The Chinese call The Mekong, “Lancang”, as it runs alongside the Yangtze and Salween Rivers within a 55-mile-wide rocky drop off at the Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan. The river continues through a steep, narrow gorge, that inhabitants continue to cross by cables, as bridge construction faces immense obstacles. In fact, the first road bridge to cross the Mekong outside of China, opened in the 1990s between Laos and Thailand.
The Mekong’s canyon run begins to level off at Jinghong as it enters Yunnan’s Sipsongpanna region, a once prominent ethnic Tai Lue principality, before the Chinese Han chased many into Northern Laos. The Lancang becomes the “Mae Nam Kong” (The Mother River) as it reaches the junction of Laos, China, and Myanmar, about 15 km upriver from Ban Say in Luang Namtha.
This area is often referred to as The Green Triangle, due to the densely forested mountains at the tri-country intersection. During the Lane Xang Era, the kingdom’s troops reached this region and the Mekong Riverbank from Muang Sing on the Chao Fa Trail. The sparsely populated, remote Green Triangle’s porous Lao-Chinese border still sees Tai Lue people unknowingly wander into Laos, much like their ancestors did 500 years before.
The Mekong’s exit from China finds the river widening, and the brown, sediment-filled waters run calmer along the 200-km “Lao-Myanmar Corridor” to the notorious Golden Triangle. The landscape features north-western Laos’ towering limestone mountains, and Myanmar’s endless green-coated highlands. Just downriver from Ban Say, the Mekong reaches the isolated Xieng Khaeng region’s 13 ethnic settlements, established 500-years-ago by Tai Lue migrating from Sipsongpanna.
The next 100 km of the corridor remains sparsely inhabited, with its few Mekong Riverside villages hidden from view and only accessible via boat. The view of the surrounding pristine nature is occasionally interrupted by large cargo vessels plying the Jinghong-Chiang Saen route.
About 120 km downstream from Ban Say, the Mekong passes under the Lao-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, opened in 2015. The 690-metre-long span, the only road connection between the two countries, links Houa Khoum village on Lao Route 17 to Keng Lap Village on Myanmar’s National Road 4 in Shan State.
A further 15 km downriver, the waters arrive at Xieng Kok, the first commercial landing and Lao border checkpoint on the Mekong after leaving China. The simple gravel local landing mostly serves passenger and small cargo traffic along the Lao bank and cross-river villages in Myanmar. Goods unloaded often go 22 km up the Long River to Luang Namtha’s road network. Hillside Xieng Kok offers a few guesthouses, noodle shops, and stores.
The Mekong continues towards The Golden Triangle and navigational aids become more prevalent as the river gets narrower, with rock clusters creating rapids and submerged hazards. The riverside topography begins changing from canyons to rolling hills with thick, green flora. Golden Buddhas, spires, and temples start to appear on Myanmar hilltops as the Mekong approaches Ban Mom, 88 km downriver from Xieng Kok.
Ban Mom is directly across from Wan Pon, Myanmar. This is the final downriver port on the Lao-Myanmar Corridor before the river reaches The Golden Triangle’s epicentre, about 30 km further along. Ban Mom’s relatively large landing serves a few cargo vessels, and launches local ferries to-from Wan Pon and longboats to the area’s river villages. Some Thai tour groups, with temporary border visas, cruise to Ban Mom to shop for Lao goods in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
The Golden Triangle sits at the confluence of the Ruak River, which forms the Thai-Myanmar border, and the Mekong. It also marks where the Mekong leaves Myanmar, and begins forming most of the lengthy Lao-Thai border. About 15 km beyond the tri-country union, the Mekong reaches Ton Paeng, located across from Chiang Saen, the largest Mekong port after the river exits China. Ton Paeng has a floating wooden dock used mostly for local passenger traffic on longboats. The hillside town offers a few simple guesthouses, Lao noodle shops, and an entertainment venue. The port also sits in the core of Bokeo Province’s “Golden Triangle Circuit”, which includes the 1,000-year-old city of Souvannakhomkham.
As the Mekong continues towards Houay Xay, it reaches the 1.6-km-long Khon Pi Long rapids, which means “where the ghost lost its way.” This stretch of the river continues as a navigation hurdle to vessels cruising the upper reaches of the Mekong. Houay Xay, about 60 km from Ton Paeng, comes next, and has long served as the Mekong’s main Thai-Lao immigration checkpoint and port for cruises to/from Luang Prabang. Tours of the town take in heritage attractions, such as a 1,000-year-old temple, teak temple, and Fort Carnot. As most tourists overlook the town, it maintains its relaxing yesteryear atmosphere.
A 2-hour cruise downriver from Houay Xay lands at Pak Tha, the mouth of the Nam Tha River, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries, with its origins in southern China and passing through Luang Namtha. Pak Tha marks where the Mekong leaves its role as the Thai-Lao border for the first time, and travels solely through Laos. It is a mandatory stop for upriver cruises, and riverside camping is available. During this boundary detour, the landscape remains mountainous and covered with forest, though slash and burn agriculture interrupts the natural atmosphere. Numerous ethnic villages dot the shoreline on this historic section of the Mekong.
Pak Beng is another 5-6-hour cruise up the Mekong from Pak Tha, or some 150 km from Houay Xay. The popular overnight stop on the Houay Xay-Luang Prabang cruise sits at the mouth of a second major upper-Mekong tributary, the Nam Beng River, which is fed by northern Lao mountains around Oudomxay Province. The cosy hillside landing opens the door to natural and cultural attractions, including caves, forest hikes, ancient temples, handicraft villages, and elephant camps. A 45-km local passenger boat ride from Pak Beng up the Mekong lands at tiny Tha Xouang Pier – for adventurers seeking an off-the-beaten trail to Hongsa in Sayabouly Province – before cruising on to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang, once the capital of the wide-reaching Lane Xang Kingdom and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Laos’ busiest passenger cruise port. The city is known for its ancient temples and French colonial architecture. A short cruise upriver lands at Pak Ou Caves, a popular site filled with Buddha images. Pak Ou is at the mouth of another major Mekong tributary, the Nam Ou River, which flows 448 km from Phongsaly Province. The Nam Khan tributary meets the Mekong at the northern tip of Luang Prabang Town, having flowed from mountains to the south and east.
The Mekong’s current becomes more turbulent on its 80-km run from Luang Prabang to Sayabouly’s Tha Deua Pier. Hidden rocks on the route sunk ships during 19th and early 20th-century Mekong voyages, and one reports claims a French ship filled with gold went down and was never recovered. Today, a few passenger cruise lines and cargo ships travel along this stretch of the Mekong, though the road has taken the lead role in transporting people and goods along river. The Sayabouly Dam operates a 12-metre-wide navigation lock, which mostly serves rice and timber barges. Tha Deua Pier leads the way to Sayabouly Town and Laos’ Elephant Sanctuary.
Pak Lay Pier sits some 100 km downriver from Sayabouly, The Land of Elephants, and once served as a major Mekong River port due to its proximity to Thailand and Vientiane. The road network has greatly lessened Pak Lay’s prominence as a Mekong port, though some luxury cruises anchor offshore for the evening. The town features French colonial architecture and ancient temples. Natural attractions such as caves and waterfall treks are further inland.
The Mekong basin broadens about 60 km downriver from Pak Lay, when it reaches Ban Sanakhan and regains its status as the border with Thailand. Here, the Hueang River, which forms much of the boundary between Thailand and Sayabouly Province, empties into the Mekong, as it makes it run through a much flatter and wider flood plain to Vientiane and the Central Mekong.