To understand Life on the Mekong, you need to know about the Nam Kong (Mother River). The 4,350-km (2,700 miles) Mekong is the world’s 12th longest river. It flows through six countries and seven distinct geographic regions. It begins in the Tibetan Plateau’s Three Rivers Area as the Lancang River. The waterway then carves through deep, rocky canyons, before dropping into the Lancang Basin and then Sipsongpanna in southern Yunnan.
The river takes the name Mekong upon leaving China, and starts its 1,835-km Lao run, the longest stretch of any country it touches. The river widens and becomes calmer, while passing between Laos’ north-western mountains and Myanmar’s highlands. It goes on to trim the Thai border before flowing to Luang Prabang and further to Vientiane.
Starting at the nation’s capital, the Mekong gets even wider, as its course heads south along the Korat Plateau’s river valley and the mountains of Laos, where it picks up volume from the country’s many tributaries. Just upriver from Champasak, the Mekong enters the Tonle Sap basin, and begins to rush over rocky rubble to create the 4,000 islands and its unpassable rapids. The river then reaches Khone Phapheng Waterfalls, Southeast Asia’s largest waterfall by volume, which forms a curved fault line at the border with Cambodia.
This landscape sets the stage for Life on the Mekong. The river serves as the transportation spine for the country, with year-round navigable waters for much of its extent. Swiftly moving through otherwise inaccessible areas, the Mekong serves as a local, all-access highway, with exits at otherwise unreachable villages.
Some 60% percent of the Mekong River basin’s population relies on agriculture for food security and their livelihoods, with irrigation accounting for more than 70% of the basin’s water use. Rice is the major rainy-season crop. Most rice farming takes place in Central Laos. Cassava, sugar cane, soybean, and maize are also grown during the rains, with riverbank vegetable gardens cropping up when the high river waters recede in November. During the dry season, the exposed floodplains (grasslands) are used for grazing livestock.
Fishing provides another main livelihood for inhabitants along the Mekong River, which accounts for up to 25% of the global freshwater catch. When cruising the Mekong, note the fishing methods that use everything except a rod and reel.