Running 4345km (2700 mi) from its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River feeds Southeast Asia with its abundant fish population, irrigates the surrounding lands, draws borders and, as all great rivers do, builds civilizations. The banks carry stories of both ancient and modern life, and the people who live along its shores still rely on the Mekong for their livelihood.
Thinking of travelling here? Take a look at this primer, a 2000-year overview.
Artifacts found in Ban Chiang, Thailand, show the river region was occupied as early as 210 BC. Archeologists in Oc Eo, in An Giang, Vietnam, found evidence of Roman trade. And the great Khmer Empire established Angkor Wat, their magnificent temple complex, in the Mekong Delta.
Small wonder early communities thrived on the banks of the Mekong; the river’s biodiversity is second only to that of the Amazon. New species are still being discovered. The river is home to giant catfish, stingrays and a freshwater soft-shell turtle that grows to weigh more than 500 pounds. It’s also home to the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, a creature that some researchers say can distinguish between local dialects.
Outsider exploration of the river was stymied by difficult terrain — the river is broken with difficult rapids and waterfalls. The headwaters weren’t identified by Western sources until 1900. The splendid temple complex of Angkor Wat sat quietly in the jungle, relatively ignored by travellers, until a French naturalist, Henri Mahout, published accounts of the site. There were earlier visitors, some as early as the 1500s, but it was Mahout’s writings that popularized the site with Western adventurers. Mahout’s facts were off — he described Angkor as Middle Eastern in style — but his stories created a curiosity that has drawn visitors ever since.
The Mekong Delta played a strategic role during the regional war against French occupation and again during the Vietnam War. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand all have large shipping ports on the river, and increasingly, bridges for both rail and road traffic span border crossings and move vast amounts of cargo between nations and abroad.
Now, Mekong politics centre around hydroelectric power and the impact that upstream dams have on fish populations that sustain communities throughout the entire region. As awareness of the river’s rich ecosystem increases, there’s growing interest in sustaining both the ecological and archeological assets not just for tourists, but for everyone in the region who depends on the river for food, transportation and much, much more.
Interested in seeing the Mekong on a river cruise? G Adventures runs a range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.