Perhaps the most famous Mekong tour to have been undertaken was in 1866 when the courageous Henri Mouhot, 19th century French naturalist and explorer of Angkor fame, led an expedition which was to be his last. His mission, and he did except it, was one that had been pondered for millennia and the source of great angst and frustration: How to make the Mekong River into a major artery of trade and industry.

But let’s start at the beginning, the very beginning, high up at the Mekong’s source in the Tibetan Himalayas. It is here at the roof of the world that the Mekong emerges as a small glacial spring. Gurgling downhill it is fed by melting snow and mountain streams and when it hits China it is furious!

The Chinese name for the Mekong is Láncāng Jiāng (Turbulent River) which is rather different to the Laos and Thai name Mae Nam Khong from which Mekong in English is derived and it means Khong, The Mother of Water (mae, meaning mother, nam water and Khong is derived from the Sanskrit ganga, meaning the Ganges).

When the Mekong reaches Laos it decelerates as though out of respect to this intoxicatingly serene country that seems suspended in time. She defines the border between Northern Thailand and Laos before switching inland to twist and turn through a landscape of jungle-topped jagged hills meandering past Luang Prabang and drifting past Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Turning southwards the river follows the Thailand Laos border before bisecting Southern Laos and swelling to her widest proportions as she does so to create a huge archipelago of 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don in Laos). Crashing over the Khone Phapheng Falls (dubbed the Niagara of the East) the Mekong then meanders leisurely through Cambodia, past Phnom Penh and into Southern Vietnam. This is where the vast Mekong Delta is formed and the final leg of an epic journey through 7 countries that ends in the South China Sea.

So why have so many failed to tame the Mekong and how did the river remain relatively natural, unscathed and unspoilt well into the twilight years of the 20th century?

Mekong Tours Past

Civilisations have lived near and benefitted from the river’s bounty for time immemorial. The earliest recorded civilization is Ban Chiang, an early Iron Age culture that existed around 2100 BCE. Then in the 1st century came the Khmer culture of Funan which was succeeded by the 5th century Khmer culture of Chenla.

Now sidle back to the more familiar Khmer Empire of Angkor and the magnificent Temples of Angkor, circa 9-13th centuries. By the 13th century, at about the same time as Marco Polo was on walkabout, the Khmer Empire was reaching its apogee. The phenomenal Tonle Sap Lake was supporting a population of around 1 million Khmers whilst also providing sustenance for visiting Chinese merchants and ambassadors who came not by river from Yunnan but by sea travelling upstream via the Mekong Delta.

The reason being that above Phnom Penh, in what is now Southern Laos, the river divides into a muddle of streams and rivers peppered with 4,000 islands, creating cascades and shoals that include the spectacular Khone Phapheng Falls. These obstacles, which extend along a 30km stretch, made the possibility of navigation insurmountable.

Then there is the Tonle Sap phenomenon. While any normal river is content with flowing in a single direction, not so the Mekong. The Tonle Sap Lake is situated between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and is fed by a branch of the Mekong. For half the year it behaves normally, flowing downstream towards the South China Sea but with runoff from the torrential Monsoon rains in Southeast Asia, the flow reverses pushing upstream back into the Tonle Sap Lake. Whilst creating a unique and rich ecosystem the huge annual change in water levels has historically been an additional stumbling block in the quest to conquer.

By 1540 Europeans began to show an interest, Antonia de Faria from Portugal being the first. In 1641-42 a Mekong tour was mounted by Gerrit van Wuysthoff, a Dutchman who managed to get as far as Vientiane. Zooming forward to the mid 19th century, the French swiped Saigon from the Vietnamese in 1861 and in 1863 heralded a protectorate over Cambodia. In 1893 they acquired Laos and formed French Indochina during the first decade of the 20th century.

Their vision was to use the Mekong as a link and conduit to the fabled riches of China that lay upstream. From 1866 to 1868 the French mounted a big expedition led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée and Francis Garnier. Their Mekong tour took them from the mouth of the river right up to Yunnan and they returned to report that the river’s rapids and falls rendered it unnavigable. In 1900 the source of the Mekong was found by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov.

By the mid 1900’s things were hotting-up. The first Indochina War involving the French was closely followed by the second involving the Americans. America to turned their attentions to the Mekong, exploring ways that they could bridle it as a means of enriching Indochina to dissipate support for the region’s communist insurgents.

The Mekong Committee was formed with representatives from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam. They planned a massive dam. Engineers were deployed to survey several sites and then the Vietnam War exploded turning their vision to ashes.

In the years that followed the Vietnam War communist governments took control of the lands formerly known as French Indochina with the exception of the US-backed Thai governments. No further governmental cooperation meant a vital reprieve for the Mekong River, its name becoming something of a byword for failure in the context of military might.

Mekong Tours Present

There is something about the Mekong which, even years later, makes me want to sit down beside it and watch my whole life go by.

Jon Swain, River of Time

And mesmerizing the Mekong certainly is through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its beauty can be intensely moving, the sunrises, the shifting diurnal light, the beautiful tropical nights with stars shining like crystals. It is the embodiment of all that a tropical river should be; remote village life sprinkled along its banks, rice fields, buffalo wallowing, fisherman pulling in their nets as their forefathers did before them, the jungle insect chorus at twilight, the darkness and the moon performing their shadow dance on the glassy nocturnal waters.

The only way to experience the river and the countryside that it glides through is on a Mekong cruise and this is still, in some cases, the only way of moving from A to B in this region of Southeast Asia.

19 Day Mekong Tour Exploring the River of Time

Mekong Tour from Saigon to Northern LaosOur Flagship private tour is the 19 Day Mekong Tour Exploring the River of Time which follows the same route taken by 19th and 20th century explorers.

The journey begins in Saigon dropping down into the Mekong Delta before taking a boat to Phnom Penh. Following the river by private vehicle to the Cambodia Laos border you cross into the bane of yesteryears developers; the 4,000 islands and the Khone Phapheng Falls.

Travelling north from Pakse, the journey takes you to Vientiane and then overland to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang before embarking on a 2 day Mekong Cruise upstream to Northern Thailand.

Mekong Delta Cruises

Mekong Delta Tour Fruit and vegetable trading in the Mekong Delta Vietnam[/caption]The Mekong Delta is a fascinating area, a water world supporting a diversity of life. The lush and fertile lands form the rice bowl of Vietnam while the network of winding canals, creeks and tributaries cradle bustling floating markets, acres of fruit plantations and an enduring way of life.

You can arrive here from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) or Phnom Penh and once you are here there is much to explore from Can Tho to Chau Doc, floating markets, floating villages, ancient temples, pagodas and even peoples houses to see age old methods of fishing in practice.

From Saigon we arrange 1, 2 or 3 Day Private Mekong Delta Tours and for custom holidays that include the Mekong Delta we can design to your brief; private Sampan cruises and onwards.

Vietnam Cambodia Cruises

Vietnam Cambodia Mekong CruiseAn array of vessels still ply the river carrying passengers between Southern Vietnam and Phnom Penh, some fast, some slow, some public and others rather more luxuriously exclusive and if you have time it is a fantastic way to link Phnom Penh with Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Visit us at ZiZ Asia to explore the options or contact us to describe your preferred travel style and the destinations that you would like to visit at either end and we will create your trip accordingly.

Mekong Sunset Cruises

Phnom Penh SunsetJon Swain described his memories of Phnom Penh as A dawning of a beautiful love affair recalling the flower scented streets, the villages, the countryside, the women, the heat. Phnom Penh has emerged from the depths of hell, shaking off its period of shocked limbo at the end of the 20th century to rejuvenate itself as one of Southeast Asia’s most intriguing and vibrant cities.

Phnom Penh sits at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonlé Sap, and Bassac Rivers and whilst you are here indulge yourself with a sunset cruise; you won’t regret it! There are various options available from relatively basic to private sunset cruises with all the trimmings. Please Contact Us for more details.

Southern Laos Mekong Cruises

ZiZ Asia Southern Laos TourHighlights of Southern Laos include the 4,000 islands, the Khone Phapheng Falls, Vat Phou Temple which predates Angkor, the possibility of seeing the highly endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins and the quintessential Mekong countryside dotted with ethnic minority villages. Remnants of the French Indochina narrow gauge railway, their solution to the Khone Phapheng Falls, can also be see and up on the The Bolaven Plateau you will find an intriguing mix coffee and tea plantations, jungle, stunning waterfalls and adventure.

Infrastructure is still very basic down here though and by far the most luxurious sleeping available is aboard the 3 Day Vat Phou Cruise that meanders its way amongst the 4,000 islands with excursions to see Vat Phou Temple, local villages and the Irrawaddy Dolphins.

As an alternative we also offer 4 Day Southern Laos Tour from Pakse which is more terra firma focused but does include a boat trip.

Northern Laos Luang Say Cruise

2 Day Luang Say Mekong River Cruise and LodgeThere is nothing quite like arriving or departing from Luang Prabang in Northern Laos by boat and the best way to do this is on the 2 Day Luang Say Mekong Cruise and Lodge. Cruising either upstream from Luang Prabang or downstream to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai and Northern Thailand, the journey takes you through some incredible natural scenery stopping overnight at the remote Luang Say Lodge near Pakbeng.

This is a perfect addition to any grand or more modest Indochina tour, opening the doors for an overland border crossing and adventure into a very remote corner of Southeast Asia.

Indochina Tours

ZiZ Asia Private Indochina Tours and Custom Holidays ZiZ Asia provides Private Indochina Tours and Custom Holidays throughout the region designing memorable journeys according to your exact wishes and requirements.

Our objective is to reveal to our clients the beguiling beauty of Indochina in all its different textures and colours. We create private journeys that enable you to feel the Mekong wash through you like a tide; its romance, its melancholy and its timelessness.

Mekong Tours Future

This is our part of the river, so we should be able to do what we want with it. The other countries can do what they want with their sections of the river.

Hu Tao, Chinese Geological Engineer, Xiaowan Dam China

Of the distance travelled by the Mekong, roughly half its length is through China where its natural rate of flow is too swift and violent for any commercial use aside from Hydroelectric Power. In China, the Mekong is not a major river; the Yangtze and Yellow rivers have far more economic significance. But downriver, towards the basin in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, it is quite literally a matter of life or death for thousands that depend on its harvest.

In 1993 China completed their first of a series of 8 planned dams on the Mekong which was the Man Wan. Also in the development plan is systematic dynamiting of many rapids and shoals to finally provide access for shipping and make the river into the super highway that empires and governments have dreamed of for so long.

Meanwhile many kilometres down river on the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, a local hauls in his net to reveal a pathetic catch of a few kilos of tiny fish. The local fisherman recalls the days when his own father would fish exactly the same spot and arrive home with 30kg of vital aquatic protein and livelihood. Over-fishing is partly to blame but the dams and engineering projects instigated by China are already ravaging the river’s delicate and unique ecology, blocking sediment and producing unnatural water flows.

The fact is that the Mekong is so little studied that no-one knows the irreversible consequences of dams and reef blasting particularly where Mekong fisheries are concerned. With an annual harvest of 2m tonnes of fish (including fish farms) the yield from the Mekong and its tributaries way surpasses any other river system.

The river also supports 1,200 different species of fish but this diversity is highly dependent on the seasonal ebb and flow of the river. With the annual monsoon comes flooding of the plains and tributaries, increasing the aquatic habitat by 10-fold. Spawning at the end of the dry season, fish species use the floods to transport the fry to the floodplain; the bigger the flood, the fatter and more numerous are the fish but the converse is true too.

Fuelled by incentives from China the Laos government has declared that it is intent on becoming the battery of Southeast Asia; a rather peculiar and perplexing distinction to aspire to.

Suffice to say that it looks as though the mighty Mekong has finally been conquered; this unique river that has bought life to the lands of Indochina for centuries and continuity with the past in a fast changing world. The ravaging of the river is not proceeding in absence of outcry and pressure, not least from the World Bank and for the time being, the fisherman, the giant catfish, the Irrawaddy Dolphins along with countless glimpses of a past in the present coexist in a fragile balance.

While the future of the river is so uncertain the Mekong of the present still entices you to sit down beside it and watch [your] whole life go by. You will not be the first or the last to loose your heart to the Mekong and the tropical scented lands of Indochina that she drifts through.

10 Mekong River Facts

  1. The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world and the 7th-longest in Asia
  2. It is the longest river in Southeast Asia
  3. From source in the Tibetan Himalayas to mouth in Southern Vietnam the river has travelled some 2,000km’s (1,250-miles)
  4. The River drains an area of 795,000 km2 (307,000 sq mi), discharging 475 km3 (114 cu mi) of water annually
  5. 70 million people in six different countries are directly or indirectly dependant on the Mekong.
  6. 90% of the Mekong basin’s residents are subsistence farmers, depend on the river’s nutrient-rich waters to feed their fields.
  7. The diversity of fish species found in the river is rivalled only by the Amazon.
  8. 17% of all fish caught in inland waters worldwide come from the Mekong.
  9. The river’s wetlands alone cover an area the size of Ireland.
  10. About 80% of rice production in the lower Mekong basin depends on water, silt and nutrients provided by the flooding of the Mekong

Further Reading

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