The Mekong river flows through the heart of Southeast Asia, rising in the Tibetan Plateau and passing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to make the world&’s 10th longest river system. Flowing through gorges, swift rapids, mirror-like lakes and vast fertile floodplains – more than 60 million people depend on it for food, water and transport. Only the Amazon basin boasts a higher biodiversity than the Mekong; it&’s particularly known for its giant catfish and carp of up to nine feet in length.
Journeying along this amazing natural marvel throws up its fascinating water-borne worlds, from floating villages, stilt houses and colourful floating markets to the thousands of local boats plying its mud-coloured waters.
Take in Cambodia and Siem Reap, gateway to the incredible complex of temples at Angkor. At its peak in the 13th century, with a staggering one million inhabitants, Angkor was the world&’s largest city and capital of the fabulously wealthy Khmer Empire, encompassing Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam. This is the largest complex of religious buildings ever created, 200 temples spread over 150 square miles in a truly astonishing fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Its incredible state of preservation, the beauty of design and the artistry of its sculptures have made Angkor one of the great wonders of the world.
“Stepping back in time” is a much-used cliché, but as the Mekong journey unfolds through some stunning countryside, it is absolutely suitable: farmers bent almost double beneath their traditional conical hats work in fields that disappear into the distance, whilst docile water buffalo methodically plough the rice paddies until the sun sets in a blood-red explosion of tropical colour.
Cruise past tiny sampans being rowed to market, overloaded with everything from ducks, chickens and ripe fruit to an imponderable number of bicycles! Lining the riverbanks are wooden houses, balancing precariously on stilts or gently bobbing on rafts of bamboo, whilst giggling children peep at strange tall Westerners gliding by.
Beautifully located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, wondrous Phnom Penh, long considered the most beautiful of the “French” colonial cities of Indochina, is one of Asia&’s most intriguing capitals. Almost completely depopulated during Pol Pot&’s notorious regime, the city is again full of life and thriving once more.
In Vietnam, the people and landscape are different, with a faster pace of life and increased river traffic. Vietnam has, for the past two millennia, been ruled by the Chinese, Khmers, Portuguese and Japanese, who have all left legacies in the temples and pagodas, together with palaces, fortresses and innumerable other buildings of every style. Then the French arrived, contributing cathedrals, fine mansions and neo-classical public buildings, not forgetting excellent baguettes and pastries — quite an eclectic mix! Many visitors inevitably recall the US-Vietnam war — who could forget those dramatic images of the frantic helicopter flights from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, now over a generation ago?
Today, in one of the world&’s last Communist countries, the motorcycles and Western dress of the industrious youth happily co-exist with orange-clad Buddhist monks and political posters from another era. Visitors are invariably impressed by the sheer size and constant bustle of Saigon, which still retains an unmistakable French flavour in its pavement cafés, architecture and aptly named Notre Dame Cathedral.
Vietnam and Cambodia are countries experiencing colossal change. Although modern in outlook, they still retain a unique traditional Far Eastern character. Bicycles and mopeds outnumber cars by 100 to one, so now is the time to visit these most captivating and colourful destinations whilst so much of this uniqueness and tradition remain in evidence! And the best way to discover these two fascinating countries is just as it always has been — from their beautiful arterial waterway, the stunning Mekong river.