Great Canal Journeys (2014) s10e02 Episode Script

Asian Odyssey Part 2

My name's Timothy West, and this is my wife, Prunella Scales.
We are a pair - a pair of actors of a certain vintage.
Basil! All the world's a stage, and in our time, we both played many parts, but as we head towards the final curtain call, there are still a couple of parts we like returning to.
The captain - Cast-off, please.
- Aye aye, sir.
And his mate.
Pru's memory is not what it was.
Oh, my darling, I'm so sorry.
I didn't cast you off.
It's true.
Some days I don't know whether it's Monday or Lewisham.
But exploring canals and waterways is something we can still share Something we both love And together, we've travelled up and down Great Britain and across the world.
So now it's time to head for waterways anew.
We embarked on one last great overseas adventure Mekong Delta, here we come.
An epic voyage through the waterways of Southeast Asia.
The river is everything.
And in the second part of our journey, we've come to southern Vietnam It's beautiful.
Yeah, there's a rice field.
to navigate the mighty Mekong, travelling north through what was once dangerous waters.
At one time, this would have been seen as an unwise, if not very foolhardy, expedition.
We're bound for Cambodia This is Phnom Penh, called by the French "The Pearl of the Orient".
We'll explore a region where waterways are still part of daily life Lovely plums.
Four for 6p, ten for a bob.
As they have been for countless centuries.
I'm a princess of Angkor being carried aboard her royal barge.
Of course you are.
Enjoying its rich and ancient culture I want one.
We'll also discover the scars left by a troubled past.
So out of 18,000 people who came here, - 11 survived? - Yes.
For a couple of ancient mariners like us Today's cargo, two actors of a certain age.
It might seem a voyage too far.
Not easy.
Not easy.
But the rewards Nothing quite prepares you for this.
promise to make this a journey of a lifetime.
So far, we've navigated the waterways of North and Central Vietnam.
Stunningly beautiful, rich in history.
But it was a mere warm up for the long voyage that lies ahead.
As we embark on a journey along jungle-lined rivers and across vast lakes to the heart of the world's second largest delta.
There she is, the Bassac, our home for the next few days.
- Rather splendid, isn't it? - Yeah.
Is it traditional? Yes, it was once a rice barge carrying cargo all the way through the delta, right the way down to Saigon, and now converted for passenger use.
Today's cargo, two actors of a certain age.
Two explorers of the inland waterways, of an uncertain age.
And our first moment of uncertainty, getting on board.
- It's a big step.
- Mind your head.
Jumping on and off boats is a little harder than it used to be.
I'm getting really excited.
Our home for the next few days, the Bassac, bears little resemblance to her humble origins as a rice barge, having been completely overhauled from bow to stern.
And today, she's a rather swish, twin-decked river cruiser.
- Let's have a look.
- Yeah.
Very nice.
It's enough room, isn't it? We have a wide variety of digs in our business.
Sometimes a five-bunk bedroom, sharing a loo with the rest of the company, but nice double bed, adjacent loo.
I think it will do very nicely.
Yeah, we'll be all right here.
- And they've left us a flower.
- It's very nice.
Mekong Delta, here we come.
The Bassac will take us all the way to the frontier with Cambodia.
It's river all the way, isn't it? Not quite.
It's a mixture of rivers and canals that make - up the delta.
- Any locks? No, no need for locks.
This is all flat, but if you took all the canals in the delta together, in one line, it would be longer than the Great Wall of China.
Which is how long? It's very long indeed.
What Tim wants to see is that there are an estimated 50,000 miles of canal criss-crossing the delta, four times the length of the Great Wall.
The Mekong Delta flows from Cambodia into southern Vietnam, which is where we will begin our journey.
From Cai Be, we'll cross to Can Tho and then navigate our way upstream on the Bassac River.
At Chau Doc, we'll cross the border into Cambodia.
We'll explore the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, before making our way to the huge lake of Tonle Sap.
We will end our journey at one of the truly great marvels of human civilisation The temple of Angkor Wat.
For the long voyage ahead, we need to take on provisions.
So we've joined the crew aboard the Bassac's tender for a shopping trip, with a difference.
Not quite Sainsbury's, is it? I've never seen anything like it.
Girang is the biggest floating market in the entire delta.
I suppose the nearest thing we ever had in London was the barrow boys in Soho.
"Lovely plums.
Four for 6p, ten for a bob.
"Come on, buy your strawberries here.
" They'd do very well out here.
If they had a boat.
Oh, look.
Magic flowers.
- Bow to stern.
- Gorgeous.
What are the sticks on top of the boats? In a floating market, the sellers will hang their products on a bamboo pole so we can recognise what they're selling.
Oh, right.
People come from neighbouring provinces around here and they bring their special products in their home town to the market for selling.
And then they'll stay here until they sell out of the products.
About one week or two weeks.
So we see that the boat is not only just the boat, - but also their residence.
- I see.
A transport vessel that doubles as a home.
Sounds familiar and looks it, too.
In a way, they make you think about narrow boats, because it's roughly the same shape.
And they use the space as much as possible for the goods that they're carrying.
So living quarters are minimal.
- Ha! - Very skilful.
Won't do to drop any.
- You like watermelon? - Yes, they're lovely.
Maybe we can prepare some watermelon juice for lunch.
- Great.
- Some new ones, yes? OK.
Here is a lady.
- How many will you need? - Four? - Four.
- Yes How much are these melons each? 40,000 dong.
So what did that cost? About a pound each.
All right, fair enough.
Thank you.
That guy in his hammock waved at me.
Provisions safely stowed aboard the Bassac, our voyage into the depths of the delta begins in earnest.
My first experience of canals was a few hours on the Oxford.
It'd go 7 mph and we used to enjoy it very much, in the English countryside, coping with the weather.
And now here I am in Vietnam.
I can't believe it.
It's very exotic.
Instead of oaks and beeches and some reeds.
It's - mango trees and palm trees, you know, as far as the eye can see.
For me, the Mekong evokes feelings of unease, of mystery, even danger.
Never did I imagine that I'd find myself navigating its waters.
This feels like a proper expedition into the depths of the Mekong.
Bound for the jungles of Cambodia.
At one time, this would have been seen as an unwise, if not very foolhardy, expedition.
You never know what might be around the next bend in the river.
Well, no.
Let me read you this.
"An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.
"The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.
"There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.
"The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom "of overshadowed distances.
" Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness.
It was the basis of the film Apocalypse Now, A group of American soldiers fighting their way up the Mekong.
Set during the Vietnam War, the film captures the horror and brutality of river warfare.
Battling with the Communist Viet Cong, the US-backed forces sought control of the delta's maze of narrow canals and waterways.
But ultimately, in an environment ideal for guerrilla tactics, American technology and overwhelming firepower failed to win the day.
The war ended over 40 years ago.
Peace has returned to the delta.
It's wonderful to see all these people living on and because of the river, not just for trade, but grain, rice, fishing Visiting friends - Wonderful.
- The river is everything.
- Cheers.
- Cheers.
For us, too, it's been a 50-year love affair with waterways.
And thankfully, here we are, still travelling them together.
Night-night, sleep tight, mind the bugs don't bite.
We're in Vietnam, on an epic voyage through the Mekong Delta, heading towards Cambodia.
We are cruising up the Bassac River, through an area that has become one of the world's biggest rice-growing regions.
Today, with crew member Hang, we're leaving the mother ship to head up one of the canals, bound for the rice fields of Can Tho.
The welcome in the Delta is legendary, and we've been invited to visit a family who've been rice farmers here for generations.
It must be quite a hard life here.
No? Very good.
That's a very beautiful hat.
I love it.
- Can I try one? - Yeah.
I want one.
Yes! Yes, a fan.
Access from the canal is a little precarious.
Please mind the step.
Especially when one's balance isn't quite what it was.
Not easy, not easy.
- Oh, right.
- Ah! Oh, right.
Mr Six and his wife make excellent hosts.
Thank you so much for the wonderful spread you have got for us.
What is this, please? It's lovely.
It's coconut.
- Coconut? Shaved coconut? - Yeah.
- It's a fruit.
- Very, very impressed.
Darling, why don't we have things like this in our garden? I can grow cabbages - and a few potatoes.
- Yes.
But nothing as exotic as this.
Very nice.
We love canals, British canals, but tell us what it is like to live beside the Mekong Delta.
Do you have to work very hard when the rice harvest comes? - Yes.
- Yes.
And do the young people help very much? Not really, because young people go to the big city.
- They like to work in the city? - Yes.
Oh, right, yes.
Behind the house lies the family's paddy fields.
Their small plot of just over an acre provides them with 15 tonnes of rice a year.
It's beautiful! Yeah, this is a rice field.
You are in the Mekong Delta and, you know, we're called the rice bowl of the country.
Ah! Because we produce 60% of rice for the country.
Because rice and needs water and heat to grow.
In the raining season, we have water and dry season, with the irrigation, we can have water in the field.
So, the network of canals irrigate the land? Exactly, yeah.
Like that, we can have three harvests a year.
Three harvests a year through the irrigation, yes.
- Yeah.
- Excellent.
So, this looks as if it's about ready to be harvested now.
Is it? Yeah, in two weeks, it must be ready.
- A-huh.
- You can open one rice.
- It's hard.
- It's hard inside? - It's not yet ready.
- Not quite.
- Yeah.
- It's going to be wonderful.
They're nice earrings now, but - Yes.
- You are right.
But in two weeks' time, it'll be quite nice rice pudding.
THEY LAUGH Rice pudding! Good idea! Mr Six and his family are part of the 17-million people whose lives depend on the delicate ecosystem of the Mekong Delta.
But this, the second-most biodiverse area in the planet, is now under threat.
Beginning life high in the Tibetan Plateau, the river runs through five countries before it arrives in the Vietnamese section of the delta.
Recent developments in these upstream areas are starting to change its natural rhythm and flow.
Professor Tuan of Can Tho University is concerned about the delta's future.
So, how is the delta changing? River sediment that once flowed down to the delta is now being held back by giant dams.
No longer reaching its destination, the gap left by this sediment is being filled by the gradually-encroaching sea.
So, how much land has been lost and is being lost? As river banks crumble, houses and farmland are lost to the waters.
So, are people having to move their residence away from the water? Yes.
And this will go on happening? That's terrible! Yes.
- Good.
- Yeah.
It's been a fascinating voyage so far.
And thankfully, Pru seems to be enjoying it as much as ever.
Although her condition is, of course, getting worse, she hasn't lost her knack for picking up foreign languages.
- Can I teach you Vietnamese? - Yes, yes.
When we want to say "hello".
- Yes? - .
we say, "xin chao".
- Xin chao.
- Xin chao? - Yes.
It means, "hello"! - Xin chao.
- Xin chao.
- Yes, xin chao.
- And how we say "goodbye" - Yes? We say, "Tam biet".
- Tam biet? - Tam biet.
Tam biet.
Xin chao and Tam biet.
And when we're going to say, "hello, darling" to the men, we say, "xin chao em yeu".
Xin chao em yeu.
Hello, darling! Is that your real name, Polly? No, it's just my English name, just for fun.
My name is Zhin.
- Zhin? - Zhin.
It means treasure.
Well, you are a treasure.
You are a treasure.
- Thank you.
- Lovely.
We're approaching the international border now.
And at this point in our journey, we'll need to change vessels.
You know we think of 4 mph as being about the right speed to travel on water? Well, yes, that's quite fast enough for me, thank you.
Well, we've got quite a long way to travel today, so I've booked us into something a bit faster.
Looks like a large speedboat.
Well, I'm told it's very comfortable I think.
You're not going to be at the helm, are you? Not on your life.
We'll be travelling the next 80 miles of our journey at the breakneck speed, at least for us, of 18mph.
We're bound for a country that was, for decades, virtually shut off from the outside world.
Next stop, Cambodia.
We're on a voyage through the waterways of Southeast Asia.
Having navigated our way through the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, we've now switched boats and crossed into Cambodia, where we're following the Bassac River north for 80 miles, to the capital, Phnom Penh.
Just a few years ago, this would have been a journey that no-one with any sense would have dared to make, as our skipper confirms.
It must have been a dangerous voyage at one time.
It used to be because there was a civil war and the Cold War between Vietnam and - Cambodia.
- .
- Yes, we know.
- That's the reason.
Ah, yeah.
We're all friends now.
Yes, we are safe now, we are happy.
- Yeah.
- The country is happy.
Very good.
Times have changed, but the memory of a brutal civil war and the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge that followed have left deep scars on this country.
I'm feeling a bit disorientated.
I got used to the idea of being in Vietnam and now suddenly, we're in another country.
Yes, it was a bit sudden.
This is Phnom Penh, called by the French, the Pearl of the Orient.
The city was the capital of the French Protectorate of Cambodia until the early 1950s.
And for many centuries, Phnom Penh has been a cosmopolitan port.
Today, it's more dynamic and busier than it's ever been.
And with what looks like a lively nightlife to match.
But for these two weary travellers, it's definitely bedtime.
We are waking this morning in the exotic, bustling Cambodian capital.
Phnom Penh may feel like a modern Asian metropolis, but it still retains many of its 19th-century European buildings, reminding us of its colonial past.
Cambodia still has a royal family, whose splendid palace, at the heart of the city, is a particularly fine example of Khmer architecture.
For all its rich heritage, this city is yet to fully recover from a dark chapter in the nation's recent history, the fanatical and brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Do you remember the Khmer Rouge? Um well, no, I don't, but those words, Khmer Rouge, - they mean something awful, don't they? - Yep.
It was just over 40 years ago when the black-clad Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.
Led by the notorious Pol Pot, they were radical communists determined to transform every aspect of Cambodian society.
For three years, eight months and 20 days, they ruled with terror and paranoia.
Exterminating anyone who could challenge that ideology.
Intellectuals and the urban classes were almost entirely wiped out.
Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S-21, was the regime's notorious interrogation centre.
Today, it's kept as a museum.
A warning to future generations.
This is the regulation which Khmers made for their prisoner to know while they were getting interrogation, or torture.
Our guide is Han Le Sai.
How to conduct yourself under torture.
You must immediately answer my question without wasting time to reflect.
If you disobey any point of my regulations, you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Chilling! Appalling.
Between 1975 and '79, almost one third of the population died from starvation, disease, forced labour and execution in the notorious killing fields.
And around 18,000 people passed through these interrogation rooms, where the regime's henchmen would extract confessions.
So, everyone who came in here died? Nobody got out alive? So, out of the 18,000 people who came here .
11 survived? Yes.
One of the survivors from that last day is 88-year-old Chum Mey, whom we have the privilege of meeting.
- We are honoured - Great honour to meet you.
I have a picture here.
You recognise? That's you, yes? You're a handsome man, you are.
Chum Mey has dedicated his life to telling his story.
- Good.
- Yeah.
Very right.
Tell us exactly where you were in here.
Can you show us that? Chum Mey was a mechanic under the regime, but on October 28th, 1978, he was suddenly arrested and brought here to be interrogated.
And why were you arrested? Why did they suspect you, especially? Were they killed because they were your relations, or for some other reason? Thank you for telling us your story.
- Thank you very much.
- And we will tell everyone.
It's so awful, I mean, the history of what happened here, that I don't think I can I can't sort of take it all in, the the the agony that people went through and the cruelty and the horror of it all.
Man's inhumanity to man is constantly surprising, isn't it? Yes.
- But we must see it - Yes.
- .
and remember it.
- Yes, yes.
Make sure, if possible, that it never happens again.
One of the Khmer Rouge mantras was, "better to destroy ten innocent people" "than to let one enemy go free".
Finally, in 2018, two of its former leaders were found guilty of genocide.
Khmer Rouge doctrine decreed all literature and art as unrevolutionary.
Including a dance form that dates back to the era of Angkor Wat.
The elegant Apsara dance, which lies at the very heart of Cambodian culture, was targeted.
Its practise banned and its dancers killed.
Vong Metri first learnt Apsara at the Royal Palace when she was just five years old.
As a dancer, she's a rare survivor of the regime.
- Beautiful.
- Thank you very much.
If our hands looked really smooth, Khmer Rouge would consider us an intellectual and they're going to take us somewhere to be killed.
When finally the war was over, what led you towards thinking about dance? Yes.
In defiance of the Khmer Rouge, Professor Vong became a teacher to pass on her knowledge to the next generation.
Her charitable dance school offers free lessons to children from poor families.
Did you ever do anything like this? No.
It's another world completely.
Do you think we should do it every night? Not at night.
I think perhaps in the morning, after we've had breakfast maybe.
Well, let's see if I can learn a few moves, then.
Thank you.
Of course, it always pays to look the part.
Apparently, Apsara is always danced in Cambodia's version of a sarong, a sampot.
Each intricate movement has its own meaning.
- What is that? - Small fruit.
- Fruit? - Yes.
Often representing nature.
Bravo! You're a natural nearly.
Thank you.
How many years do I have to train to learn to be an Apsara dancer? I haven't got that many years left! I haven't got enough life left.
We are on a voyage through the canals and waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia, bound for the ancient capital of Angkor.
But to reach our final destination, we must navigate the Tahas River and the vast Tonle Sap Lake, the largest body of fresh water in South East Asia.
A lake which performs an amazing annual transformation.
It's hard to believe this is a lake - it feels like we're at sea.
And apparently in the rainy season the lake covers 4,500 square miles.
I can't get my head round that.
Here to explain this extraordinary phenomenon is our guide.
So we see all these little islands dotted around.
They're, permanent, are they they're there all the time? The islands are actually on land, but when the water fills up it becomes like islands.
- Yes.
- Oh, right.
So during the dry season there is much more area, is there? Exactly, yeah.
Because in the rainy season the water fills up the lake, so they can come and do their fishing.
When the dry season comes they need to do their farming, - like crops and plants.
- Yes.
So that's how they earn their living between the seasons here.
Fed by the Mekong River, during the rainy season this lake swells to five times its original size, submerging all the land around it.
Whole communities are forced to take to the water, creating temporarily floating villages.
And for those who remain on land, they have had to adopt some rather extraordinary architecture.
The water goes very high, doesn't it? Does it go all the way up to the edge of the stilts of the houses? It does.
It does.
- Yes.
Every six months, like - Every six months? Yes.
And it comes from where - from the Himalayas? Yes, it does.
So the villages are built up on stilts to survive the rainy season? Yes.
I wouldn't fancy my chances of getting to the top of one of these ladders.
We're on our way to the heart of Khmer culture, and one of the largest religious complexes on Earth.
For this final leg of our journey, we're on our favourite type of waterway, a canal.
One that's at least five centuries old.
I'm a princess of Angkor, being carried aboard her royal barge.
Of course you are.
And very regal you look, too.
Thank you.
It was the 19th century French explorer, Henri Mouhot who put Angkor back on the map.
In his journal of 1863 he wrote, "One of these temples - a rival to that of Solomon "and erected by some ancient Michelangelo - might take "an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings.
" "It's grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.
" And the temple that he was referring to, of course, was Angkor Wat.
Unknown to the Western world before this enticing account, the temple does not disappoint.
Ah Ah! Well, of course I've seen photographs but, nothing quite prepares you for this, does it? So, at the end of our epic voyage, this is our reward.
So was it worth it? Oh, I think so.
It's magnificent.
It is.
Angkor Wat lies at the centre of what was a medieval megacity.
With a population of over a million, it stretched across 150 square miles.
But how the Khmer built their temple back in the 12th century - the stones weighing up to 1.
5 tons - was for many years a mystery.
But new research has revealed that it was all down to canals.
Of course.
Our guide, Chang, is an expert Angkor's history.
When the Angkor people built this extraordinary temple, they made great use of canals, didn't they, in the construction? Yes.
They transported their stone on their bamboo rafts.
It floated on the canal from the mountains, almost 60km from here.
So they had to dig the canal first, or was the canal there already? Yeah, they had to dig the canal first.
The Angkorians were very clever hydro engineers.
As well as a network of transport canals, they also built huge reservoirs to store water for the immense city's population.
And they made great use of water in the temple itself.
Those coming here to honour the gods would first have to purify themselves in four cleansing ponds.
Four ponds were used as symbols of four elements.
It's water, air, earth and fire.
Well, it's a shame there's not any water in there now, because I personally could do with a dip.
Could you? It's very hot.
Among Angkor Wat's great treasures are the intricate carvings of the dance form so central to Khmer culture - Apsara.
Yes, remember? When you were being taught the dancing - Yes.
- .
manoeuvres? - The shapes.
- Oh, right, yes, it Yes.
Oh, no, you're much better at it than I am.
- Well, practice makes perfect.
- Mm.
There are more than 3,000 Apsara dancers on these walls, every one of them different.
Apsara, it means female divinities.
It's the heaven ladies.
They used them for performing, for dancing, in the royal palace.
And this was for entertainment, was it? Yes, and also concubines of the kings.
- Ah.
- Right, yes.
And this lady has bare - .
- Boobs, yes.
Naked on top - we call topless.
The ladies are beautiful.
They don't need to wear so much.
That's fair enough I think.
In our culture, we start wearing the clothes on top after French colonise, in about - 1860.
- Yes.
If they were a slave, they wear like this.
- Aha.
- Yes, of course.
There is no written record of how the people of Angkor lived, but within the walls of the ancient city there lies a clue.
Housed in the spectacular Bayon temple are carvings that stretch for almost a mile, each frieze telling a story of everyday life in the 12th century.
This is the war on Tonle Sap Lake Oh, a battle.
- Yeah, a battle between the - Oh, right.
you can see the peoples have spears, have knives, on the boat.
- Yeah.
- Amazingly vivid, isn't it? Yeah.
There's a crocodile.
The poor guy's being eaten by it! Yeah, that's what happens.
What's going on there? Yeah, this is this the lady - they're trying to pick up the lice from this girl.
- Ah! - Oh, nit-picking, yes.
You used to do that for the boys, didn't you? Yes.
Did they have any lice? I can't remember.
Well, thanks to me, no.
This is a graphic record of everything happening - in the town, really.
- Yeah.
And you could make this into a play or a novel.
All the stories are there.
It's wonderful.
The story of Angkor, lost for over 600 years, until the 15th century when suddenly the city is abandoned almost overnight.
Why remains a mystery.
It's been a truly epic voyage.
Along the way, we've seen how the story of this region is entwined with its waterways.
From North and Central Vietnam, to the Mekong Delta, we've discovered a rich history, the warmth of its people, and how rivers and canals are still the lifeblood of nations.
And here at Angkor, we've learned how canals nine centuries ago built one of the ancient world's greatest civilisations.
It's extraordinary where our love of waterways has led us.
When we borrowed a narrow boat for a friend on the Oxford Canal - 50 years ago.
- .
50 years ago.
As we pottered down that pretty English canal, I remember thinking, "You know, this is pleasant.
"I wouldn't mind doing it again.
" No, and here we are, all those years later, in Southeast Asia on a canal that was built by a civilisation over 1,000 years ago.
If it had been cold and rainy on that first narrow boat excursion on the North Oxford, we might not be here today.
Oh, I don't know.
We've always shared the things we love.
And you've always been a pretty ready co-conspirator, haven't you? Yes, I suppose I have.
Thank you.