About the Mekong River
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From China to Vietnam, the Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia and offers a glimpse into the long history and diverse cultures of the region. The 12th longest river in the world and the 7th longest in Asia, it flows through six countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As home to roughly 1,000 species of fish, 20,000 plant species, and hundreds of bird, reptile, and mammal species, the Mekong is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world—second only to the Amazon River. See daily life come alive as you pass traditional villages, experience glorious sunsets, and learn about the activities, history, and cultures along this amazing river.
- Countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam
- Source: Lasagongma Spring, Mt. Guozhongmucha, Qinghai Province, China
- Mouth: South China Sea
- Length: 3,050 miles
The Mekong River connects six countries in Southeast Asia and flows through six distinct geographical regions, each with characteristic features of elevation, topography, and land cover. It originates on the Tibetan Plateau and flows down to the mountainous area through the Yunnan Province in the Hengduan Mountains. After leaving China, it forms the border between Laos and Myanmar (Burma) for roughly 62 miles. It then creates the border between Thailand and Laos, and flows east and south into Laos for roughly 250 miles. This stretch through Laos is characterized by gorges, rapids, and shallow depths during the dry season. It then marks the border between Thailand and Laos again before it passes through the capital of Laos. This is followed by a short stretch through Laos alone, including the region above Khone Falls, which are mostly too treacherous for river traffic.
Below Laos, it becomes much wider and before it crosses into Cambodia, the Mekong comes together with the Mun River. In Cambodia, it receives the Sap River and flows through the capital of Cambodia. As it goes into Vietnam, the Mekong slows and splits into smaller channels of the Mekong Delta. It finally discharges into the South China Sea.
The Mekong River is steeped in a long history, and for thousands of years, it has been the lifeline of the populations that depend on it for survival. The earliest settlements along the river date to 2100 BC with the first recorded civilization—the Indianised-Khmer culture of Funan—dating to the 1st century. Excavations have uncovered coins from as far away as the Roman Empire. In the 5th century, the Khmer culture Chenla existed along the Mekong, and the Khmer empire of Angkor was the last great Indianized state in the region. Roughly 700 years ago, the Thai people escaped from South China across the Mekong to form the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand), and the Mekong protected Siam from invasions. The same ethnic group also settled in Laos.
In 1540, the Portuguese Antonio de Faria was the first European to discover the Mekong. Although Europeans showed only some interest in the Mekong, the Spaniards and Portuguese did launch some missionary and trade expeditions to the area, and the Dutch led an expedition up the Mekong in 1641-42. In the mid-19th century, the French led an exploration on the river between 1866 to 1868 and discovered that the Mekong had too many rapids and waterfalls to ever be useful for navigation. From 1893, the French enlarged their control of the river into Laos until the First and Second Indochina Wars ended French involvement in the region.
During the Vietnam War, the west bank of the Mekong provided a basis for raids against the advance of the communist armies in Laos. After the war, anti-communist forces fled west across the Mekong to refugee camps in northern Thailand. The tensions between the U.S.-backed Thai government and the new Communist governments in the other countries prohibited cooperation on the river's use.
The Mekong has long been regarded as the foundation of Southeast Asia's economic growth and prosperity—necessitating cooperation between the countries. In 1995, the "Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin" signed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam formed the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC facilitates joint management of the shared water resources and collaboration on development issues. In 1996, China and Burma became Dialogue Partners of the MRC.
Today, peace has returned to the Mekong, and much of it remains undeveloped and even unexplored. It is closely tied to the daily lives and culture of over 60 million people—people who depend on it for transportation as well as for water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation. For these 60 million—many of whom live in poverty—the fish and other resources in the river account for most of the protein in their diets and for their survival. However, life along the river is changing, as China has already constructed large dams on the river with plans for many more.
In Vietnam, cruise the massive Mekong Delta that covers an area of some 15,000 square miles. This picturesque area is dotted by rice paddies, fish farms, fruit orchards, and more. The rice produced in the delta accounts for over half of Vietnam's rice production, so it's no surprise that it is commonly referred to as the "rice bowl" of the country.
Near the end of the Mekong River is Cai Be. Close to Ho Chi Minh City, Cai Be is best known for its busy floating market, where locals transport goods to the market via rafts and boats. Nearby is Sa Dec, where the French writer Marguerite Duras lived. Duras had a love affair with Huynh Thuy Le, the son of a wealthy Chinese family, which became the inspiration for the film L'Amant-The Lover. The public can now tour the house of Huynh Thuy Le.
Chau Doc, situated near the Cambodian border, is one of Vietnam's most multicultural cities with large Cham, Chinese, Khmer, and Vietnamese communities. The influence of these communities can be seen in their places of worship—mosques, temples, and churches—making it an interesting town to visit. See nearby Sam Mountain, with its beautiful views and numerous pagodas and temples.
After crossing the Cambodia border, visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital and largest city. The capital since the French colonized Cambodia, Phnom Penh has retained its French charm and is the center of politics, economics, and heritage. Here, learn about the sobering Khmer Rouge regime. Other highlights include the Killing Fields, National Museum, Royal Palace, and Silver Pagoda.
The quaint and charming town of Kampong Cham is an important trade and transportation center on the Mekong. Cambodia's third largest city, Kampong Cham's history—dating back many centuries—can be seen in its archeological treasures. Nearby is Wat Hanchey, a temple dating back to the 8th century, where you can enjoy spectacular views. Also nearby are the twin holy mountains of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey (man and woman hill), where you will see the beautiful stupa as well as two huge Buddha statues.
Tonle Sap (Great Lake) is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and has been designated as a UNESCO biosphere. After the rainy season, the Tonle Sap backs up to form a huge lake, which provides the perfect breeding ground for fish, providing food for the people living in the floating villages on the lake. This is the most picturesque part of your journey as the river narrows and passes through villages and woodlands.
Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor, considered by many to be the most spectacular ruins on earth. These ancient temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, are unmatched among ancient ruins anywhere in the world. See many of the temples, including spectacular Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th century and honoring the Hindu god Vishnu, and Banteay Srei, the 10th-century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
The Mekong River offers an opportunity for travelers to learn about new cultures and experience a different way of life. From ancient temples to modern palaces and from traditional villages to bustling cities, the Mekong boasts an experience like no other. Explorers will delight in the mix of new languages, traditions, and lifestyles as they cruise down this mighty river, while nature lovers are sure to enjoy the sunsets and scenery offered along the way. At the end of the journey, travelers will have an in-depth understanding of life along the river and the people who depend on it.
Did You Know?
- In China, the Mekong River is called the Lancang Jiang, meaning "Turbulent River."
- The name derives from the Thai language's Mae Nam, meaning "Mother of Water."
- In 2009, 145 new species were described from the Mekong Region, including two new bird species, five mammals, 96 plants, six new amphibians, and 29 fish species previously unknown to science.
- The Mekong has more large fish—including the Mekong giant catfish, which can weigh up to 660 lbs. and grow to be almost 10 ft.—than any other river.
- The Mekong River Basin is almost the size of France and Germany put together.
- It would take 48 hours of driving at roughly 62 MPH to drive the same distance as the length of the Mekong River.
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