The Mekong is a tremendous thing; a mighty river that flows for almost 5 000 kilometers through six countries. From its source in China, the brown body of water meanders through Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Viet Nam. Want to see? Let’s go. I’ll take you on a cruise down the Mekong River, if only from that mystical Golden Triangle to Luang Prabang.
I’ve done it twice. The first time was in a slowboat as a wide-eyed backpacker. It was my first trip to southeast Asia, but it would be one of many. The second time I had the pleasure of floating lazily down that great river was with a group of researchers, looking at things and people that could potentially be impacted by large-scale development – things like building cargo ports, and blowing rapids and shoals out of the water so bigger boats can pass (not something I saw my future self doing when I was there in my footloose and fancy free traveling years).
But, there I was. You see, the Mekong, like many other rivers, work hard.
Hard working rivers
Rivers have long been dammed, squeezed into canals, and tapped to irrigate fields and keep people clean and healthy. They are also at the receiving end. Rivers are the end-destination of a lot of our … well… shit. They receive some of the litter, the dirt and oil that flow into our stormwater systems, for example. A lot of the chemicals used to keep bugs out of farmers’ fields end up there, and so does sewage from places where there’s no proper systems, or where the systems are broken. Cattle, pets and even people also leave little presents behind on the riverbanks, where it eventually washes into the water.
The very history of where people decide to live run along the riverways. Water is one of the biggest reasons that people choose to settle somewhere. We are all dependent on rivers, but here in the Mekong region it’s very clear to see. The Lower Mekong Basin is fundamental to the livelihoods of about 60 million people that still depend on its natural resources.
It’s true that we should take care of rivers because they take care of us. Once we destroy a river, we cannot benefit from it any longer. However, I’d say it goes much further than that. Rivers are incredible to behold. To me they are some of the most astounding features on this planet – from the craggy or sandy ways they have carved through the earth’s surface, to those tranquil riverine forests that sometimes line them, and the small and diverse range of species they support. I love the sounds that rivers make – the water that runs over pebbles, the grunt of a hippo that comes from it in the Kruger National Park, and the chorus of croaks that start up as the day ends. We have to save water, and the rivers that the water come from, because there’s nothing else like them.
That’s why I also write about rivers on this blog – so that we know what is at stake if we talk about why we should save water. The Mekong in particular is important to write about here – just as I was putting the finishing touches on this blog, the National Geographic wrote that drought has shrunk the river to its lowest level in a century. The Mekong is now one of the places being mentioned in the same breath as water scarcity.
It’s because of all of these reasons – its beauty, its importance and its vulnerability, that you have to see it too. Ready?
We start our cruise at the Golden Triangle. If certain plans go ahead, this particular trip will not be possible much longer. If (or when) the Pak Beng Dam is constructed, an exceptionally beautiful part of the river will be developed for hydropower. Then, a reservoir will block the way of the slowboats that so commonly ply the water, and the popular cruises down the river between here and Luang Prabang will not be possible anymore. For the moment, we can still do it.
Welcome to the Golden Triangle
At the intersection of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, lie the renowned meeting point of Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thailand.
Once famous for opium production and large scale drug trafficking, the Golden Triangle now seems like more of a hotspot for tourists.
If you happen to be there with an ecologist, amphibian and fisheries experts and an engineer, its still good as a launchpad downstream, to meet your expert slowboat driver and have a peek around the markets to see if there’s anything interesting from the river on offer here.
A visit to the market is, perhaps unfortunately, a good way to see what is still alive and thriving in the river and the surrounding area. Not all of the fish is necessarily from the river though, as many people selling their fares are also practicing aquaculture.
Life on a boat with researchers
Less beer-fueled and more productive (that’s the official record we’re sticking with), a cruise down the Mekong River with researchers is a different world than on a slowboat with tourists. It’s an eye opener.
There’s an extraordinary amount of things your can learn from a river just by looking at it and taking note. The geology and land use are two examples.
Other stuff, like the quality of the water, is a bit more hidden. Still, you don’t necessarily need to take only water samples to measure this – the living things, or the lack of living things, can tell experts a lot about the state of the place the critters call home.
In a (very roughly defined and large) nutshell, you can collect a sample of macroinvertebrates (small animals) from the water. The bugs have been divided into groups, and depending on the representation of groups you find, you can make a deduction of the general river health and water quality.
Still, this also depends on the personality of the river that you are testing. Should it be a full and strong-flowing beast like the Mekong when we happened to be there, the bugs don’t have much protection, so they’re simply not there to be caught.
That’s why researchers also spend time talking to locals. People that live close to the river are experts, and can tell you a lot about what is happening and what has changed.
The things you find along the river
Of course, rivers are much more than simply water. Whole ecosystems thrive on the riverbanks and in the plants and trees that grow there. From a development point of view, you should ideally know what’s going on there, so that you know what stands to be lost, should it be changed.
Onwards then, to Pak Beng. Tourists and scientists alike dock here, at this popular riverside village.
An overnight stop at Pak Beng
If the name rings a bell, it’s because I mentioned the Pak Beng Dam earlier. The proposed building site is along this stretch of river, a couple of kilometres from the town.
The views on the river from Pak Beng are incredible – both to end, and start a day along the way. Here, you can clearly see why so many people are opposed to further development of the river, especially of the kind that can alter it without any chance of return to how things were before.
Some aspects – physical, cultural and some would says, mystical – would be lost forever.
As incredible and diverse as the river, are the people that live so close to it.
People of the Mekong
The river is still lined with many villages. Everyday, people use the river in almost every aspect of their everyday lives. They use the water to irrigate their food gardens, and for water for their cattle. They gather there to bathe at the end of the day, and they play there too.
Along the Mekong was also the first time that I saw gold panners at work.
The river also still supports many fisherfolk. In turn, this supports many other industries and job opportunities.
Of course, there’s also tourism. If you ever consider cruising down the Mekong River in a slowboat, this is the type of grand vessel that will take you there.
The Mekong is not just used for small industries. The river is an important transport route in the region, and tons of goods are shipped up and down the river every day.
For me, a trip along the river was also a look at a lifestyle that many of us have never experienced – at least not me, for sure. In cities, its easy to forget how dependent we are on natural systems. Along the Mekong, you are reminded of it along every turn of the magnificent river.
The usual cruise down the Mekong River, if you do it via slowboat, will take two days. The next day, after you’ve taken off from Pak Beng and floated around a couple more bends in the river and rapids along the way, you will approach Luang Prabang in Laos. This is where I’ve gotten off twice in the past, and where this little unorthodox and very un-touristy tour ends.
I hope you enjoyed the ride. She’s a beaut, isn’t she?