The Mekong River might not be the longest river in Asia, but it is one of the most important and its special significance to millions of people is unquestionable. From its source high up in the Himalayan glacier in Tibet through to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the river flows for over 4,000 km and shapes the land and the lives of people along its route.
For centuries, the Mekong has been a key trading route in Southeast Asia with people and goods transported along the waterway which runs through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The river basin is home to some of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world and has been crucial to farmers and fishermen alike. Sometimes forming a natural border between countries, the Mekong River is known by different names in each of the countries it touches.
Mekong River Cruise
If you visit Southeast Asia, a Mekong River cruise is an ideal way to witness first-hand how this river continues to play such an important role in the day-to-day life of local communities. River cruises provide the chance to see mountain scenery, visit ancient temples and experience the culture of the local people along the course of the Mekong River. In places where rivers and waterways remain the lifeblood of everyday life for local residents, traveling by cruise ship reveals how deeply the river resource impacts the lives of ordinary people. There are a range of options to explore areas along the riverbanks and beyond, making key stops along the way. Two Indochinese capitals–Vientiane in Laos and Phnom Penh in Cambodia–both sit on the banks of the Mekong as it flows south through Laos and into Cambodia before fanning out in to South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and eventually the sea. Aside from the traditional highlights of Indochina such as capital cities and Angkorian monuments, cruise ship itineraries will likely include visits to floating markets, colonial landmarks, ancient temples and quiet fishing villages nestled on the banks of freshwater islands.
Mekong River Cruise in Laos
Visitors to Laos have the option of taking a Mekong River cruise in the south or north of the country. Both itineraries are packed with cultural highlights and make for a memorable way to experience this enchanting region of Southeast Asia. A trip in the north of Laos can easily be combined with trips to or from Thailand making this an ideal tour to add-on to excursions in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. The Mekong River cruise takes visitors through mountain scenery from Houei Xai to the delightful UNESCO World heritage city of Luang Prabang. Travelling on a luxury river barge, the tour takes in local villages and attractions like Pak Ou Caves which is famous for containing hundreds of Buddha figures.
On the Mekong River in the south of Laos, visit the historic Khmer temple ruins of Vat Phou. This trip also includes Si Phan Don, an archipelago that translates as ‘Four Thousand Islands’ and the impressive waterfalls at Khone Pha Pheng which, in terms of volume of water, are the largest in Southeast Asia.
Mekong River Cruise in Cambodia
One of the many highlights of a Mekong River Cruise in Cambodia is Tonle Sap which translates as the ‘Great Lake’. This body of water forms the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is of huge importance to Cambodia. It’s estimated that at least 50% of all the fish consumed in Cambodia comes from Tonle Sap and the waters also play a major role in farming. Tonle Sap is unusual because the flow of water changes direction twice a year. The water level also rises and falls with the seasons as water flows to or from the Mekong.
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, is located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong. The city has a tragic recent history with the S21 detention centre and the Killing Fields powerful and moving memorials to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. From Phnom Penh, travel onwards via charming riverside villages to Siem Reap and the splendours of Angkor Wat.
Mekong River Cruise in Vietnam
The official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but to many of its older residents it will always be Saigon. Whichever name you prefer, the city in southern Vietnam makes for a fascinating starting or finishing point for a tour that takes in Vietnam and Cambodia. A river cruise between Vietnam and Cambodia is a wonderful way to see the heritage and natural beauty of these two countries.
Saigon is sophisticated and sassy and the French colonial influence is prominent in the architecture and the layout of the boulevards. Saigon is also a city where there are reminders of recent conflicts and a visit to the war museum and Chu Chi tunnel complex provides insights into the conflict the Vietnamese refer to as the ‘American War’.
Mekong River cruises in Vietnam include a visit to the colourful floating market of Cai Be. You’ll get the chance to travel by flat-bottomed wooden boats known as sampans which will take you along backwaters and canals to witness local markets and experience the intriguing way of life along the waterways.
Mekong River Facts
- The Mekong is considered the world’s 12th longest river and is one of the most historic rivers in Asia.
- The Mekong begins its journey in the Himalayas in China along with the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.
- The Mekong River is the 14th largest river in the world in terms of discharge.
- Seventy-five percent of the rivers annual flow comes with the monsoon season which is between July and October. This enormous water surge is referred to as the ‘flood pulse’, and causes wide spread flooding.
- After the Amazon the Mekong basin is the second most diverse species area on the planet.
- The Mekong Region includes over 20,000 plant species, more than 430 mammals, 1,200 birds, 800 reptiles and amphibians as well approximately 850 fish species.
- The Mekong is home to some of the world’s largest fish including the giant river carp, which can grow up to five feet and weigh 150 pounds. Others include the Mekong Freshwater Stingray with a wingspan of up to 14 feet and the Mekong Giant Catfish which can grow up to about 10 feet long and weigh 660 pound.
- Cruise lines that cruise the Mekong river:
Cruising the Mekong River
The Mighty Mekong. With its origins at altitudes of more than 16,000 feet in the Tibetan Plateau, it is the twelfth longest river in the world. The Mekong flows almost 2, 700 miles through the Yunnan Province of China, Burma (Myanmar) Thailand, and Laos as the Upper Mekong, and through Cambodia and Vietnam as the Lower Basin of the Mekong River. The water flow can reach 500,000 cubic feet per second, which is about twice the flow of the Columbia River in the United States. But it is the tremendous amount of rainfall in the monsoon season that flood the lower basin, and the fertility and productivity that result from the annual flooding and receding of the Lower Basin in Cambodia that make that make exploring Cambodia such a fascinating experience by river. When you cruise Cambodia by riverboat, you get an intimate appreciation for the productivity of the Mekong River, the difficulties posed by its dynamic annual fluctuations, and the techniques used by the people to harness its resources, which remain little changed for the last 1,000 years.
If you cruise Cambodia on the Mekong River coming upstream from the Mekong delta in Vietnam (which was Cambodian or “Khmer” territory for most of history until the French dominance of Indochine), you quickly arrive at the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where the Mekong arrives from the north. Phnom Penh marks the beginning of the Mekong delta, but it is also the confluence of Cambodia’s Sab River, which drains the critical Tonle Sap Lake that is the livelihood of central Cambodia. In fact, when exploring Cambodia you quickly learn that it is Tonle Sap Lake that dominates the Cambodian landscape, and which provides the incredibly fertile fisheries and the annually replenished mudflats that enabled the rice production for the great Khmer civilizations at Angkor Wat and the other temple cities of the Angkor Temple Complex.
If you cruise Cambodia on the Mekong River in the wet season between May and October, you’ll find that the river is actually flowing backwards, upstream, and that is especially true on the Sab River into Tonle Sap Lake. The important concept to understand is that the wide, shallow delta of the Mekong cannot drain the immense wet season water flow from the mighty Mekong fast enough, so the water backs up like a bathtub with the drain plugged. As the bathtub of the Lower Basin fills, the banks of the Mekong River spill out across vast expanses, and the Tonle Sap Lake increases to a hundred miles in length. You can literally watch the Lower Basin of the Mekong filling up, by watching the water currents moving backwards as it cannot drain out through the delta.
Rice cultivation and shallow water fisheries retreat with the advancing shoreline, then follow it back down again, planting rice in the newly exposed mudflats, fertilized with another year’s minerals and nutrients from the great Mekong drainage above.
It is this annual productivity that makes the Mekong River so extraordinary. And it is because the people still work the rice paddies, yoke the water buffalo, trap the shrimp, crabs and fish, and live on stilted houses or in floating villages in the same way that they have for the last millennium, that make exploring Cambodia such an enlightening experience. When you cruise Cambodia, you see the landscape and the people from the source of its nourishment, the Mekong River, and when you cruise Cambodia, be sure to include a detour into the Sab River that connects Lake Tonle Sap to the Mekong, for it is one of the most interesting and culturally fascinating stretches of river left in the world.
Featured Mekong River Cruises
- The 56-passenger Viking Mekong. Travelers can explore Vietnam and Cambodia in a 15-day tour.
- The 32-passenger Pandaw River Cruiser. Pandaw offers a selection of different river cruises along the Mekong in Cambodia, Laos and in Vietnam as well as a cruise around Halong Bay and an option to explore the Red River in North Vietnam. Pandaw will launch their new Laos Pandaw cruise ship for exploration on the upper Mekong at the start of next year.
- The 40-passenger Aqua Mekong. For discerning travelers who are looking for a truly spectacular cruise experience then this elegant cruise ship is the one. Aqua Mekong offers all the history and culture of the Mekong experience while also providing a distinct level of luxury.