One of the world’s great waterways, the mighty Mekong River cuts right through the heart of Southeast Asia, flowing through 6 countries in total and harbouring an astonishing array of wildlife, landscapes and cultures along its banks. Here are some interesting facts to get to grips with if you’re planning a visit.
The 12th Longest River in the World and Joins Multiple Countries Together
The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world, flowing from high up in the Tibetan Plateau, all the way to the South China Sea, some 4,500 km from its source. It drains an area of almost 800,000 km squared and traverses multiple countries, including China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong forms an important point of connection and unification between the region’s countries and its diverse peoples, landscapes and cultures.
The Tibetan Himalayas Feeds the River
The river is fed by the melting snow waters of the Tibetan Himalayas and starts its journey through the steep mountain gorges of China’s Yunnan province. Gathering power from numerous tributaries along the way, the volume of water increases dramatically as it flows through the heart of the Golden Triangle. It passes the impressive Khone Falls in southern Laos, before widening out into the expansive Mekong Delta. Cruising the Mekong is a fantastic way to gain unparalleled immersion into the region’s diversity and many of its most noteworthy attractions. Some cruises take in all six countries, whilst others focus on the lower stretches in Cambodia and Vietnam which are more easily navigable and a hotbed for fascinating culture, wildlife and history.
It Has Many Different Names
As the Mekong straddles so many international borders, it’s unsurprisingly known by many different names. Each one reflects particular characteristics of the Mekong, as well as being testament to the great diversity of cultures and ethnic groups the river flows through. In China, it’s referred to as the Lancang Jiang, meaning “turbulent river”, whilst in Thailand and Laos it’s called Mae Kong or Mae Nam Kong, both meaning “mother water”. This is the most commonly-used name, reflected in the internationally-recognised “Mekong”. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the river is often referred to as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons” owing to the multiple branches that emerge in the delta. Still other names for the Mekong include River of Stone, Big Water and Dragon Running River.
It’s Very Powerful but Subject To Extreme Seasonal Variations
The Mekong is a notoriously powerful river with significant variation in terms of its flow and volume according to the time of the year. Navigation is often difficult owing to rapids and waterfalls along its course, as well as the fact it is subject to extreme seasonal variations. In fact, 75% of the Mekong’s water flows during the Monsoon season between July and October. This usually results in substantial flooding throughout the river system. Interestingly, the delta region doesn’t have enough outlets, so the flow can actually start reversing upstream at some places. This causes water levels to rise leading to the so-called “flood pulse” that can have devastating impacts on the local communities living along the banks.
It’s The Lifeblood of the Region
Over 60 million people depend on the Mekong for their primary source of income or sustenance, whether it be through fishing or agriculture, making it essential to the livelihoods of many. For millennia, people living around the river have depended on its water supply for sanitation, cooking, irrigation, as well as transportation. Cambodia and Vietnam are especially reliant on the Mekong and subject to its changing conditions. Between 70-80% of people in these two countries depend on fish from the river as their main source of protein. In fact, the Mekong basin is home to the biggest inland fishery in the world, yielding some 2 million metric tonnes every year. Locals also use the river to irrigate crops and to access opportunities for trade as seen in Vietnam’s famous floating markets.
A Biological Treasure Trove
The Mekong is considered the second most biologically diverse river in the world, following the Amazon River Basin. It contains 16 WWF “Global 200” ecoregions. Thousands of plants, fish, amphibians and mammals have been recorded in its waters and along its banks, including many rare, unique and previously unknown species. The delta region is particularly rich in life and home to iconic species such as the Siamese crocodile, the Sarus crane, Giant Catfish, Mekong Stingray and Giant Ibis. The Mekong is also one of the last strongholds of the magnificent and extremely rare Irrawaddy river dolphin. The river system is especially renowned for its magnitude and diversity of large fish species, whilst forests surrounding the river are home to a plethora of wonderful bird and mammal life.
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