Highlights of the Mekong River
By Martha Hales
The Mekong river rises among the glaciers of Tibet before flowing through the Yunnan province of south west China. Here the river is characterised by steep sided gorges hiding inaccessible meanders, and it's not until it reaches the more southerly stretches that it becomes southeast Asia’s iconic, languid and tranquil waterway. There are peaceful, scenic sections, and stretches that buzz with life as they thread through city centres. There are riverside villages for which the Mekong is the main source of food as well as the only way to access the outside world, and there are tributaries and deltas which provide some of the most enduring images of this mighty river. Most of all, the river unites countries and regions, humanity and nature, and it provides a brilliant theme to hang an itinerary around. These highlights are arranged from north to south, following the direction of flow.
Slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos
After crossing from Thailand into Laos at Houayxai, there are 3 options for the river trip to Luang Prabang: the speedboat, which is fast (6 hours) but noisy, restrictive and possibly dangerous; the budget slow boats, which ferry you first to Pakbeng for an overnight stop and continue in cheap and cheerful style - light on comfort - to Luang Prabang on day 2; or the well appointed modern river cruisers which throw in full board and much greater comfort but still take 2 days. Whichever method you choose, the fluvial surroundings and rustic villages are a soothing backdrop, sliding by in the heat. Green hills and rocky bluffs surround the mighty brown waterway and every now and again riverside life can be glimpsed on the banks. A classic Asian experience, with the UNESCO listed splendour of Luang Prabang as the reward.
Laid back and low rise Vientiane is a capital city that feels more like an oversized village and makes a great place to soak up some Mekong sunsets and enjoy some delicious food. The shophouses, stupas and temples dotted through the city make a pleasant day’s cultural excursion, and the riverside terraces along Fa Ngum road are perfect for a sundowner with the swirling Mekong waters in the foreground reflecting the sunset colours. Night markets in the city are good places to snap up a souvenir or two while sampling the best of the city’s street food.
Si Phan Don, Laos
In the far south of Laos just before the Mekong crosses into Cambodia, the river fans out into a web of smaller rivers and islands where serene and appealing fishing villages are scattered. Si Phan Don translates to 4,000 islands and, although this is an exaggeration, there are lots of off the beaten track communities to explore. The riverine archipelago is a snapshot of an Asia almost untouched by modernity and rich with the delights of ancient ways of life and unsullied riverside scenery. Make time to search for the elusive Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, and to visit the impressive local waterfalls.
Tonle Sap lake and Angkor Wat, Cambodia
A curious and unique phenomenon characterises the Tonle Sap lake. During the dry season, it is drained by the Tonle Sap river which channels lake water 100 kilometres downstream to join the Mekong. In the wet season, this process is reversed; the Mekong River expands and forces water back up the tributary into the lake bed. This constant replenishment of the rich alluvial sediment from the Mekong waters makes the area very fertile when the lake recedes, and many stilted villages make a living from agriculture here. The northernmost point of the Tonle Sap reaches almost to Siem Reap, from where the wonders of Angkor Wat are easily visited.
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
A patchwork of islands, wetlands, fruit farms and stilted villages makes up the Mekong delta in the far south of Vietnam. This is where the Mekong disgorges the water it has carried for more than 4000 kilometres into the South China Sea, and the delta’s landscape offers a lovely mixture of rice paddies, lotus flowers and pagodas. Postcard perfect, it’s an ideal place to while away a couple of days and enjoy a slower pace of life. Take a boat trip to some of the extraordinarily photogenic floating markets, or to the atmospheric and attractive towns of Vinh Long and Ben Tre.
Make it happen
The Mekong is a magnificent conduit which threads its way through some of the world's most unforgettable scenery. Many stretches are navigable and make for an interesting and ever changing multi day cruise. Click on the links above to find out more about the countries and the experts who can show them to you. For more general enquiries, or to chat about your travel plans, give us a call in office on 0117 325 7898.