Sue Perkins: why I swapped Bake Off for the tribes of the Mekong River
The presenter had no idea what a rice plant looked like before she spent half a year travelling from the Ho Chi Minh Delta to the remote Tibetan Highlands for a new BBC2 documentary
Historically, I’ve never been one for leaving the comforts of home. The Perkins Family holidays were brutal, short affairs – invariably involving the pebbled beaches and sub-zero waters of “summertime” Brighton. Occasionally, just occasionally, we’d go all continental and visit my grandparents in Spain in their 17th-floor flat in Torremolinos, get sunburn, ride on a poor, beleaguered donkey in Mijas and fly home again.
As an adult, once I’d started work, the obsessive dynamics of self-employment meant it felt plain wrong to take a break away. What would happen if I disappeared for a week or two? That once-in-a-lifetime opportunity would be bound to appear and I’d miss the chance to seize it. I’d have to stay chained to my desk in London and wait...
And then something wonderful happened. Suddenly work itself afforded me the chance to go away. Two birds killed with one stone – finally I got to leave my desk with a clear conscience.
I’m not sure where holidays end and true travel begins. Perhaps it has to do with a deeper engagement with the local people, a more lengthy and immersive stay in communities. Perhaps, more simply, it has something to do with the inherent difference between a rucksack and a suitcase. I don’t know. All I know is that holidays weren’t much my thing – I don’t tan and I’m not built for staying still – but travel, well, that’s something altogether different.
I know I look like a proper square; a total cube. But underneath that nerdish topcoat I am someone who eschews order for utter chaos. Nothing makes me happier than being thrown in at the deep end, and nothing excites me more than a journey where the destination is organic and unfixed. It turns out that what I’d been looking for all these years wasn’t a break, but an adventure.
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The best thing about travel is it obliterates prejudice. It destroys pre-formed opinions, tips you upside down and empties from your head all the things you thought were right or wrong.
And that’s exactly what happened when I travelled up the Mekong. From October last year to the April of this, I ventured from the mouth of that mighty river, the Ho Chi Minh Delta, to its source, over 4,000 metres above sea level in the remote Tibetan highlands. I met the indigenous tribes that populate its banks and hills and explored the effect proposed hydroelectric dams will have on a way of life that has largely remained unchanged for centuries.
The first thing I learnt was that Asia was unlike all my romantic notions. I’d envisaged the Mekong as a pure, undulating waterway, bucolic, ancient and peaceful. Instead, what I was confronted with, as I hit Can Tho market in the Mekong delta, was a filthy, manic hub populated by countless boats and countless people. The water was slicked with diesel and bobbing with plastic bags – which would, every so often, clog the propellors of the outboard motor. Everywhere you looked there was frantic noise and motion, a riot of colour – pigs’ heads, catfish, dragon fruit and watermelon. A damp, Vietnamese M25 in all its glory and horror.
After spending a day with the market traders selling noodles to tourists, we headed to the agricultural village of Vinh Thuan, where I stayed with Thuk and Huang, a couple of rice farmers.
It’s now time to ’fess up.
I had no idea what a rice plant looked like. None whatsoever. I eat rice, on average, four times a week, yet couldn’t have told you how on earth it was harvested. I was about to find out. At dawn, after a fitful sleep on a dining-room table next to a feral cat, I headed to the paddy fields to experience my first proper day’s work as a farmer.
I lasted approximately 20 minutes.
First, you’re standing in foot-deep wet clay soil that sucks at your ankles every time you try to move. The temperature is around the 40 degree mark, but it’s the humidity that fells you. Within moments, every pore on your body is damp. Your bones feel wet and heavy. To harvest the rice plants (think green, green grass with tiny beige tassels at the end), you grab a sheaf with one hand and scythe it with the other, a few inches from the ground. Then, when you have a decent bunch, you tie it with plant twine and leave it to collect later. You are bent double. You are done in. You wheeze with the effort and feel the blood thumping in your temples. Thuk and Huang do it eight hours a day. Every day.
After some judicious stretching and an awful lot of apologising for my meagre harvest, we left Vinh Thuan and headed onwards to Cambodia via a floating passport control. Finally, we arrived at the village of Kampong Phluk, near the Tonle Sap – a freshwater lake and natural phenomenon. As the monsoon gathers force in June, the Mekong transforms into a mammoth floodplain. The force is so great that it reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap tributary, pushing it into the enormous lake, swelling it to five times its dry season volume.
This yearly flood pulse provides the entire region with its most fertile spawning grounds. Some 75 per cent of the area’s fish breed in the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap, and when the waters recede in the dry season (around the end of October), the river drains the lake, reversing the flow once more, and sending thousands of tonnes of wild fish downstream to the waiting nets and hungry mouths of millions of Cambodian fishermen.
At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But when we arrived in mid-November, the dry season hadn’t yet made an appearance. The waters were unnaturally high, and flash floods hit us most days. Here, by the riverbank, you are acutely aware of how dramatically the slightest changes in global temperatures can affect the livelihood of fisherman and farmers. Nowhere I have ever been feels more precarious – or more on the precipice of utter destruction.
After proving to the villagers that I was no threat by being totally rubbish at absolutely everything I turned my hand to, I started getting invites to community activities. Most prestigious was the chance to compete in their annual boat race festival, Bon Om Touk. This involved frantic paddling in a dragon boat against a bunch of nut-brown nutters with zero body fat and an awful lot of tribal honour at stake. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s safe to say this went about as well as all my other sporting endeavours. Put it this way, I came home having not only been ON the Mekong, but IN it too....
And that was only the start of my journey. The rest took in the animist cultures of the Bunong and Kreung tribes, a wildlife rescue raid, a human theme park, a slightly pervy hermit and a stay with a family of yak herders in the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
I’m so lucky to have had these experiences. They truly, truly changed me. And what I learnt keeps on travelling with me – as does the faint tang of the dirty, dirty Mekong.
The Mekong River with Sue Perkins is on tonight (Sunday 9 November) at 8.00 pm on BBC2
Visit the Mekong with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details