The mighty Mekong River is a defining landmark for Southeast Asia, acting as a border between nations, carrying trade, and providing a lifeline for thousands of communities that line its banks.
Geographically speaking, the Mekong varies widely, running as deep as 100 meters in some places and as shallow as 16 meters in others, and is home to all kinds of plant and animal species. Some of the most impressive marine life in the world is found in these waters, such as the Mekong Freshwater Stingray, over 4 meters wide, and the Irrawaddy dolphin, a rare freshwater breed of dolphin which exists only in Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal.
The source of the Mekong is in the mountainous region of Tibet, where snow melts from the mountains and cascades into the river. The river then flows all the way into the South China Sea, and during monsoon season the entire basin turns into an enormous pond. Many of the famed species of the Mekong, such as the Siamese crocodile, Mekong giant catfish - which can weigh as much as 300 kilograms - are becoming endangered due to industrial development destroying natural habitats and increasingly ambitious fishing operations. However, the vastness of the river means stretches such those in Laos remain untouched and beautiful.
Besides playing home to a rich world of flora and fauna, the Mekong also plays an enormous role in the lives of the people who live near it. For farmers, the river provides irrigation, and the rice paddies that sit near the Mekong are some of the most fertile in the world, producing rice enough to feed 300 million people annually. The river’s rising and falling correlates perfectly with rice agriculture, flooding and draining paddies at the appropriate times and allowing some communities to have three harvests per year.
As riverside communities have grown and matured, some farmers have moved away from rice to other cash crops, but rice will always have a place here. Of course, those who live on the river also rely on it for fishing, as well as transportation and trade, sending goods and people up and down the river.
More recently, tourism has become just another benefit to those who live on the mighty Mekong. Foreign tourists provide river villages with an extra source of income in tough times, and small hotels and restaurants have begun to spring up to cater to them. These tourism operations have provided a big boost to the local economy, providing locals with jobs and helping make sure the area’s attractions stay clean and pristine. With so much impact on those who live around it and so much natural beauty as well, travelling the Mekong is an experience like no other.