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
Phnom Penh is a fast-growing capital city in the middle of Southeast Asian crazy development trend and one may miss some of its unique characteristics, overlooking its beauties. Did you know that Phnom Penh is located in the confluence of three rivers: Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac? Stay tuned to know a little bit more about how they control the whole Cambodian way of living!
People living near the riverbank in Phnom Penh on floating houses. They have a slow-paced life as they are not even living in such a fast-paced capital!
All the three rivers have long history and importance in terms of commerce, development, transportation routes and survival itself. Some interesting facts:
Local crossing the river on a tiny boat!
The Tonle Sap lake, is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia with a complex life cycle along the year. From November to end of May, the water flow goes from the lake down to the river until Phnom Penh, where it joins the Mekong. This lowers the water level of the lake and marks the Cambodian dry season. Now, at the beginning of June, it reaches a perfect equilibrium and the river literally stops flowing. From mid June to October, the water starts flowing reverse, coming from the Mekong up to the Tonle Sap river towards the lake, filling it again. You can have a look on a diagram of this changes in flow here.
This change in the flow shapes Cambodian seasons and its cycle throughout the year (agricultural crops, spiritual festivals, etc). A famous Khmer proverb says “When the water rises, the fish eat the ant – when the water recedes, the ant eat fish”. Apparently a local version of what goes around comes around! It inspired also a famous work of Mak Remissa, one of the best Cambodian photographers of his generation. Take a look at it here.
Another important fact is that, from here onwards the Mekong Delta starts, with the river dividing in more and more branches.
The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda mark the importance of the area and the riverside itself is one of the highlight of the city. It is a very popular place to hang out with family and friends. Don’t miss the gardens in front of Royal Palace in the evening, perfect to spot the local lifestyle or do some street photography. Here it takes place the important Water Festival, a 3-days festival with a traditional river race! Every November, tousands of people gather on the riverbank to watch the beautiful and long boats passing by.
An old cruise boat now forsaken on the river bank of Tonle Sap.
Finally, we still have to mention the third one in the confluence in Phnom Penh: the Bassac river. It starts here and crosses Vietnam’s border, where it is called Hậu River. Bassac river is in fact the main way connecting Cambodia and Vietnam. Along its route there are many different islands that you can explore. Probably none of them is as interesting as Koh Dach, or Silk Island though!
Koh Dach stands exactly in the converging point between Mekong and Tonle Sap. Have a look at this other article from our blog for some info on it.
If you are curious on how people live near the Tone Sap lake, read this other one. We wrote it during our trip through Kampong Khlaeng, not far away from Siem Reap. Don’t miss it if you are passing nearby!
Unfortunately it is not all a bed of roses: the “development at all costs” happening in Asia changes the rivers quickly. The high consumption of electricity in the major cities is forcing a dams building marathon that, consequently, manipulates the river flow, cuts in the fishes migration and evicts the population living in the riverbanks. If you would like to get more information about this issue, check here.
Local fisherman on its boat. With some bargaining and basic Khmer skills, you can hire it and visit the floating houses between Mekong and Tonle Sap.
Hope this article gave you some more information on these three beautiful rivers that make Phnom Penh such a special capital. You should not go out of the city without taking a cruise or hire a boat from the fishermen! Look for them on the other side of the river after crossing the Japanese Friendship Bridge! This is one of the few places in the world where a river changes its flow over the year. A unique must see:)Read more