MEKONG RIVER IN LAOS
In far northern Laos, the Mekong River lies in a deep valley shared with Myanmar. Further south it curves eastward and then southward in a great bend which forms the border with Thailand. Flood plains of varying width have formed along the Mekong and its tributaries. These lowlands are the most fertile areas in Laos. The section between Vientiane and Savannakhet are navigable by vessels up to 200 tons. Navigation on other sections is hampered by rapids, falls and shallows. The Mekong River’s middle section is navigable year round for 550 kilometers between Heuan Hin (north of the Khemmarat Rapids in Savannakhet) and Kok Phong, Luang Prabang Province. As better roads are built in Laos the Mekong River has become less vital for a transportation.
Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, The Mekong’s name translates from Lao as “mother of the waters.” It’s no wonder: the river snakes some 3,000 miles from its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau to its outlet through the Mekong River Delta into the South China Sea. It and the uncountable “feeder” rivers and streams in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam make up the 300,000-square-mile Mekong River Basin. [Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]
The Lao PDR is criss-crossed with a myriad of rivers and streams. The largest is the Mekong River, flowing for 1,898 kilometers from the North to the South, with 919 kilometers of the river forming the major portion of the border with Thailand. It is estimated that some 60 percent of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos. These rivers and streams provide great potential for hydropower development with 51 percent of the power potential in the lower Mekong basin contained within Laos. Mekong River is navigable much of length but is not navigable between the sea and Laos because of Khone Falls in southern Laos. The Nam Ou, Na That and Nam Ngum are large tributaries of the Mekong River.
The Mekong River flows through a narrow, 200-kilometer-long gorge in southern China and along the Myanmar-Laos. From the tripoint of China, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos the river flows southwest and forms the border of Burma and Laos for about 100 kilometres (62 miles) until it arrives at the tripoint of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. This is also the point of confluence between the Ruak River (which follows the Thai-Burma border) and the Mekong. The area of this tripoint is sometimes termed the Golden Triangle, although the term also refers to the much larger area of those three countries that is notorious as a drug producing region.
As one travels south on the Mekong its become easier to navigate and higher numbers of greater varieties of boats appear. From the Golden Triangle tripoint, the Mekong turns southeast to briefly form the border of Laos with Thailand. It then turns east into the interior of Laos, flowing first east and then south for some 400 kilometres (250 mi) before meeting the border with Thailand again. Once more, it defines the Laos-Thailand border for some 850 kilometres (530 mi) as it flows first east, passing in front of the capital of Laos, Vientiane, then turns south. A second time, the river leaves the border and flows east into Laos soon passing the city of Pakse. Thereafter, it turns and runs more or less directly south, crossing into Cambodia. At Khone Falls the river cascardes over rocks and separates into several branches, divided by forested islands, before it enters Cambodia.
Importance of the Mekong River to Laos
The Mekong River and its eastern tributaries drain all of Laos with the exception of Samneua Province in the northeast. The 1,600 kilometers of navigable water of the river that passes through Laos or along its border is the longest transportation and communication route in the country. But rapids in the far north and far south effectively cut Laos off from the sea and cross-border and international commercial possibilities.
Most of the western border of Laos is demarcated by the Mekong River, which is an important artery for transportation. The Khong falls at the southern end of the country prevent access to the sea, but cargo boats travel along the entire length of the Mekong in Laos during most of the year. Smaller power boats and pirogues provide an important means of transportation on many of the tributaries of the Mekong. The Mekong has thus not been an obstacle but a facilitator for communication, and the similarities between Laos and northeast Thai society — same people, same language — reflect the close contact that has existed across the river for centuries. Also, many Laotians living in the Mekong Valley have relatives and friends in Thailand. Prior to the twentieth century, Laotian kingdoms and principalities encompassed areas on both sides of the Mekong, and Thai control in the late nineteenth century extended to the left bank. Although the Mekong was established as a border by French colonial forces, travel from one side to the other has been significantly limited only since the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos) in 1975. *
With an absence of railroads and a shortage of good roads the Mekong River is a vital transportation link in Laos. All of the country’s major cities and settlements are located on or near its banks. Flooding deposits rich top soil on its banks. The narrow flood plain is one of the main wet rice growing areas.
Champasack Province (610 kilometers south of Vientiane) lies to the Southwest in Laos. The capital city is Pakse, located at the confluence of the Mekong and the Sedon rivers. Southeast Asia's biggest waterfall, Khone Pha Pheng, is within easy reach by boat or by road. This is one of the main political and economic centers of Lao P.D.R. The people of Champasack Province settle along the bank of Kong Se Done river. In this province you will find ancient temples which were influenced from the Angkor people who settled in Cambodia. There are many different minorities in Champasack whom have their own language, culture and lifestyles. The distance from Vientiane to Pakse, the provincial capital of Champasack is 610 kilometers by Route 13 (south) via the provinces of Bolikhamxay, Khammouane, Savannakhet and Salavan.
Champasak Province is known for its relaxed pace of life, warm hospitality and rich cultural, historic and natural heritage. The province has been ruled by various kingdoms through the ages, and today there are many archaeological remains scattered throughout the province. To the south of Pakse, the provincial capital is the Vat Phou Temple Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Attractions also include the Ancient City, historic colonial buildings, and Don Daeng Island, known for its traditional livelihoods and forested trails. In the southern region of the province is Don Khong and the Four Thousand Islands, or Si Phan Don in Lao. On this stretch of the Mekong is the largest waterfall by volume in Southeast Asia, Khone Phapheng, as well as Li Phi waterfall noted for its cascading emerald green waters. The endangered freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins inhabit the Mekong near the Lao-Cambodian border and can be observed from locally chartered boats.
In the northeastern region of the province, rising over 1,500 meters above sea level, are the rich volcanic soils and cool climate of the Bolaven Plateau. This area produces some of the finest Arabica coffees in the world, which can be purchased directly from the local growers. The breathtaking Tad Fane Waterfall located on the edge of Dong Houa Sao National Protected Area cascades over 100 meters off the plateau. In Bachieng Chaleunsouk district the picturesque Pa Suam falls are easily reached by road from Pakse.
Located in the northern corner of the province is the Phou Xieng Thong National Protected Area and Khong Mountain, known for its locally guided tours through an orchid conservation area to Hin Khong or ‘Fish Basket Rock’ which overlooks Ubon Province in Thailand. Just north of Pakse is Don Kho Island, the original French colonial capital of Champasak Province and well-known producer of Lao textiles. Other points of interest in northern Champasak are the Buddhist temples and traditional Southern Lao homes in Ban Saphai, as well as the sacred temple, Vat Pho Sayalam, in Ban Vernxay.
Champasak Province is famous for its traditional Lao weavings and unique textile patterns. Ban Saphai is the center of the local textile trade and offers an opportunity to see weaving and purchase textiles directly from the producers.Fish lovers will enjoy the province’s Mekong fish dishes, such as fish salad (laab paa and koi paa), fermented fish (paa dek), and the local specialty, pureed fish (paa ka tao). The Vat Phou Festival is the province’s largest and draws a huge crowd from the entire Lao-Thai-Cambodia region. The event is held at the Vat Phou Temple Complex and falls on the 3rd full moon of the Buddhist lunar calendar, usually in February.
Champasak Province covers 15,415 square kilometers and has a population of 600,000 people. It shares a border with Thailand to the west, Salavan ,Sekong and Attapeu provinces to the north and east, and Cambodia to the south. There are 10 Districts: Pakse, Sanasomboun, Bachaingchaleunsouk, Pasxong, Pathoumphone, Phonthong, Champasack, Sukhuma, Mounlapamok and Khong. The Capital of the province is Pakse. By one count Champasak has about 204 tourist sites (109 natural tourist sites; 40 historical tourist sites and 55 cultural tourist sites) to Getting to Champasak province much easier than it once was. The province now has relatively good land transportation links to other province in Laos and to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Pak Se (on Route 20, 120 kilometers southwest of Salavanh and 247 kilometers south of Savannakhet) of is located on wide section of the Mekong River at is confluence with the Se Don. Adjacent to the Bloven Plateau, it is a relatively prosperous new town created by the French at the center of Laos's main coffee-growing area. Most tarvelers who come here are on their way to the Khmer ruins at Wat Phu Champasak, Khone Falls and the Four Thousand Islands.
Paksé (also spelled Pakxe) has traditionally been a distribution are and market center for the southern panhandle of Laos. Located at the convergence of the Xédôn and Mekong rivers. It is home to sawmills, brick and tile manufacture, and an ice plant. Electricity arrived in the district only in 1970, when the Selabam Dam was completed. Irrigation of the region was another benefit from the dam. Paksé, until 1966 Laos' main port of entry, has road connections to the Thailand and Cambodia borders. The population of Paksé is about 120,000.
Pakse is linked to Ratchathan Thailand by the second Friendship Bridge. The city is a major transportation hub for southern Laos; is small and easily toured on foot. Tuk-tuks and buses provide transport to bus stations: One station is a few kilometers north of city center. Buses from this station serve routes north of the city. The second station is 8 km south of city center. Buses from this station serve routes south of the city. “VIP” buses serve routes between Vientiane and Thailand. Buses arrive and leave from Champasak shopping plaza in city center. Pakxe International Airport: tuk-tuks and motos provide transport to the city. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)], 2008]
Sights in Pak Se
Pak Se itself has a lively markets and some fine examples of southern Lao weaving. The Champasak Historical Museum has example of clothing and jewelry from different ethnic groups, 7th century stone lintels, musical instruments and Dong San bronze drums. There are about 20 wats in te city.
In the Pakse area, there are about 62 tourist sites: 32 natural, 7 historical, and 27 cultural. There are many French colonial style buildings remain in the city. The Sedon Bridge is often called "old bridge" by the people of Champasack. From the bridge, you can walk around to see the old French style quarter. The Lao – Japan Mekong River Bridge was constructed in 2002 and is a route to Thailand.
Wat Poratana Sadsadaram (Wat Luang Temple) is located in the center of Pakse district. It is a temple with a traditional style and new style constructions. The library contains beautiful wall painting and excellent sculptures. Among the other interesting temples located close to the city are Wat Phabat, once called "Wat Tamfai temple" and Wat Chomphet. Big festivals in Pakse district include the the boat racing festival, with many boats from all over the province, a parade of big Mark Beng (folded banana leaves) which is held during Ork Pan Sa day(Buddhist day) in mid-October. You may also want to see the Stone Buddha sculpture work of the people in Chomphet village. Isanew Pakse Market is the main market.
Places near Pak Se
Near Pakse you to see the weaving in Ban Spai and Don kho Island which are 18 kilometers from Pakse. You also visit the Mon tree plantation, a silkworm farm, silk weaving by Khma Yard villagers and the making of pots and jars by Kili villagers.
Phapho Elephant Training Region is near Pakse. Many families have elephants, which have traditionally been used to drag logs out of the forest. They are also used in agriculture. There is also good wild pig and python hunting around Phapho. Some say that nearby Kiey Kngong is better for elephant rides. A typical half-day elephant trek goes to the top of a hill named Phu Asa.
Pha Pho Village is regionally known as having skilled elephant tamers, with a long tradition of elephant domestication for the purpose of using elephants to work in forest and fields. This tradition has been falling out of practice, however, as the availability of wild elephants has been dramatically reduced due to habitat loss and, in fact, it is now forbidden to domesticate elephants who reside inside the Xe Pian NPA.
Ban Pha Pho to this day still has a few domesticated elephants and offers elephant rides to tourists who make the journey to their village. The village is located approximately 21 km down the road from the more popular Kiet Ngong Village. Elephant rides take you to nearby wetlands, jungles and rocky outcrops inside Xe Pian NPA, as well as to the Dong Houa Sao NPA corridor known to have an endangered population of gibbons. Elephant rides can be booked at the guest house located in the village. Please, understand that upon arrival it may take some time for the elephants to get ready for your trip, as they may be out in the forest grabbing a bite to eat or helping out their human kind in the fields.
How to get there: From Km48 at Route 13 (south of Pakse on the way to Don Khong/4000 Islands), take the dirt road all the way down, passing the turn off to Kiet Ngong 8 kilometers on your right, until you reach the three way intersection about another 7 kilometers from the Kiet Ngong turnoff. Here you will see a sign for the Pha Pho guest house with a drawing of an elephant and you turn right (going straight takes you to Attapeu on Route 18). Go about another 7 kilometers on the dirt road and you will arrive at Ban Pha Pho.
Pha Suam Waterfall (38 kilometers from Pakse) is the most outstanding one of the tweny waterfalls in Bachieng Chalernsouk District of Champasak Province. It is located on a paved road. On the road back from Pha Suam, at the junction at kilometer 21 is a great place to go to try some fresh seasonal fruits from Bachieng which are sold on the fruits stands and shops, guaranteed to smell good and test sweet. The bananas, pineapples and durian should not be missed. Along the road from kilometers 21, You should give yourself of time to see the ironworks in the village at kilometers 19.
"Hin Kong" (Fish Basket Stone) (50 kilometers from Pakse) is located on the Khong mountain in Ban Mai Sing Samphant. Then you can travel by boat to the north to see the turtle like stone, which is huge "Sao Hin Lak Khone" and a swan-like stone and a mushroom-like stone and Mount Xiengthong reserved forest.
Dong Houa Sao National Protected Area (Champasack Province) covers 1,100 square kilometers. Among the animals found there are: Elephant, grey-faced tit-babbler, yellow-cheeked gibbon. Habitat: Semi-dry evergreen forest is the dominant vegetation type in the lowlands and the uplands. Lowland plains comprise well over half of the protected area at elevations from 100 - 300 meters. Steep to very steep slopes rise to the edge of the Boloven Plateau at an elevation of around 1,000 meters.Peaks near the plateau rim reach almost 1,300 meters. Getting There: Dong Houa Sao is easily accessed from major hard-top, all-weather roads in the west (Route 13 South) and north (Pakse-Paksong). Another east-west road skirts DHS in the south.
Siphandan (on the Mekong River north of the Cambodian border, 148 kilometers from Pakse), or 4,000 Islands, is section of the Mekong River that encompasses 50 kilometers or so and is so wide the river resembles a lake. During the wet season the river is 14 kilometers wide. The widest section of the river. When the river recedes it reveals numerous islands, channels and islets, some of them nothing more than rocks with a hardy bush or two on them. Their number depends on how high or low the river is. The largest islands have year round residents.
The biggest attractions are the falls and the river dolphins, riverside hamlets and old French plantations. The river itself is teeming with life A study in the 1970s described it “among the most biologically productive of all systems on earth.” Among the 150 species of fish found here are catfish, climbing perch, nandid, threadfin, halfbeak and goby.
Siphan Done (4,000 Islands) embraces the widest waterfall in the world (See Below). A fault line just above the border with Cambodian braids the river, creating enormous variety in landforms and scenery. "Many Khod" grows in the small island in the center of waterfall. People in this region believe that whoever has its fruit will gain magic powers immediately. At restaurants in the area, the main item on the menu of course is fresh fish. One more exciting places to visit is another fascinating waterfall called : Liphi Or Somphamid waterfall which is located on Done Khone Island.
At Done Khone- Done Det village, You can see the ruins from Laos was a French colony: an old bridge for sending goods from DoneKhone to DonDet and back to Khone to load in the ships there. From both islands you can see the old ship harbor, fuel store, old train track, and old train engine. At the end of Done Khone you can see the only group of fresh water dolphins in Laos. You can also stay overnight at Done Khone or Done Det.
Khong Island is the largest Siphandan island, measuring 18-by-8 kilometers. On the river boat trip to the island you will see fisherman casting nest as they have done for hundreds of years. There are some tricky rapids near Khong Island that make for a thrilling boat ride. Khong is home to 55,000 residents and has a number of guest houses. The island is quite beautiful. Many people rent bicycles and ride around checking out the rice fields, vegetable gardens, flame trees, coconut and betel palms, and occasional wats.
Irrawaddy River Dolphins
In Southern Laos, near Khong Island, Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the Mekong River. While many species of wildlife are shy and can rarely be seen, spectators will generally be able to spot the dolphins in Springtime when the water level of the Mekong is lowest.
The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) population inhabits a 190 kilometers stretch of the Mekong River between Cambodia and Laos. The latest population is estimated between 64 and 76 members (2008 figures). The Irrawaddy dolphin is identified by a bulging forehead, a short beak, and 12-19 teeth on each side of each jaw. The pectoral fin is broadly triangular. There is a small dorsal fin, on the posterior end of the back.
The middle stretches of the Mekong River north of Stung Treng, Cambodia extends for 40 kilometers along the Mekong River and covers 14,600 hectares of braided channels and alluvial islands. It provides valuable habitat for the critically endangered Giant Mekong Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and White-shouldered Ibis (Pseudibis davisoni). In addition, a critically endangered sub-population of the Irrawaddy Dolphin is found here consisting of 114-152 individuals. Their upstream migration is limited by Khone Falls in Lao PDR. A proposed Mekong mainstream dam in Stung Treng would destroy their habitat. [Source: UNESCO report]
Irrawaddy dolphins found in the Mekong River are often seen travelling in small groups of 6 to 10 individuals. The females usually give birth to young once every two years most often during the months of June to August. The young dolphins are about 1 meter in length at birth and suckle milk. By adulthood the dolphins can attain a length of over 2.5 meters and weigh up to 180 kilograms. Their diet consists mainly of small fish, shellfish and snails. The dolphins can swim at speeds up to 40 kilometers per hour and stay submerged for periods between five and ten minutes.
The Irrawaddy Dolphins make their home on a beautiful stretch of the Mekong River near a small set of rapids. They make upward arches, breaking the surface of the water as they swim about the area. They are not jumpers like their sea-faring relatives and are quite a bit shyer as well. They have good reason to be shy towards humans as they have been hunted and killed by fishermen in the past. The hope is that their numbers will slowly increase, as more fishermen in the area are educated about the dolphins are most active in the early morning hours (around 6 am) and the late afternoon and early evening hours. However, tourist that go out in mid-afternoon heat of the day report numerous sightings.
Khon Island is place where tourist gather to try and catch a glimse of the river dolphins. They are most likely to be seen off the southern tip of the island in the early morning or late afternoon from December to May. The best spot of all is on Kham Island, is a small sand island within Cambodian territory on the Mekong River. Boats make runs to this island for a small fee. Viewing the dolphins from boats isn’t really practical because the boats scare the dolphins off.
Khone Falls (on the Mekong River along the Cambodian border) is the widest waterfall in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. The series of rapids and falls are 6.7 miles wide, with a drop of 70 feet. The falls are most impressive at the end of the rainy season when the flow is 1.5 million cubic meters per second. This is more than any other fall in the world, and twice as much as Niagra Falls.
Known properly as Khônephapheng Falls, Khone is six mile chain of cataracts. There are two main cascades: Phapheng and Somphamit Falls and several smaller sets of rapids. In some places some flimsy bamboo platforms have been set up for fishermen to use. Don’t try to use them yourself. The magic manikhot tree that sits in the middle of the falls is said to have never been touched by human hands. The river cruise to the falls passes by numerous islands and temples with saffron-robed monks.
The falls are one of the reasons why the Mekong River was one of the last rivers to be explored and developed. Fish amazingly can make their way up the falls but boats can’t. It dashed the hopes of French hoping to use the Mekong River as a transportation link to China.
The French built a 14-kilometers railway so that goods could be moved across two islands to bypass the falls. Cargo at one end of the railway was hoisted from boats and placed on railcars and unloaded back onto to boats at the other end of the line. Sometimes entire boats were lifted and put on railway cars The railroad operated until the end of World War II and was the only railroad built in Laos. After the war the rails were carried away by villagers. All that remains really are two piers, a bridge between the two islands, remains of sleepers and gravel and a rusting steam locomotive. On Khone Island you can hike on part of the old railway bed.
Mekong River between Stung Treng, Cambodia and the Laos border
The Mekong River between Stung Treng and the Laos border is very light on population and heavy on beautiful scenery. Boulder outcroppings, numerous sets of rapids, swirling pothole currents, wide sweeping stretches of river and forested landscape along the banks all await the boat traveler. It makes for a great trip, either for the traveler that wants to continue on to Laos or for those wanting to enjoy a wild stretch of the Mekong in Cambodia. [Source: mekongdiscoverytrail.com ]
The trip is difficult to downright impossible to make on this shallow stretch of the Mekong during the dry season, with countless sunken islands and a virtual forest of trees growing right in the middle of the river. The trip becomes an obstacle course for the boat drivers this time of the year, as they carefully try to choose the best way to guide their craft through the maze that nature has created without losing a propeller to the river. The best time of the year to take this trip is from May to November when sufficient upstream rains have raised the river to a level that allows the boats to pass through carefully.
There is not a whole lot to do once you get to the border area, but travelers can leave their passport with Cambodian immigration (at the small checkpoint on the west bank of the river) and cross to the Laos side to eat at a riverside restaurant and look at the tiny market in the Laos village of Geedahn. Cambodian immigration officers may ask you see them, but it is not a fee set by the central government so you don’t have to pay it. There is also a guesthouse to stay at near this village (on the Laos side of the river, but a couple of hundred meters south along the riverbank where it is still Cambodia).
Which was built here for border traders that lose the day light hours and need a place to spend the night. It’s a nice enough place, but overpriced, with a room that includes two big beds and a fan going for US$ 8 a night. Electricity is running between dusk and midnight. To take the trip, head down to the riverbank area (near the small bullet boats just east of the pier) in Stung Treng town before 8:30 am and talk to one of the operators of the small freight boats. The fare is 15,000 riel (one way) and the trip to the border area takes about 5 ? hours, but is cut down to just over three hours on the trip back south as the swift current on this stretch of the Mekong pushes the boats right along.
If you want a faster journey, approach one of the small fiberglass boat operators, the ones that have the 40-hp outboard motors-they want US$ 20-$25 (one-way) to make the trip- but if you are looking for a quick trip or fast fun, the trip time going upriver is cut down to only 1½ hours. The slow boats are fast enough coming back downstream so you could save money by grabbing one of those on the return trip. For those wanting to cross into Laos using this route you will need a Laos’s visa in your possession and you also need to stop at the main police station in Stung Treng town to get a letter of permission to cross the border at this point. This is shown to Cambodian immigration will not let you stamp out of the country without this.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020