As the lifeline of Southeast Asia, the Mekong River hasn’t just influenced the countries through which it runs but has been the formidable backbone onto which they have evolved. Discover why you need to be here!
From the frigid heights of China’s Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong flows for more than 4,000km, through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, eventually reaching the South China Sea at its famous delta, in Vietnam. The greatest source of food, of trade and of life in Southeast Asia, the Mekong River is a stunning travel destination, one that offers an eclectic array of options. You can cruise extensive stretches of it on multi-country jaunts, including plenty of time onshore visiting remote fishing villages and illustrious capitals, with the options for homestays in traditional villages, or overnight stays in rustic lodges. There are even a few special riverside luxury hotels in which to indulge so if you wanted to mix it up and shake it up, we certainly wouldn’t blame you. Mekong River options abound, so don’t be afraid to tell us what you’re after and, in all likelihood, we’ll find a spot along the Mekong River that’ll deliver in spades.
If you’re not a cruising fan as such, you can still hit the water on day cruises instead, opting for land-based tours and simply picking a few choice spots where to take to the water for the day. Trust us, you’ll want to soak up this majestic river every which way you can.
Don’t know where to start? How about here!
Here are just 6 fabulous reasons to explore the Mekong River:
1. Luang Prabang, Laos
There’s something about Luang Prabang that’s simply addictive and I don’t much care how busy this stellar spot gets at the height of tourist season: it’s simply magical at any time of year. The glistening pagodas, the hilltop views, the riverside sunset dining spots, the stunning French-infused architecture and those exceptional night markets (I’d rate them best in all of Southeast Asia), Luang Prabang is an absolute gem and easily considered one of the most unmissable highlights along the entire stretch of the Mekong River. Aside for the very enticing town, there’s a great choice of day-trip options as well (from the multi-tiered Kuang Si Falls to the traditional Hmong villages on its outskirts) meaning you could easily spend a whole week here and fill every day with something new. As luck would have it, this prominent Mekong River hub is a stellar starting point for many Mekong River cruises to Thailand’s Golden Triangle in the west and further north into China’s Yunnan Province.
Whether you make Luang Prabang your tour starting point or a stop-over, just make sure to include a few extra night’s stay – you’re going to need them!
2. Laos (yep, all of it!)
Laos holds a special place in my heart and Luang Prabang is but one of many reasons. The whole country is like an uncovered gem and bar a few spots where tourists congregate (like Luang) cruising the Mekong River through Laos means discovering uncrowded and traditional spots that seem to be totally unaffected, both by modernity and the country’s very painful past. If you have more days then I absolutely urge you to include a tour of southern Laos as a side-trip – the half of the country not many people get to. The splendours of the 4000 Islands in the far south, a maze of islets formed by tributaries of the Mekong, include rare Irrawaddy dolphins and some of the most incredible rural landscapes of all. Travel and Leisure also wax lyrical about the place, and who could blame them?
3. Siem Reap, Cambodia
The ancient jewel of Angkor Wat, the UNESCO-listed temple complex rated as Asia’s most unmissable historical site, lies just inland from the shores of the Mekong River in Cambodia, in the charming town of Siem Reap. A wonderful springboard for Mekong River cruises to Saigon, Siem Reap combines the best of the country – from culture and ancient history to gorgeous French colonial architecture – and cruises from here deliver oodles of sites, smells and tastes, all the way to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam meandering past remote river islands and fishing villages. Much like Luang Prabang, Siem Reap is deserving of a few days which makes a multi-faceted travel experience all the more worthwhile. Stay in town a few days to soak up the temple sites before hopping on your Pandaw and cruising the Mekong to its delta.
4. Chiang Kong, Thailand
Nestled in the heart of Thailand’s Golden Triangle, Chiang Kong sits at the Mekong River border with Laos. It is only touristed by passing visitors heading to and from Laos and lacks the distinctive resident crowd normally seen in Thailand’s hottest spots in the south. Nearby cities like Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and their stunning surroundings are home to hilltribe villages and if there’s one thing that catches visitor’s attention here, it would have to be the ethnic diversity, a very unique aspect in the country. Stay a few days in Chiang Kong and you can visit isolated tribal villages and hidden waterfalls, attend an alms ceremony by the riverside promenade and have an eyeful of all the gilded temples and pagodas. For a small town, Chiang Kong really packs a punch, not to mention a small but idyllic beach which is a favourite cooling-off spot for locals.
5. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Revered for the overwhelming sensory overload it gifts visitors, Vietnam’s southern hub of Ho Chi Minh is both the literal and figurative culmination of the Mekong River. It’s as if it was built with all the stunning architectural, historical and cultural traits the mighty river carried along its entire route and enthrals with ancient temples, glistening skyscrapers, endless street food markets and a host of fascinating museums. A stark contrast to the laid-back villages you’ll see along the way, Ho Chi Minh is an assault on all your senses – a city where even crossing the road and dodging a gazillion scooters becomes the daily hair-raising thrill. The Mekong Delta itself is about 200kms southeast of the city centre, usually visited on much smaller boast that can meander through the stilted fishing villages and floating weekly markets. This is a gorgeous part of rural Vietnam to experience and can be included on a visit of the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are on the way.
6. Wildlife – the real hidden secret of the Mekong River
Unbeknown to many, the Mekong River is only superseded by the Amazon River as far as marine-life biodiversity is concerned and that, in itself, is impressive enough. Aside from the endangered dolphin of the 4,000 Islands, this expansive marine ecosystem is home to the 3rd-largest freshwater fish on earth (the giant catfish), stingrays that weigh half a ton and a flurry of exotic fish. Moreover, the Greater Mekong is home to a jaw-dropping collection of both land and sea wildlife that relies on the river for survival –over 800 reptiles, more than 400 mammals (Asiatic tiger and rhino among many others) and over 1000 distinct species of birds. This is a very fragile and all-encompassing ecosystem and visiting wildlife sanctuaries along the route of the Mekong River is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding experiences of all. Find out more about the Wildlife of the Greater Mekong.
Mekong River Cruises – One River, Endless Options
Every major start/end points of Mekong River cruises offer plenty of day-cruise options, be it a sunset cruise in Phnom Penh (another Cambodian highlight) or a trip to remote caves and waterfalls from Luang Prabang. You can actually enjoy an extensive Mekong River journey without ever spending a night on one of the beautiful boats that cruise the river, although you’d certainly be missing something quite special.
For cruising lovers, the options abound, both for single-country cruising and – more popular – multi-country jaunts.
Have your heart set on a specific country or stretch of Mekong River you’d love to explore? Then check out these great itineraries and note the start/end points as all Mekong River cruises make for fantastic add-ons to multi-country trips through Asia.
11-days Mekong Cruise in Laos – From Vientiane to Chiang Mai, you get the best of Laos and disembark at the Golden Triangle – LAOS & THAILAND
15-day Mekong River from Laos to China – Add a few more days to cross into the spectacular Yunnan Province of China – LAOS & CHINA
8-day Mekong River Siem Reap to Saigon – A classic route that never fails to impress – short, sweet and full of delights. Perfect for history lovers! – CAMBODIA & VIETNAM
5-day Mekong Phnom Penh to Saigon – If you’re short on time, this is undoubtedly the ideal stretch to explore – CAMBODIA & VIETNAM
We have a lot more Mekong River cruises on offer on our Get About Asia Cruises page and, as a side note, do keep in mind that many of our itineraries can be personalised to include extra days onshore at various spots – this is how we can tailor a trip to suit your desires.
Contact us here to know more
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”