Journeying Along the Mighty Mekong River
Recognized as the 12th longest river in the world and the 7th longest in all of Asia, the Mighty Mekong River is just a starting point for a wonderful Southeast Asia trip. It runs through China, Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Certain parts of the river can be busy with rapids and waterfalls, but despite this the Mekong River is used as a trading route for China and Southeast Asia. A long stretch of the river borders Thailand and Laos about 250 miles before turning to the interior of Laos, only to re-emerge along the border for another 530 miles. Many areas on the river banks have been built up with cities and villages ensuring there are plenty of stopping points along the way as you cruise the river or simply travel by road through these various countries.
Major Cruises of the Mighty Mekong River
Unlike the Yangtze or Irrawaddy, there are not as many places for cruise ships to go; however, private smaller vessels can travel a little easier. Part of the problem for long cruises is the many dams along the river, as well as plans for more dams to be constructed. These dams interrupt the flow of the river that these ships require.
Some areas of the river have a depth of 100 meters, but others are extremely shallow at just 1 meter (3 feet) in depth. As with the depth, the width can vary, ranging between 16 kilometers and 50 meters. Add in the world’s third largest waterfall with its high water volume, the sandbanks, numerous rapids, narrow bends, and deep canyons, and the river requires skilled crew and captains to navigate the areas large ships can take you.
The experience is well worth it for anyone who has a chance to go. Choosing a skilled team to help you cruise around these various countries is important.
Since much of the river’s length is bordering Laos and Thailand, it makes sense that you might consider both countries on your trip to the region. When you cruise the Mekong River you can take day excursions into the province of Isaan, Thailand. Here lively villages with national parks and Buddhist pilgrim sites await you. The area is often unknown to most tourists who visit Thailand because they often think about the Island of Phuket and city of Bangkok as the major places to visit.
A popular route based on a full week’s cruise of the Mekong is to take you to Phu Phrabat National Park, Nong Khai, Cliff Monastery, Phu Wua National Park, Pak Khading, Nakhon Phanom, Thakhek, That Phanom, and Mukdahan. That Phanom is a holy pilgrimage site based on a legend. The Cliff Monastery is an impressive location that not only offers views of the river people, but stunning architecture as well. Along the way you can stop off at a Buddhist-Hindu sculpture park and see the Thai-Lao friendship bridge, which can also be taken to the Laos capital, Vientiane.
Several trips along the river offer plenty for you to enjoy, like the Golden Buddha of Sop Ruak. There is also the new Hall of Opium, which is a fascinating museum the royal family of Thailand sponsored. Starting in this area of Thailand places you in Chiang Saen slightly north of the other sites already mentioned. It can also include different stops than the previous cruise, including Huay Xay, Pak Tha, Pakbeng, Pak Ou, Luang Prabang, Juang Si Falls (also spelled Kuang Si), Tha Deua, Paklay and Vientiane.
Some of these locations are in Thailand, while others are in Laos and Myanmar.
Traveling to Myanmar during your Mekong River cruise will take you into Mae Sai first, which is in Laos. However, you can enjoy views of Myanmar and even cross the border with the proper paperwork to travel through local Burmese markets.
When you leave Thailand’s Chiang Saen to see Mae Sai you can also travel to Doi Tung Royal Orchid Botanical Gardens. It is considered one of the most beautiful in all of Asia. The next stop would be Huay Xay in Laos, where you can officially move from the Thailand border into the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Amazing scenery of the river and the small country await in this northern area.
It is also at this point that river traffic will increase given the business of trading routes between Huay Xay and Pak Tha. Pak Tha is a small village that you can visit by taking a long tail boat along Namtha River towards Khmu Village. For a nice and relaxing day you can immerse yourself in the culture.
Once you move on from Huay Xay, there are three more enjoyable options: Pakbeng, Pak Ou and eventually Luang Prabang. Pakbeng is more tourist-like than some of the other stops you might make along the river. There is also access to local markets that may be of interest. The highlight of Pakbeng is actually getting out of the city and heading inward to Pak Ou.
Pak Ou is famous for its caves with thousands of Buddha statues inside. You can tour the small village before entering the caves to see these religious relics and also learn how traditional Lao-Lao liquor is made. As you enjoy the various villages around this area, you will come to Nam Ou, which has working elephants.
The highlight of the Laos portion of your trip might be these small villages where you can truly see daily life or perhaps it is the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Luang Prabang. It was the former royal capital of Laos. Wat Xieng Thong temple still remains today, with its abundance of French architecture that melds with Buddhist traditional temples. The city is on the Mekong, so for a different view you might wish to climb up Phou Si hill. The reward is a panoramic view of the Mekong and Khan River with mountains in the background. A perfect time to stroll the hill is at sunset before walking on the Mekong promenade or visiting the night market run by Hmong.
Stopping your cruise in Luang Prabang is an option particularly if you want to find some local treasure spots like the numerous temples and local dance locations. If you have a mind to continue with plenty of stops along the way, Ban Donchai village with a relatively unknown cave is well worth a stop. The cave is magnificent, but not often on tourist lists. By continuing to Vientiane, the current Laos capital, you can see That Luang temple which is a national symbol of Laos. There is also the Arc de Triomphe patterned after the Parisian original. Laos is filled with a mixture of French colonial architecture and Buddhist structures that make it an amazing place to spend more than a week touring even if you stay along the riverbanks of the Mekong.
Vietnam and Cambodia
Both Cambodia and Vietnam have plenty to offer travelers who wish to cruise along the Mekong River. These cruise options are usually separate from the more popular Thailand-Laos cruises.
If you plan on going from China to Vietnam along the Mekong River, stopping off in each country that borders or has the river running through it, it is important to have all your paperwork in order with a clear itinerary.
Although it would never be possible to traverse the full length of the Mekong, even if you are only able to explore a few snippets of this major waterway, the experience should prove to be well worth the effort.
By Quin H.