Think of the Mekong River as the backbone of Southeast Asia. It’s the very pillar that ensures the area’s economic development. Take a trip down the Mekong and you’ll intimately discover the heart of Southeast Asian life. Thanks to some of the destinations below, I too discovered its unquestionable charm.
One of the longest rivers in the world
The Mekong’s size is impressive; it’s the 12th largest river in the world, and the 7th largest in Asia alone. It starts in the Himalayas in Tibet, and ends in the Mekong delta over 4,500 km downstream.
Discover six countries, their landscapes & lifestyles
Starting in Chinese Tibet, the Mekong runs through the golden triangle at the Burmese border, cuts through the centre of Laos and creates a natural border with Thailand over several hundred kilometres long. It then enters Cambodia, where it widens to become an enormous freshwater lake, Tonlé Sap, before continuing to Vietnam and draining into the South China Sea.
Resource sharing causes many geopolitical conflicts that continue to shake this region, creating tension between neighboring countries. Read on to discover which locations became significant on my trip as I discovered this magnificent part of the globe.
During my trip to Yunnan, China, I had no idea that the river in these beautiful Chinese mountains was the same that irrigated the fields in Vietnam, nourishing some of the best rice in the world, 4,000 km further south. This majestic river was always at my side when I trekked through the mountains to encounter the Tibetan people and other native groups that have always filled my wildest travel dreams.
It’s no wonder the Chinese named the river Lancang Jiang, or “Turbulent River”. Here are a few images I took at Lijiang, near the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
The river flows along the entire length of Laos, and dictates Laotians’ way of life. The largest cities in the country sprung up right along its banks. Whether you’re in the North in the charming city of Julan Prabang, in the capital, Vientiane, in the villages in the South near the Thai border, or among the Four Thousand islands at the Cambodian border, the rhythm of daily life takes its cue from the Mekong. Laotians make the river banks their home, seek its nourishment, and use it as the site of many festivals.
One of the biggest festivals in Laos is the dragon boat race in Vientiane. Thousands of people line the banks to encourage the regatta participants.
In October, during the Festival of Light, at the end of Buddhist Lent (also known as Vassa), floating paper lanterns and boats made from Saa (a type of Thai bark pulp) are carefully launched by the thousands. The river’s surface is radiant with these majestic offerings.
Travellers in Laos enjoy taking a short ride down the Mekong on a traditional wooden river boat. It’s not the most comfortable form of transportation, but it makes for a great cultural experience.
The impressive Mekong, after serving as Thailand’s natural northern border, leaves Laos via the Four Thousand Islands. Life and culture in this Laotian archipelago are slow and tranquil, despite the fast river that flows with even greater force towards Cambodia. It turns into wild rapids and waterfalls that are some of the most turbulent in the world.
Tonlé Sap’s floating villages, Cambodia
Tonlé Sap is an enormous freshwater lake in the heart of Cambodia. You can’t miss it: it flows right through the famous Siem Reap region where you can visit the grandiose Angkor ruins.
For the complete experience, visit Battambang by boat. Little by little, the river widens to create this lake that expands or shrinks with the seasons.Rather than building stilt houses on the unpredictable shores, the inhabitants made the actual water their home in an armada of floating houseboats. An entire village and community live on this constantly evolving lake, and they’ve made it their home.
They use the Mekong for their daily hygiene, growing and transporting their crops, fishing, and selling their products at market. When the water levels vary, they simply move. Their floating houses allow them to perfectly adapt to the natural changes of the seasons.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Before flowing into the South China Sea, the Mekong splits into numerous canals, forming the delta of South Vietnam, home to the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Asia. This is one of the most fertile regions in the world.
The canals create the backdrop to Vietnamese life and discovering them is a pleasure. The delta is a lively and dynamic outdoor water market. You’ll see mostly women, clothed in traditional tunics and conical hats, crying out their wares as they paddle by, every morning.
It’s easy to get groceries by simply navigating these small, labyrinthine waterways in the early morning. Pineapples, Tonkin soup, coconuts and other fresh, regional products abound. You can even have your breakfast on a floating barge.
To discover the Mekong River is to travel to the very heart of the region. You’ll meet its inhabitants, appreciate their way of life, and see into their very essence. The Mekong truly is the backbone and the soul of Southeast Asia.
Remember to set off on your trip armed with travel insurance; it will ensure that your discovery of the Mekong runs smoothly!