Mekong River Cruise Guide: Drama and Beauty through Southeast Asia

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Covering 2,703 miles, the Mekong River is the 12th longest in the world, and a major trade route from China to Southeast Asia. This vast waterway is a vital link between six countries, running through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its flow and current depend largely on seasonal flux, with rapids and waterfalls making navigation a complex task for even the most seasoned captains. As the core water supply for many of the regions it traverses, the Mekong helps to irrigate crops, provides a home to marine life, and acts as a central hub to the cultural melting pot created by its course.

Hundreds of years living off the river has resulted in countless floating communities, with dozens of houses, primary schools and even police stations creating a unique way of life. In fact, it’s fair to say people live and die by this remarkable and powerful expanse. In the latest edition of our cruise guides, we take you through the wonders of the Mekong, some known, some hidden – but all guaranteed to make for lasting memories.

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History

2,000 years of recorded history have taught us many things about the Mekong river, and how it has breathed life into the lands surrounding it. It has been the lifeblood of the nations for generations, and provides a compelling insight into bygone eras. On our whistle-stop tour, you’ll learn about the key periods that give context to the Mekong’s storied past…

What to See on the Mekong River

There are some parts of the Mekong you have to see to believe, and these well-travelled haunts are no exception. Check out our rundown of the region’s best locales…

Silver Pagoda, Cambodia

In Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, an opulent sight awaits. The Silver Pagoda is the crown jewel in the Royal Palace compound, so called for its gleaming silver floor, which is five tonnes in weight. This pagoda is filled with riches not typically associated with Cambodia’s turbulent past. Diamond-encrusted icons, and figures of silver and gold line the Italian marble floors, creating a Buddhist temple of such prestige people from all over the world come to marvel at its beauty.

Cai Rang, Vietnam

The Mekong is known for its floating vistas, and we recommend you check out at least one of the thousands of markets along its course. Vietnam, in particular, has some amazing options, with fresh produce and deals galore to be had. Cai Rang in the Mekong Delta is bright, loud and utterly infectious. Top tip: you’ll find samples of the goods being sold at the end of an upright pole attached to each boat – a novel but effective way of purveying their goods.

Slowboating in Laos

The majesty of Laos is often foregone in favour of Thailand and Vietnam, but taking a slowboat down this part of the course is likely to be the most special time during your visit. Most people go from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, a route that stops off in many quaint fishing villages where you can find a comfortable place to crash for the night. One of the best parts about the slow boats is quite literally their speed, allowing you to drink in the stunning landscapes that might otherwise be overlooked during the faster pace of passage through the initial reaches.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

There’s a reason Angkor Wat has already featured prominently in this guide. The hub of a 154 square mile region known as Angkor Archaeological Park, this is one of the ultimate destinations for Southeast Asian travel. Its cultural, religious and economic significance are unparalleled in the region, giving some insight into why it is depicted on the national flag. To enjoy the Angkor Wat in all its glory, avoid crowds by heading there at sunrise or sunset.

Souvenirs

Bring a little piece of the Mekong home with you, scooping up some of the region’s traditional souvenirs.

Banana Candy

Southeast Asia and banana candy go hand-in-hand, as one of the region’s favourite sweet treats. Blending ginger, peanuts and, of course, banana, this confectionary staple is best served with a warming cup of green tea. You can pick this up in the Mekong Delta area to enjoy while you cruise.

Serpent Wine

As odd as it may sound, serpent wine is a tried-and-trusted medicine used by Mekong River communities. Its curative properties come from the tissues of the snake, which are infused with ethanol and drank as a restorative shot. The taste isn’t pleasant, but it is believed to cure everything from back pain to hair loss – and the jar is definitely a conversation starter.

Coconut Products

We’ve already extolled the virtues of coconuts, but aside from eating them, many places along the Mekong craft trinkets from the shells. If you do head to the land of the coconut, be sure to visit the local merchants to browse the chopsticks, teapots and other weird and wonderful products fashioned out of them.

Khan Ran

Stroll along the streets of Vietnam and you won’t go far before seeing a khan ran. This checkered shawl is typically black and white, and is traditional dress in the Mekong Delta. Stylish and sun-protective, they are readily available in shops all over the area and will be a great souvenir from your time away.

Where to Eat

While the Mekong itself is an abundant source of rice, fish, fruit and vegetables, it also inspires much of the local cuisine found at the water’s edge. Stopping off in any of the major cities along its course will reveal menus that evoke the flavours of its many eclectic regions…

Propaganda – Ho Chi Minh City

A favourite among travellers, Propaganda sets the tone for thoughtfully-prepared, accessible Vietnamese dining. In an unassuming yet elegantly-designed space, dishes are prepared with fresh, local ingredients. While you wait, take a moment to peruse the art upon the walls, a true celebration of the region’s talented crafts experts. Better still is the menu you’ll be selecting from; wholesome fragrant Vietnamese classics like duck curry, spring rolls, rice dishes and more are served up in a homely environment.

Sa Dec Street Market

Along the riverfront in Vietnam lies one of the best markets around. Continuing down the river and into dry land, the Sa Dec is a market recognised for its huge variety of fresh food, spices and sundries. All kinds of meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, exotic fruits await, as well as live fish, mice, snakes and frogs. A huge variety of rice are staples of the stalls you find here, with merchants flogging their wares to locals and visitors alike. This is an experience of local life as much as it is an opportunity to shop, so be sure to check it out if you’re in the Mekong Delta.

Malis Restaurant – Siem Reap

Cambodia’s Siem Reap is a popular stop on the Mekong, and nowhere is better to grab a bite than the beautifully understated Malis Restaurant. People from far and wide travel to this venue for its delicate flavours, seasonable produce and heart-warming hospitality. Head Chef Luu Meng has put together a menu that combines the best of traditional Cambodian fare with new-age techniques to bring his dishes into a 21st-century setting. The ambience created by the location is one more reason to visit, as diners luxuriate in a private garden space with water pond and special area for Apsara performances. And nowhere could capture the temples of Angkor better than the palace itself, with regal masonry, high ceilings and local artwork adorning the walls.

If you fancy discovering these amazing sights for yourself, check out our latest river cruise deals on our dedicated river and luxury cruises page, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 274 6777.

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Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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