We have to confess, after living some time in Southeast Asia, it is difficult not to developed a soft spot for the Mekong river. Its opaque brown waters, flowing through the mist, its riverbanks filled with dense jungle… You may remember iconic movies such as Apocalypse Now, and the journey into the heart of Indochine looking for Captain Kurtz!
Moreover, being such a long river crossing so many countries, there are countless places to visit, cultures to discover, experiences to have.
This is kind of a homage to the Mekong, its power and influence on the lives of millions of people in Asia.
Mekong while passing on Isaan province, on northeast of Thailand.
A Thai fisherman that lived and worked all his life on the Mekong.
The art of fishing!
It flows through six different countries, for more than 4350 kms. Starting in China, it goes through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and ends up in a delta in Vietnam. It has the world’s largest freshwater fisheries and, with 800 different native species, the richest biodiversity in the world following the Amazon river.
A country such as Laos, with its untouched nature in so many places, is a great introduction to the river, with many little villages in smaller rivers connecting to the Mekong. There you can observe the traditional lifestyle of people living there for generations and generations, mainly fishing or rice farming with the irrigation water also coming from the river. And in the South of Laos, in a place that is famously called Si Phan Don or 4000 Thousand Islands, you will be able to find really relaxing places to spend some days on a cheap bungalow, reading a book, visiting incredible waterfalls such as Khone Phapheng waterfall, engaging yourself in water sports or simply swimming and watching beautiful sunrises.
Public park on the side of Mekong, in Vientiane, the Laotian capital.
Sunset on South Laos.
A market on the riverbank of the Mekong, in Laos.
In Thailand you can find the river in the north, near Laos border. The main province the river crosses is Isaan, a very beautiful and not very touristy area. It is a rural area, focused on agriculture, with genuine and honest people, little villages, happy lifestyle and a lot of smiles in the faces you will see on the streets. One of the main attractions is Chiang Khan, probably the cutest village in the world! Mainly a couple of streets where cars aren’t allowed, filled on both sides with pretty wooden houses and little coffeeshops. Also do not forget a very relaxing promenade along the Mekong with ridiculously beautiful sunsets on the Laotian side.
Other man fishing on the Mekong during sunset.
Rice fields with irrigation from the Mekong river.
After these two countries the river continues to Cambodia, where interacts closely with the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, one of the most varied ecosystems in the world. Tonlé Sap lake is a biosphere reserve with an ecological status from UNESCO! Three million people live around its banks and depend on it for livelihood: the lake provides more than half of the fish consumed in the entire country. It is also a crucial breeding site for a lot of the species that cross the Mekong river.
Besides the houses on stilts around the lake, a vibrant community lives literally on it, on floating villages. Fishermen catch fishes with cone-shaped nets from their floating houses. This represents such a strong part on the national culture that even the currency is called riel, after a common small carp they usually catch and eat.
The difference in the water level between rainy and dry season on Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia.
And not only its people but also a diverse ecosystem lives on the lake’s basin. Over 300 species of fresh water fishes, reptiles, 100 varieties of water birds and around 200 plants, all depending on the natural cycles of rising and falling waters. A good news is that it is very close to Siem Reap! If you are visiting Angkor Wat, it’s really worth it to spend a couple of days here. You can choose for instance Kampong Khleang, one of the most interesting floating villages in the lake.
A Cambodian local who works in boat tours with tourists.
Besides the functional part of it, this lake and the Mekong are interdependent. In fact, during rainy season, it’s the river’s water that fills the lake to a volume up to 80 km3. On the other side, during dry season, the water flows from the lake on the Mekong, bringing Tonlé Sap close to one km3. There is a difference of 10 meters in the water level between the two seasons!
It’s so important for the culture that there is an old Khmer saying, associating the changes in the water level to the impermanent and interdependent character of everything. “When the water rises, the fish eats the ant; when the water recedes the ant eats the fish.”
The Mekong delta on south Vietnam.
Continuing to the south of Cambodia, passing by Phnom Penh, the river finally arrives to its last country, with its delta in the south of Vietnam. In the delta, a vast triangular plain of 55.000 km2, live 18 million people, supported by the river for fish and rice cultivation. The delta is the most productive region in the entire country: 2.6 million for agriculture and rice yield representing around 55% of the national production, besides around 58% of the fishery output. Along with the fishing boats, the scenery is composed by floating houses focused on aquaculture (representing 2/3 of Vietnamese fisheries), crucial for the local population.
And, of course, its natural beauty makes this area one of the most visited of the country by tourists. The town of Bên Tre, with canals and boat tours along the delta’s farms, is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
The beautiful canals on the riverbank of the Mekong, in Bên Tre, Vietnam.
It’s definetely worth it to take some months and follow the Mekong river along the Southeast Asian countries it crosses. You will be definetely inspired by natural beauty, culture and intense relationship between the locals and its rhythm.
Check Camboticket website for cheap tickets to many of this places! Like Paksé and 4000 Islands in Laos, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or Kratie in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.Read more
Laos is a small country stuck in the middle of Southeast Asia, perhaps overlooked due to its neighbor countries. It doesn’t have the size of China nor the popularity of Thailand. Maybe it doesn’t even have the excitement of Cambodia and Vietnam or the exotism of Myanmar. However, believe us, here are the Top 5 Reasons why you would be crazy to not visit this beautiful country and you will find many more during your trip!
Typical landscape you can find in Laos
1. Marvellous Nature
For sure one of the main reasons to visit this country is to marvel at its nature, explore mountains and its little villages, travel on its rivers or simply swim in them, explore the countryside and chill at gorgeous waterfalls.
You can travel along the Mekong by boat or visit the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang. Regarding mountain areas, great villages to use as base to explore are Muong Ngoi and Nong Khiaw. Besides the mountains to trek, there is a special vibe in those places: relaxed environment that follows the river’s movement and cheap bungalows with hammocks on the balcony. Here you can fuel your readings or philosophical reflections (and perhaps taking a naps too!).
If trekking is your thing, a good base as well is Luang Namtha in the far north, near the border with China, with the advantage of being able to experience different ethnic communities and their cultures.
River that passes through Muong Ngoi and Nong Khiaw.
Another great place in terms of nature is the area around Thakhek and Ban Nahim, with lots of caves to explore and even a famous climbing spot. Even if not 100% natural, don’t miss Laos vast amount of coffee plantations in the south, on the Plateau Bolaven!
A cave waiting for you, a perfect place to cool down from Asian tropical climate.
2. Architectural Gems
Of course, being a Buddhist country, Laos is not only a natural wonder but has lots of architectural gems. The beautiful temples in Luang Prabang are a must see. Besides the capital, Vientiane, the whole country maintains a tradition of cute wooden houses that are wonderful to visit. Try some homestay in a village to get the full experience of living with a local family and experiencing their everyday life.
3. Smiling People & Street Life
Here is the other highlight of your Laotian trip: the population has a very simple and humble life. Especially in the south you will be greeted by countless smiles.
Also, as in other Asian country, it’s always interesting to pay attention to the street life happening all around you…
Street manicure in Vientiane.
4. Laos Secret War – Viengxai
We cannot forget the past conflicts the country suffered, especially the American secret bombings during the Vietnam War that damaged both Laos and Cambodia. An interesting place to visit related to this dark historical period is Viengxai. Here thousands of people were hiding in a complex system of caves and tunnels, basically an underground city, built to survive the bomb and napalm attacks.
Last but not least, Laos is the perfect place for some quietness and relaxation. For instance the 4000 islands in the south are filled with places with cheap accommodation and a chilling environment. You will probably want to stay for a while…
View from a bungalow in the Don Det island, just a couple of meters from the mighty Mekong.
Hope we gave you enough reasons to explore this beautiful country! Check the Camboticket website: there are all the ways to go from Phnom Penh to Don Det (in 4000 islands), Pakse and Vientiane, and from Siem Reap to Don Det, Don Khon (also in 4000 islands) or Pakse.
Some of the most memorable experiences on your trip will be when you get out of the “tourist bubble” and engage with the locals. If you do, there will be endless moments of unpretentious fun, innocent interactions and cultural learning. One interesting aspect in Asian countries is that its streets are, more often than not, used not only to commute but also as recreational spaces. Places where families and friends gather to have food or drinks, play or simply hangout. Moreover, considering the interest shown by the locals in games, a great opportunity for connection is to join every time you see them engaging in some sort of outdoor sport of hobby. Asian streets are for playing!
From some kind of version of checkers in Vietnam…
… to chess in Cambodia …
… to normal checkers in Laos but played with bottle caps!
Also in Laos, you can try petanque, a game left by the French during colonial times (and that you can also find in Vietnam and Cambodia, that were part of the old French Indochine as well)
Going to Thailand for a bit, why not joining local kids and playing with them?
In Vietnam, kids also seem interest to engage in some kind of king fu role play…
… while in Laos they still use many times traditional and beautiful toys:
In Vietnam, badminton is so popular that people don’t mind to set up the nets blocking the whole sidewalk…
… while in Cambodia they love to play with something very similar to the object used in badminton but with their feet (you can see it in the air in the middle of the photo, they kick it from one person to another without letting touch the floor)
If what you want is some exercise, why not joining some aerobic/dance classes that you can find in the streets of any Cambodian big city? (If you are in Phnom Penh check the riverside, the Vietnamese Friendship park and the Olympic Stadium)
The most important thing is to not only meet other travelers but also local people, learn their culture, have fun with them. This helps breaking the barrier that often is set by default between locals and tourists, the poor and the rich, the westerns and the “easterns”. Empathy and connection can start with such a simple thing as a game and, you know, Asian streets are for playing!Read more
Still pretty much undeveloped and with a tourism industry still based in simple accommodations and experiencing the local lifestyle, South Laos is a beautiful region to explore and relax a bit before you continue your trip. Read on to make sure you don’t miss out when you visit South Laos.Read more
After reaching Stung Treng from Phnom Penh by bus and then to Pakse in a mini van, we finally got to Vientiane on Sunday morning, after more than a day of travel. We dropped off our stuff in the hostel (Garden backpackers, pretty recommended), and then decided to hire motorbikes to see the city. Read on for our Laos travel story… ____Read more
As good backpackers that we are, we didn’t really plan this trip to get from Cambodia to Laos by bus to the minutest details. The only thing we knew was that we had a flight ticket on the 23rd July from Vientiane in Laos to Bangkok in Thailand. How to get there? We had no clue whatsoever. But it’s part of the adventure, right?
The journey between Cambodia and Laos is NOT straightforward. In addition to the difficulty in logistics, there is acute shortage of pointed and updated information about traveling from Cambodia to Laos by bus. This is why I’m sharing this with you, hoping someone will find it useful.Read more