The Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia, the seventh longest in Asia, and the twelfth longest river in the world. It’s a significant avenue of trade for six different countries and serves as a border between nations.
The Mekong is also the drainage basin for over 300,000 square miles of land, an area larger than Texas (268,581). Its banks are home to two nations’ capitals: Vientiane of Laos and Phnom Penh of Cambodia.
The Mekong’s source is the Lasagongma Spring in Mount Guozongmucha, and its mouth is the South China Sea. It is divided into two sections, the Upper and Lower Mekong.
The Upper Mekong starts from the plateau of Tibet before winding its way down near the border of Laos and Cambodia. There it traverses Khone Falls, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, which prevents the Mekong from being fully navigable from sea to source. From these falls, the lower section of the river flattens out considerably and is prone to serious seasonal swelling.
Over the course of its 2,700 miles, the Mekong sees a multitude of landscapes. In China, it descends from the Tibetan Plateau, carving out a deep valley. It flows southward into the heavily forested highlands that run the border between Laos and Myanmar, then Laos and Thailand. Beneath Vientiane, the forests thin out until the river plunges just before the Cambodian border, then expands into flood plains. After Phnom Penh the channel forks, forming the Mekong and Bassac Rivers, which make up the Mekong Delta.
Needless to say, cruising the Mekong River is an extraordinary journey worthy of any nature lover’s bucket list. Zegrahm’s new 18-day Along The Mekong small-ship cruise offers travelers an opportunity to learn more about the history, natural beauty, and unique wildlife along this world-renowned waterway.
NATURAL HISTORY OF THE MEKONG RIVER
In terms of natural history, the Mekong is second only to the Amazon Rainforest when it comes to biodiversity.
The 200 million acre Greater Mekong is home to over 400 mammals, 1,200 birds, and 800 reptile/amphibians. Giant freshwater stingray, giant barb, and the Mekong giant catfish swim in its waters, as do crocodiles and freshwater dolphins. All in all, more than 1,100 freshwater species call the Mekong River home.
There are also upwards of 20,000 different plant species in its basin. In fact, new species of plants and animals are still regularly found in and around the Mekong, with 139 discovered in 2014 alone.
The Mekong River has long served an important function in the lives of the people who live near it. Evidence suggests humans have settled this area for over 4,000 years, with its most prominent archeological site—Angkor Wat—dating back to the 12th century. It has functioned as a trade route and provided agricultural irrigation for much of the region’s rice production. It’s a source of food itself, providing roughly 2 million tons of fish a year. As such, the river is a vital source of income, supporting around 60 million people.
In modern times, the Mekong’s majesty is being challenged. Dams for hydroelectric power are threatening the ecology of the Lower Mekong. Illegal poaching is robbing the area of some of its most remarkable animals, including Indochinese tigers, saola (a.k.a. the Asian unicorn), Javan rhinos, and Asian elephants. Deforestation is also reducing wildlife habitats in the name of building infrastructures like roads and bridges, as well as lumber and agriculture. And, of course, climate change is ever-looming.
Here’s an overview of some of the more intriguing sights you’ll see on Zegrahm’s incredible expedition through this increasingly fragile region.
THE UPPER MEKONG
Known as Lancang in China, the Mekong River meanders through three Chinese provinces—Yunnan, Tibet, and Qinghai. It’s part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas.
Unfortunately, the Chinese government has been somewhat indiscriminately putting mainstream dams along the upper reaches of the river. These dams are affecting water temperatures, the flood-drought cycle, and fish migration, which threatens the livelihood of millions of humans and animals further downstream.
Nevertheless, the city of Jinghong remains a remarkable and diverse stop along the river’s journey. It was founded in 1180 by a Thai king, and has since felt the influence of Thai culture as well as Laotian and Chinese cultures. Some of the highlights of the city are its Tropical Plant Institute, which boasts 13,000 species on site, and Manting Park, which has over 1,300 years of history behind it.
Leaving Jinghong to travel south, the dramatic cliffs and hills rise high above the river, creating an awe-inspiring trip down to Guan Lei at the China-Laos border.
Leaving China, the Mekong runs along the border of Myanmar and Laos, cutting through highlands that are replete with deciduous forests. The river stretches about 120 miles along this border, most of the time acting as the official divide between the two countries.
Myanmar supplies about 3% of the water that moves down the Mekong from a catchment area of just over 9,000 square miles. The river runs 75 miles along the southeastern Myanmar border, and it hasn’t had quite as profound an effect on this country as the others along its route.
That being said, most of the locals that live along the Mekong River in Myanmar are ethnic Akha and Shan people. The Akha live higher up in the mountains and are traditional hunter-gatherers, while the Shan have settled in the lowlands and use the river more for agriculture and fishing.
At the end of its expanse in Myanmar, the Mekong takes a sharp turn at the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand all come together.
In Thailand, the Golden Triangle is referred to as Sop Ruak, in reference to the fact that the Ruak River joins the Mekong here. Myanmar is north of the Ruak, with Thailand south of it. As the Mekong makes its turn, it switches to being the natural border between Thailand and Laos.
The Golden Triangle has historical ties to the opium trade, and there is a large museum there dedicated to it. The Hall of Opium Museum tells of the history of opium, its processing techniques, and the effects of using it. There’s even a small model of an opium plantation. Though staged somewhat like a theme park, the museum is also extraordinarily informative about the little-known topic.
As with Myanmar, the Mekong never actually enters the country of Thailand so much as it acts as an occasional border with Laos. However, due to Thailand having a more long-standing tourism industry, the country is much more advanced than its Mekong neighbors in terms of infrastructure. One of its more famous Mekong highlights are the unexplained Naga Fireballs, which appear regularly on the night of the full moon after the Buddhist Lent.
Historically, the river was an important shipping thoroughfare between Bangkok and Kunming, China. These days, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos have all partnered as The Mekong River Commission in an attempt to be good stewards to the waterway and considerate neighbors to each other. There are also now several Thai-Lao friendship bridges across the Mekong.
Laos has the largest watershed into the Mekong River, accounting for over 25% of its water flow. It also marks the end of the line for the Upper Mekong River. Most of the Laos population lives along the river. The country’s capital city, Vientiane, lies on its banks and is full of temples, monuments, and French influence.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that the river plays a central role in Laotian life. Up to 100 shipping vessels move along the Mekong every day, carrying construction materials, agricultural products, and produce. Numerous villages and trading posts are located along the river, so the Mekong is truly integral to the local economy.
Though there are many important sites along the Mekong, perhaps the most noteworthy one in Laos is Luang Prabang, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ancient city is home to lots of different pagodas and temples, the Royal Palace, and the National Museum. It’s also awash with restaurants, markets, and cafes that are rich with colorful character.
Not far from Luang Prabang you’ll find Kuang Si Falls, a ridiculously beautiful natural wonder. Make sure you check out Pak Ou, the famous caves close to where the Ou River feeds into the Mekong (about 15 miles north of Luang Prabang) that are filled with small, mostly wooden Buddhist figures that have accumulated there over hundreds of years.
A bit further downstream, the Laos section of the Mekong River culminates in the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, Khone Falls.
THE MEKONG DELTA & LOWER MEKONG
Just south of Khone Falls, the Mekong crosses over into Cambodia, where it cuts through equatorial flood plains and becomes an even more significant life source. The Ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia sited their archaeological masterpiece, Angkor Wat, in accordance with the tides of the Mekong. And it is in Cambodia where the famous Mekong Delta begins.
Angkor Wat is located in the northern third of Cambodia, just north of Tonle Sap Lake, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Tonle Sap quadruples in size every year—from about 1,000 square miles to 4,000– when the monsoon season hits from June to November. At this time, the Mekong becomes so swollen that it actually reverses the flow of the Sab River, which usually drains Tonle Sap. Villages and towns that are home to over 1.3 million people are well situated to take advantage of the fish bounty that results.
A little further south on Tonle Sap, the Mekong slices through the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Phnom Penh is a bustling capital with lots of dusty markets and a plethora of riverside eateries. The city is also home to much of the haunting history of the Khmer Rouge, including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former secondary school-turned-prison) and the infamous Killing Fields, a painful but important part of the country’s past.
Below Phnom Penh, the Mekong River divides into two rivers, the Mekong proper and the Bassac, which form the silty delta that southern Vietnam has come to count on. The Lower Mekong is used extensively for trade between Cambodia and Vietnam.
It is through Vietnamese soil that the Mekong River makes it final push before spewing into the South China Sea. The Vietnamese call the Mekong River Song Cuu Long (River of Nine Dragons), due to the meandering branches that constitute its delta. As with Laos and Cambodia, fishing in the Mekong is a huge part of the local food supply here.
Though the Mekong doesn’t flow through Vietnam’s capital, it does flow through provincial capitals like Bén Tre and Trà Vinh. These cities and other locations have lots of ancient Khmer temples, and there are even ethnic Khmer people living in this region of Vietnam. This is because the Mekong Delta was the last section of Cambodia that was annexed by Vietnam.
The Mekong Delta in Vietnam is often referred to as the “Rice Bowl” and is the primary area for cultivating rice, the country’s #1 staple crop. Of the estimated 17 million Vietnamese people living in this region, over 80% are tied to rice production. Treasure troves of rich silt are deposited in the delta and brackish water comes in from the sea, making the area ideal for rice growing. Rice is called “white gold” in Vietnam, because it’s so highly valued.
Because of the proliferation of rice cultivation in the Mekong River Delta, cruising the area reveals remarkable bright green colors in the rice paddies. Famously picturesque water buffalo wade through them, and birds swoop down from the nearby mangrove forests. Commerce bustles in the towns, villages, and floating markets. Then, finally, the Mekong River pushes its way into the sea.
CRUISING THE MEKONG RIVER
Zegrahm Expeditions offers a fantastic small-group trip that traverses the Upper Mekong from Jinghong in China all the way down to Vientiane in Laos. It’s an 18-day adventure that kicks off with a layover in Kunming, where the famous Stone Forest is located. The expedition also takes visitors through Jinghong, exploring the city’s rich history and the Mekong’s biodiversity before setting sail.
South of China, cruisers can relax as the 24-passenger Sabaidee Pandaw drifts between Myanmar and Laos, with plush jungle providing the stunning scenery. The cruise stops at Chiang Sean, the Golden Triangle, in Thailand to visit the Opium Hall. There are walks through small trading towns in Laos and a stop at the Pak Ou Caves. The ship docks for two full days of diving into Luang Prabang, with a sojourn to Khuang Si Falls before departing.
The ship travels all the way down to Vientiane, where sightseers get to take in the capital of Laos, with an evening of free time followed by a morning of visiting temples, halls, and monuments. On the final night, dinner and cocktails aboard the ship celebrate the end of this exceptional Asian adventure. –Jonathon Engels
BIO: Jonathon Engels is a traveler, writer, and vegan gardener. Born and raised in Louisiana, he has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in between. His interests include permaculture, cooking, and music. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About and Green Global Travel.