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Upper Vs Lower Mekong – What’s The Difference?

Sunrise over the Mekong

If you’re planning a Mekong River Cruise, you might want to get clued up on your destination before you set off. The Mekong River starts at the Tibetan Plateau and runs for over 2,700 miles through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For many inhabitants of these countries, the Mekong River is a vital resource around which daily life revolves. Providing food, water, and access to many communities, the Mekong River is more than just a pretty sight and you’re about to see why for yourself.

Most of our river cruises take place on the Lower Mekong, but the Upper Mekong is just as fascinating and important. Whether you choose to cruise the upper or lower part will result in two very different, but equally memorable, experiences. Throughout this article, we will look at the two distinct parts of the Mekong and highlight the features of each.

The river surrounded by the hills

Rivers in Laos

The Upper Mekong: Laos, China, Myanmar & Thailand

Historically, the Khone falls in southern Laos have been the point that divides the upper and lower parts of the Mekong River. These falls sit just before the border with Cambodia and are largely un-navigable due to the presence of large rocks, which form tiny islands in the river. They are beautiful to behold but are a nightmare for sailors.

North of the Khone Falls is what is known as the Upper Mekong. This stretch of river runs predominantly through Laos and China, dipping only momentarily into Thailand and Myanmar. It is considered the more scenic side of the river and a cruise through the Upper Mekong will be filled with natural vistas of mountains, jungles, and other untamed landscapes.

The scenery around the Upper Mekong seems largely untouched. The human footprint is far less prevalent here than in other parts of Southeast Asia – in some sections, it feels like you are traveling back in time to a land before modern civilization laid down its roots. Animals graze peacefully on the river banks and Mother Nature reigns supreme. There may be long stretches where you do not encounter another boat or human being. The Anouvong Mekong cruise sails through this area of the river and offer 4, 8, and 10-day cruise itineraries.

Upper Mekong Summary:

  • Typically starts and ends in Laos
  • Less of a selection of cruise boats and lodges
  • Less explored/developed, remains largely untouched
  • Itineraries usually visit Laos, China, Myanmar and/or Thailand
  • Longer Itineraries due to longer travel times from destination to destination
Mekong in the Vietnamese town

Mekong in Cai Be, Vietnam

The Lower Mekong: Cambodia & Vietnam

The Lower Mekong is almost the complete opposite to its upper counterpart. Where the Upper Mekong is about the tranquillity of nature, the Lower Mekong is about human interaction with the river. The Lower Mekong bustles with life as floating markets sprawl out from the shores and taxi boats race by in every direction. For an authentic insight into modern life on and around the Mekong River, there is nowhere better than the Lower Mekong.

Despite the buzz of human activity, the Lower Mekong still has vast swathes of natural beauty. Lush jungles hang over the water, while wildlife basks in the sun on the river’s shores. The main difference is that humans have integrated themselves into nature down here. Rather than destroying the jungle and dominating the landscape, the locals have found a way to live in harmony with nature.

As you cruise the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Cambodia, you will have the opportunity to get hands-on experience of life in this part of the world. You will explore busy markets, attend workshops, and watch as local delicacies are whipped up seemingly effortlessly.

Lower Mekong Summary:

  • Explore Angkor Wat
  • Visit Cambodia and Vietnam
  • Large selection of Luxury Mekong Cruise Vessels
  • Tour the Mekong Delta
  • Interact with many locals and local communities
  • Visit the busy and bustling cities of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and/or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

If you’ve just skimmed down to the end of the article, here is a recap of the main differences between the Upper and Lower Mekong. The Upper Mekong is all about untouched nature and stunning landscapes. The Lower Mekong is where human activity and natural beauty have fused to form unique and harmonious riverside communities. Whether you choose to explore the upper or lower parts of the Mekong River is up to you.


While Rainforest Cruises aim to provide accurate and up-to-date information, we make no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information herein or found by following any link on this site. Rainforest Cruises cannot and will not accept responsibility for any omissions or inaccuracies, or for any consequences arising therefrom, including any losses, injuries, or damages resulting from the display or use of this information.

This entry was posted June 20, 2019
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