Pulsing through China, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the Mekong River has long served as a lifeline for Southeast Asia. And for the 60 million people who reside in the river’s floodplain, it’s not only a source of income, but also a way of life.
Stretching roughly 2,600 miles (4,184 kilometers) from Tibet to the South China Sea, the sinuous Mekong is the thread that connects Indochina’s diverse cultures. It flows through six nations—China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—and with more than 1,200, it has the third highest diversity of fish species in the world (only the Amazon and the Congo have more). For the past 800 years, explorers from Kublai Khan to Frenchman Francis Garnier have sought to conquer the river and the region that surrounds it, sending warrior hordes south toward Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or dispatching parties in dugout canoes north from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). These early expeditions survived tigers, leeches, and quicksand, but never completely penetrated the Mekong Basin or reached the river’s source, in Tibet.
Float by Riverboat
An expedition cruise between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap allows you to see more of the region in less time than on self-powered journeys. Pandaw Cruises runs two custom-built colonial-era teakwood steamers up and down the river. You’ll float past Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and go ashore to hike the country’s Wat Hanchai hill, home to ancient Champa shrines. Onboard, languorous hours are spent sipping gin-and-tonics on the deck as the jungle drifts by.
Bike Hidden Trails
The Ho Chi Minh Trail isn’t a single trail but a network of interconnected roads and paths that, by the end of the Vietnam War, extended more than 12,000 miles (1,312 kilometers) in cumulative length. Many of these routes wind through Laos’s rugged jungles and craggy hills east of the Mekong; the dirt roads themselves are rough and bumpy, making them just right for mountain bikes. Daily rides range from intermediate to expert and run past difficult-to-access villages where the residents rarely encounter Westerners. More than a hundred ethnic minority groups live in the surrounding area.
Paddle the 4,000 Islands
Kayak through one of Southeast Asia’s most remarkable landscapes—the limestone karsts of the Khammoune Range—and then explore the 4,000 islands formed near where the Mekong, pouring over a fault line, creates the Khone Falls, a seven-mile (11-kilometer) stretch of rapids and cataracts—the widest in the world. Trip leader Steve Van Beek has lived in Southeast Asia since leaving the United States in 1966 and is very knowledgeable about the region’s history, politics, cultures, and religions. With him as your guide, you’ll paddle inflatable kayaks into remote parts of Laos not reachable by road, visit Buddhist monasteries, explore caves by underground rivers, and spend nights with the locals in their village houses.
Visit the Forgotten City
Mekong port Luang Prabang, the former royal and spiritual capital of Laos, is fast emerging as an off-the-beaten-track alternative to pulsing Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok and Phnom Penh. More than 40 temples (replete with swooping roofs, inlaid-gold doors, and stupendous Buddhas) and the town’s long history as a Buddhist learning center earned it UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995. Boutiques, bistros, and a few high-end hotels have followed the designation. Inexpensive bike rentals (about a dollar a day) make it easy to explore.
After crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam, the Mekong fans out into a 15,444-square-mile (40,000-square-kilometer) delta known as Cuu Long, or “nine dragons,” in Vietnamese. The delta’s backwaters and canals are home to hundreds of floating markets, as well as riverbanks boasting snake farms, water buffalo, and ancient Khmer temples.
Image from exploretibet
The Buddha Treck
In China’s Yunnan Province and at the southeastern tip of the Tibetan plateau, the upper Mekong carves dramatic gorges, as well as Mount Kawakarpo, or “snow white mountain,” one of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of Tibet.
WHEN TO GO: The ideal time to visit the Mekong region is during the November-to-January dry season; it’s the coolest time of year in often sweltering Southeast Asia. If you are traveling to the river’s headwaters, in China, the month of September is your best bet.