market, boat-loads of cruisers are flown in and out secretly each week – a weekly Pand-awful of Aussies, a relentless pandemic of ‘noice’.  Every cruise is full.

The aesthetic of the Pandaw fleet hasn’t changed in fifty years; all that dark wood; those wooden walls, wooden floors, wooden ceilings, the wooden window frames, those dark wooden bathrooms, wooden tables, wooden chairs, wooden toiler seat, wooden shower, wooden lamp, wooden food. There is always the tang of boarding school about a Pandaw – it’s a very brown experience; the basics clad in romance, nothing more.

But it was perfect branding; a touch of the Raj, a bit of George Orwell, a bit of Hogwarts thrown in; Singapore Slings on the top deck, the muddy romance of low seas, high jinks for the old colonials

Call it an ‘adventure’ cruise and you could get away with almost anything. Surround yourself with indemnities and clauses, foreign courts and company law, you could practically kill the punters and you were covered. It was an intrepid, rather British thing to do. Getting hoist on a sandbank, having to abandon ship, deal with cyclone, low-water or high was all part of the jolly hockey sticks appeal of it all, an ersatz expedition into the heart of darkness.

It doesn’t take the bean counters long to realize that if someone offered something different, a more up-market brand catering to the Euro-market, great riches would be theirs. If you build it, they will come. They did and they did.

In late September 2009 R.V. La Marguerite arrived on the scene – a bigger ship with forty-six cabins; a maximum ninety-two passengers, a different Euro-aesthetic aiming at a new market.  An offshoot of Avalon Cruises, one of the major players in the European River Cruise market and connected to everyone everywhere, they were geared to adventurous, cashed-up Europeans intent on ‘The Authentic Mekong Experience’ with maximum Euro river-cruise style.    .

A month later, Heritage Line’s Jayavarman finally set sail. Bedevilled with shonky internet sites, cancelled cruises, outrage in internet chat rooms, dire warnings of scam and corruption, the little player managed to get her head above water and blitzed the opposition. Here’s a picture of the C.E.O.:

There’s no real reason to put a picture of Thomas Peters in here. I never did meet him but there’s something about the picture I like. It says a lot about the company. Jayavarman is a smaller operation; just fifty-six clients – a more personal, boutique vessel. Small is beautiful with river-cruises – the stops are easier, the tours less frantic, the ambience much more relaxed on board. This time someone got the aesthetic right.

Suddenly Pandaw was looking kinda old. Their ‘ye olde river-boat’ brand, beloved of geriatric British Pandodderers, was looking dated and tired. All that dark wood, those dingy cabins with their tiddly single beds and dim lights, those dark blue bedspreads, that boarding school cuisine was looking very nineteen nineties. Pandaw appealed to a certain type of British tourist, a certain type of Australian and the odd New Zealander. While they had the market sewn up they attracted the Americans, Germans and French intrepid enough to brave such an Anglo-phile endeavor.

How big is the Mekong cruise industry? How long is a piece of string? Nobody knows – the industry grows like Topsy. Once the newcomers arrived with their Euro-Asian decor, luxury double-beds and private balconies, the market split – and expanded. Both recorded significant custom. The profits were instantaneous. In only two years, there was an increase in passenger numbers of eight hundred percent.

So there’s a war on the Mekong and it ain’t very nice.  Three river cruise companies are vying for the tourist buck – and there are a lot of tourists and lot of bucks. Highly competent Cambodian and Vietnamese staff are very happy to be paid third-world wages while their passengers pay first-world prices and leave big fat first-world tips. Everybody makes money; the crews can double their wages on tips every season. The shore operations, the tourist attractions, the boatmen, the bus-drivers, the orphanages, the villages et al can see the future – an eight-fold increase in their business delivered daily to their door.

Watch out Pandaw, there’s a new kid in town. Everyone positioning, making allies, staking territory – indeed, in the dash for cash, as far as the Mekong tourist industry is concerned, the more the merrier – as long as it’s more of the same.

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  TRIBE

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