A Trip Down The Mekong River

In November this year I escorted a small group of fourteen people down parts of the Mekong River. We went through Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam over a period of eighteen days. As this stretch of the river covered over 3000km we obviously had to do it in small stages.

We started our journey in the medieval and exceedingly pretty town of Luang Prabang, once ancient capital of Laos. Nestled on the river banks of the Mekong River with towering 2000-3000m karst peaks on all sides Luang Prabang is a must-stop on anyone’s itinerary in Laos.

After two days of relaxing and exploring this town we set off for a two day jaunt down the Mekong to Vientiane, capital of Laos, in a wonderful 50m long teak river boat. All down the river we passed small river villages of thatch, bamboo and vines, and watched the variety of small dugout river craft of the fishermen and general river transporters.

After a couple of days in the bustling city of Vientiane we flew down the river to Pakse where we joined the river again, this time by a smaller boat with a large v8 longtail engine. This was indeed an exhilarating journey over 4-5 hours to the Laos/Cambodia border where we stayed all night. En route we stopped off at Champasak to visit the world famous Wat Phou, a pre-Angkorian temple complex occupying a dramatic mountainside site overlooking the Mekong valley.

By now the Mekong River was quite wide compared to our starting point in Luang Prabang. As such it had become incredibly braided resulting in the creating of thousands of lush jungle islands of all sizes. This region is called Si Phan Don and is one of nature’s true marvels. Along with the braiding, the river forms many intricate channels, sandbars and waterfalls and dashing along the many channels between the islands was quite a thrill. On one island we stopped and made our way by foot through a village to observe a huge series of cataracts, dropping like a staircase in some places by 20-30 metres. This region is also home to the famous but now very rare Irrawady Dolphin. We spend an hour cruising up and down a region where they are known to congregate but to no avail: We didn’t see any!!

And thus the next day we crossed into Cambodia, a stark contrast in many ways to Laos. Much poorer and more populated than Laos, Cambodia is a country trying to awaken itself from the misery and devastation of over 100 years of war. This can be seen in the state of the roads, buildings and in the eyes of the populace. They look and act defeated.

This next part of the journey was made up mostly by coach as the Mekong at this point was not so interesting and also it gave us a chance to see more rural life. The north is very poor and today still there is a huge problem with the millions of unexploded land mines scattered in the jungle and fields. Hundreds of farm and village people, not to mention animals get killed every year standing on them. The village dwellings are incredibly basic, almost primitive in some cases yet the people all seem clean and well dressed. As we were getting further south the land was flattening out leaving huge pans of water and many rice padis.

Late in the day we arrived at Siem Reap, the gateway to the world famous Angkor Wat ruins. Siem Reap is indeed a very pretty town in French colonial style, with broad tree lined avenues, sumptuous chateau style buildings with shutters and an air of old class and etiquette. It once served as the religious and administrative centre for the powerful Khmer Rouge and was once grander than any city in Europe. Angkor Wat, the main purpose of a visit to Siem Reap is really unbelievable! A massive ancient complex in ruin made up of three large distinct temples that are all visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking.

From Siem Reap we boarded a public ‘Rapid Boat’ on the large Tonle Sap Lake that separates Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The upper reaches of the lake is extremely wide with many floating villages dotted near its banks. It’s said that there are over 200 species of fish in the lake, thus 90% of village life is based on fishing of some sort. We had the opportunity to slowly cruise among a couple of fascinating villages, where house dwelling after dwelling bob in the water propped up on empty petrol drums, oil drums and anything else of size that floats. Instead of cars everyone transports themselves by a boat or dugout making for a great spectacle.

Finally we arrived in Phnom Penh on the banks of the Mekong River. Wow what a city this is. It reminds me of Bangkok 30 years ago… grimy, edgy, and with attitude! I wouldn’t like to wander around the streets at night on my own as one senses a darker underbelly quite quickly here, quite unlike any other large town or city we have visited to date. Luckily we only stayed a night before we rejoined the Mekong River and in another Rapid Boat continued down the river to the Vietnam Border and gate way to the renowned Vietnam Mekong Delta. Like on Tonle Sap Lake there are many floating villages up the numerous tributaries of the Mekong (known as Klongs), which I think is “de rigeur” for this region.

The following day was spent on a tour of the floating villages, this time with opportunity to go inside some of the homes and small local industry like fish farms, silk weaving, embroidery and the like. This was to be our last day on the Mekong River as tomorrow we headed overland by coach to the seething, sweating, noisy city of Saigon, home to 9 million people and 4 million scooters!

We finished off our trip with a day’s visit to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, an incredible network of tunnels constructed by the Vietnamese fighters during the battle of independence and later used against the Americans in the Vietnam War. These tunnels cover literally hundreds of kilometers and housed whole hospitals, schools, accommodation and armament dumps.

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