During our ride from northern Thailand through Laos and across the north of Cambodia we have ridden alongside, criss-crossed and been ferried across the mighty Mekong and its many tributaries.
We have enjoyed breakfasts and afternoon drinks watching its quiet waters slide by, carrying boat loads of people, goods and animals. Many a morning we have woken to great views of the river at dawn from our little room.
The Mekong is mostly a shallow, wide river, but between southern Laos and Cambodia it splits into numerous channels around the area known as Sipandon or 4000 Islands.
Between some of these islands it becomes a raging torrent, cascading down limestone gorges. This area of waterfalls is not navigable by boats and has frustrated many including the French, who so wanted access up the river to China that they purpose built a short railway just to cart gun boats, river cargo boats and eventually commercial goods around the waterfalls.
We spent a few days island hopping in this region. We nearly didn’t go as it is a known tourist hot spot, but we were so glad we did as it proved easy to evade the tourists and see a very different part of Laos.
There is the natural beauty, the French historical remains, but mostly an ancient agriarian culture that hasn’t yet undergone major change. Todays teenagers can and do still fish and farm just as their great great grandparents did. Only small changes to traditional technology and simple machinery are apparent.
The most obvious being mobile phones and satellite dishes which impact on people’s world view. And, unfortunately, plastic rubbish is everywhere, including in the river.
Riding the small tracks around the islands that still don’t have cars was a joy. The tiny boats between islands (often operated by women) make island hopping easy, and at least three islands have guesthouses.
The people living on the banks of the Mekong drink, wash and rely on the waters to grow their staple foods. Surprisingly, given the number of nets used, they also manage to catch a surprising array fish and aquatic life of all sizes – for now.
Rare Illawaddy dolphins are hanging onto life in the river by their fin tips but are threatened with extinction.
The last time we crossed the Mekong near Strung Treng in northern Cambodia it was at least 1 km wide, shallow and slow moving again.
As we said our farewells to it we reflected on it’s importance as a waterway for millions of people. But it’s overuse, what ends up in it and the talk of new dams are all threatening to destroy this important resource.
It is a great river and has supported the growth of human cultures for thousands of years. Hopefully we can change our ways and ensure it is there for the next few millennia.