The Mekong: the good, bad and ugly sides to the ‘Danube of the East’


The good

To Tibetans, it’s known as Dza Chu, or the River of Rocks, and to the Chinese it’s the Lancang Jiang, the Turbulent River. The Lao refer to it as the Mother of Waters, in Cambodia it’s the Great Water and by the time it reaches Vietnam, at the end of a 4,350km journey, it’s referred to as the River of Nine Dragons.

The Mekong, as it is best known, is the world’s 12th longest river but only the Amazon has a more biodiverse ecosystem.

From its source high in the Himalayas, the “Danube of the East” slices through six countries, providing food, water and livelihoods for more than 70 million people before eventually emptying into the South China Sea.

Large stretches of the waterway are unnavigable, but there are plenty of places where riverboat tourism is booming. You could book an overnight cruise aboard a converted rice barge or the two-day slow boat from Thailand to Laos. Sign up for a speedboat expedition or a sightseeing canoe tour through countryside framed with emerald paddy fields. Many of the trips incorporate shore excursions enlivened by cultural performances in villages and visits to riverbank temples, pagodas and statues.

The Mekong isn’t only about rural experiences, though. A number of towns and cities, many popular with tourists, line the Mekong.

Low tide in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock

Jinghong, in the tropical Chinese region of Xishuangbanna, is home to 13 ethnic groups (and dozens of languages) while the city of Luang Prabang, in Laos, is an enchanting blend of Buddhist and French colonial heritage. The river takes on an inviting shade of aquamarine as it flows past the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom and, on the border between Laos and Cambodia, lies Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands. The beauty spot sneaks under the tourist radar but rewards those who make the effort to reach the remote location with a series of roaring waterfalls, secluded swimming holes and sandy beaches.

Boats can be hired to explore the islands and for Irrawaddy dolphin-watching tours. Despite being critically endangered, 13 dolphin births were recorded in Cambodia last year.

Talking of Cambodia, the capital, Phnom Penh, is a good place in which to organise a boat trip to Tonle Sap, the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and the world’s largest inland fishery. Many of the day-long voyages terminate at Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient Khmer ruins of Angkor Wat.

The Mekong Delta, aka “the rice bowl of Vietnam”, is home to 20 million people. It’s a verdant patchwork of paddies, rivers, lakes and wetlands where farmers nurse their crops, children lark about on water buffaloes and traders sell their wares at floating markets that begin before dawn. Canoe tours offer a great way to experience life in the delta. Best of all, money spent during these excursions is sure to find its way into local pockets.

As populations along the Mekong increase and economies boom, there has been a corresponding rise in demand for energy.

It’s helping to modernise riverine settlements as well as providing the possibility of selling surplus power back to the grid. The scope for further growth is significant – only 10 per cent of the estimated hydroelectric potential in the Lower Mekong Basin has been developed.

The bad

The Greater Mekong Subregion, which includes China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, is being transformed by development related to a vast network of new ‘economic corridors’. Photo: Getty Images
The Greater Mekong Subregion, which includes China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, is being transformed by development related to a vast network of new ‘economic corridors’. Photo: Getty Images

It’s true that parts of the Mekong are currently an inviting shade of aquamarine but as any old Asia hand knows, the river should be a muddy brown soup, thanks to the nutrient-rich silt it carries. Ecologists claim the change in colour is due to algae and an absence of sediment caused by an ongoing drought that has seen water levels fall to their lowest in more than 100 years. Besides the prolonged lack of rainfall, the finger of blame has been pointed at the surge in hydroelectric dam building.

Among the many dams already under construction or at the planning stage, the project near Laotian World Heritage Site Luang Prabang is perhaps the most contro­versial. If it gains approval, the mega struc­ture is likely to have an adverse effect on communities downstream as well as the ecology and appearance of the river. It would bring an end to tourist boat trips such as those linking Thailand and Laos as well.

The promise of clean, cheap energy is alluring, as is talk of poverty reduction, but economists warn that the colossal infrastructure projects could result in host nations racking up huge debts. There’s also a real risk that by the time the dam is operational, in 2027, the Mekong’s flow may be little more than a trickle, meaning the facility might not be able to generate any power. Still, that hasn’t prevented regional governments from considering the construction of another 88 dams in the Lower Mekong Basin by 2030.

The Mekong is home to more species of giant fish than any other river on Earth but the number is declining. Irrawaddy dolphins are still on the critically endangered list despite the aforementioned births in Cambodia. Overfishing with fine mesh nets and the use of explosives threaten the dark-grey mammals and rapidly growing human populations bring their own problems, from increasing marine traffic to pollution in the form of micro­plastics, heavy metals and agricultural contaminants such as pesticides.

The ugly

A shrimp farm on Tonle Sap River, Cambodia. Photo: Shutterstock
Millions of people living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta are in danger of losing their homes as riverbanks collapse due to erosion while rising sea levels are increasing the salt content of the river and its tributaries. No longer able to produce crops, rice farmers are turning to high-risk, high-reward shrimp farming. The toll on the ecosystem is heavy, however.

Mangrove forests help sustain marine life and slow the effects of climate change but they’re being cleared on a massive scale to make way for growing ponds. Enforcement of environmental regulations is weak in Vietnam and chemicals, antibiotics and disinfectants are used to keep the crusta­ceans healthy. Much of that destructive cocktail ends up in public water­ways. Initial capital investment is high and it takes only one failed harvest to trap farm­ing families in a downward spiral of debt.

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