Portrayed as Asia’s sleepy backwater of smiling peasants, the Mekong is a creature of extremes.
As author Jon Swain writes in River of Time: “It begins life tamely as a small glacial spring in the Tibetan Himalayas, roof of the world. Then, fed by melting snow and mountain streams, it tumbles down through sheer-sided gorges in southwestern China, twists and turns through the jungly hills of Laos, descends through a series of rapids into Cambodia, then flows, at a more leisurely pace, into southern Vietnam to meander peacefully into the South China Sea below Saigon.”
This serpentine waterway, considered sacred by nomads living on Tibet’s Qinghai plateau, brings life to more than 70 million people across the lands of Indo-China.
It is among the world’s great rivers and, as such, possesses “a special magic,” Swain noted: “There is something about the Mekong which, even years later, makes me want to sit down beside it and watch my whole life go by.”
Following the River
As Cambodia distances itself from its recent past, the nation is once again embracing the river that so stirred the great French explorer Henri Mouhout, who died of jungle fever while exploring its upper reaches in 1861. Of the Mekong, Mouhout had said: “I have so long drunk of its waters, it has so long either cradled me on its bosom or tried my patience — at one time flowing majestically among the mountains, at another muddy and yellow as the Arno at Florence.”
Today on the Mekong Discovery Trail, a 180-kilometer stretch that lies between Cambodia’s Kratie province and the Laos border, very little has changed.
The banks of the river are still lined with the same simple villages surrounded by mangoes, bananas and coconuts; the splendour of the jungle, and rice fields as green as lawns.
The trail represents the very essence of Cambodia, from its exquisite ethnic peoples to an explosion of exotic fauna and flora rivaled only by that of the Amazon.
Discovering the Trail
Increasingly popular with the carbon-footprint-conscious, the Mekong Discovery Trail was launched to conserve its extraordinary natural riches and to help the rural people who live along the river’s banks. Among the poorest in the world, many depend on the Mekong — home to the critically endangered river dolphin — for their livelihoods.
“These are proud, gentle people who live from the river, their gardens, village fields, and nearby forests,” said Dr Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism. “In many ways they have the self-sufficient, community-centred lifestyles that many international tourists are reconsidering in these times of environmental uncertainty.”
Under development since 2007, the Mekong Discovery Trail — a sustainable tourism project backed by the Ministry of Tourism, United Nations World Tourism Organisation and several international NGOs — is a voyage into Cambodia’s history.
The trail spans the provinces of Kratie and Stung Treng, and offers the adventurous a chance to experience delights unique to Khmer life against a backdrop of pre-Angkorian temples in one of the world’s most spectacular biodiversity hot-spots.
Essentially a network of eco-tourism trails, the journey meanders through the heart of the Mekong in a series of river-life adventures.
A Culture Uncovered
The aim is to leave the traveler with a lasting taste of authenticity: life as it has been lived here for a very long time.
- Dangle from a houseboat in the flooded forests of the Ramsar wetlands
- Buy freshly caught fish from a passing vessel
- Meditate to the rhythmic clip-clop of Kratie’s famous horse-carts
- Marvel as a rare Mekong river dolphin breaks the surface of the water at Kampi pool
Sampling the local produce is a must.
- Kratie prides itself on its krolan, sticky rice mixed with coconut and beans and cooked in bamboo tubes
- Stung Treng is equally renowned for nhem — parcels of raw spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves (each family uses a different brightly coloured string to tie them)
At night pause for breath at a home-stay, where host families introduce you to the local customs and etiquette, or become a guest at the local pagoda, or wat, and observe the daily rituals of Cambodia’s Buddhist monkhood firsthand.
Embracing the Adventure
The emphasis is on eschewing the package-tour in favour of freer, more independent travel.
The trail unites a network of local people who provide everything from silk-weaving and sunset cruises to white-water rafting and mountain biking. What form your Mekong river-life adventure takes is entirely up to you (all the necessary tools are provided in a one-stop online resource: suggested routes, things to do, who to contact, downloadable maps, etc).
Be sure to pack a sense of adventure.