The mighty Mekong River is one of the most impressive waterways on the planet. Certified as the 12th longest river in the world at 2,700 miles (4,350 km), its basin draining an astonishing area of 307,000 square miles (795, 125 square kilometers), it snakes its way through 6 different countries; China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But where is the Mekong River exactly?
The Mekong is found in Southeast Asia, and is considered its lifeblood, providing the region with an incredible wealth of biodiversity – the huge variety of fish species found in the river are vital to the people living in the rural parts of the Mekong River basin – and stunning riverine landscapes. From its verdant, jungle-covered banks around its turbulent upper reaches, to the serene, inundated rice paddies near its delta, here we take an in-depth look at its course and identify where travelers should aim for in order to visit it.
The Mekong River’s waters flow from its source high in the Tibetan Plateau of China down to its tri-border with Myanmar and Laos, along their border to the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ tri-border with Thailand, and from there runs the full length of Laos – often along its western border with Thailand for large stretches – before heading into Cambodia and out through its delta in Vietnam, flowing into the South China Sea just south of Ho Chi Minh City.
The source of the Mekong can be traced to the Lasagongma Spring, a glacial stream located high on the slopes of Mount Guozongmucha in the Tibetan Plateau of China at more than 17,000 ft above sea level. The spring flows into the Gaoshanxigu River, which in turn flows into the Gouyonggu, Zayaqu, and Zaqu and Lancang Jiang rivers respectively, when it passes through the mountainous Yunnan province and the deep gorges near Yanjing. The Lancang Jian River becomes the Mekong River when it reaches the border between China, Myanmar and Laos near Jinghong.
For those of you interested in Mekong River facts, the western name ‘Mekong’ is actually thanks to the Thailand-Laos stretch of the river, being derived from the contracted form of the Thai (Mae Nam Khong) and Lao names (Mènam Khong) for the river. Mae Nam translates to ‘Mother of Water’, and is used by native speakers for any major river, so ‘Khong’ is technically its proper name, so don’t be surprised to hear locals translate it directly into English as River Khong.
The river also goes by various other names, the aforementioned Lancang Jiang in China, more obvious Mékôngk in Cambodia, and Sông Tiên Giang in Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam’s Cuu Long province in the Mekong Delta literally translates as ‘nine dragons’, a nod to the Vietnamese nickname for the Mekong – ‘The River of Nine Dragons’ – derived from the nine historic tributaries of the river. Today, only seven are still in existence which we’ll take a look at now.
The Mekong River has seven main tributaries which can be divided into left bank and right bank tributaries (from the direction of water flow, i.e. left bank is to the right of the river as you look on a map). The left bank tributaries are the Nam Khan (162 miles long), Tha (134 miles long) and Nam Ou (236 miles long) rivers in Laos. The right bank tributaries are the Mun (418 miles long) , Kok (177 miles long) and Ruak rivers (203 miles long) in Thailand and Tonlé River (69 miles long) in Cambodia.
So, where should you go to make the most of this incredible river? As you’ve discovered, given its size and internationality, there are plenty of places you can visit to see the Mekong River in all its glory, but for those wishing to take a cruise along it there are only certain stretches that are safely navigable and not interrupted by the hydroelectric dams that interrupt its flow at various points along the river, mainly away from its headwaters. With Rainforest Cruises you can travel the upper Mekong in Laos, or alternatively the lower stretches of the Mekong in Cambodia and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The Upper and Lower Mekong offer different experiences, but both have stunning vessels from which to explore this alluring area of Southeast Asia at a variety of prices and travel styles. For those contemplating a Vietnam or Cambodia vacation that includes a Mekong River cruises, you can’t go far wrong with the prestigious Aqua Mekong which offers five-star service and detailed itineraries, or the Jayavarman which offers state-of-the-art elegance and beauty with its traditional Vietnamese-style cabins. Alternatively, the Anouvong takes its passengers to the lesser-visited destination of Laos. No matter what you are looking for, you can explore the Mekong river in the finest of ways.
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