From its headwaters in the Himalayas to its juncture with the South China Sea, the Mekong River stretches 2,703 miles, which ranks it as one of the world’s longest rivers. The Mekong is longer than North America’s Missouri River and Mississippi River. But among Asian rivers, the Mekong ranks seventh in length, easily surpassed by China’s Yangtze and Yellow rivers at 3,917 miles and 3,395 miles respectively.
By volume the Mekong is dwarfed by the Amazon and Congo, but it still carries a lot of water. The river’s average annual discharge rate, which is the amount of water it spews from its mouth, is 565,008 cubic feet per second (cfs). This is almost the exact same amount of water dumped by the Mississippi each year into the Gulf of Mexico.
The amount of runoff in the Mekong fluctuates wildly. During Indochina’s dry season (from December through May), the Mekong’s average discharge rate is 64,975 cfs at Pakse, southern Laos. However, during the height of the wet season in September, the Mekong can haul over 14 times that amount past Pakse. In comparison, the Missouri pushes on average only 30,000 cubic feet per second past Omaha, Nebraska. And even during one of the Missouri’s greatest floods in 1952, the river only carried 396,000 cfs past Omaha – or less than half the volume carried by the Mekong at Pakse during its monsoon flood.
The Mekong gathers its waters from portions of six countries, including the People’s Republic of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Although the Mekong isn’t a long river by world standards, and its drainage basin is relatively small, it still carries a tremendous amount of water. Why is the river’s volume so out of proportion to the size of its drainage area? The reason is simple. So much water falls during the monsoon season that Southeast Asia’s mountains, forests, and rice paddies cannot absorb it all. By September, the land surrenders to the monsoon. Whatever water falls from the sky and strikes the earth is immediately let loose to flow to the great river.
On its journey to the sea, the Mekong appears vastly different from one reach to the next. The river rises in the Himalayas in a range known as the Tanghla Shan. The cold, clear, fast river that begins in the Tibetan Plateau looks nothing like the muddy river at Luang Prabang, let alone the wide stream at Phnom Penh.
The Mekong’s different traits have earned it different names. Near its headwaters in Tibet, the Chinese know the river as the Dza Chu – the River of Rocks – which refers to the predominate riverbed material through that reach. Another Chinese name for it is Lancang Jiang or Turbulent River. Because of the lower Mekong’s greater width and depth, the Cambodians know it as the Tonle Thom – which translates as Great River. The Vietnamese also show their deference to the Lower Mekong’s power by calling it Song Lon, which also means Great River.
Along its course through southern China, north-eastern Myanmar, and upper Laos, the Mekong is hemmed in by mountains and hills. At the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, Laos, the river flows through a tight slot bounded on the west by dark green hills and on the east by a height of land topped by dozens of Buddhist temples. At Luang Prabang, the Mekong flows steady and deep.
Further south near Vientiane, the Mekong exits the mountains. No longer confined by rock walls on either side, the river stretches out to over a mile in width. Its colour also changes. Gone is the chocolate brown water found further upstream. In its place is a river with a light, milky brown hue.
During the dry season, a large sand flat stretches along the riverfront at Vientiane. The tan grains of sand are the ground-up remains of boulders that long ago fell from the mountains into the river. Here, the Mekong has laid the mountains to rest. Those grand peaks, once so imposing, hard, and high, now lie splayed out, lifeless, and pale.
For hundreds of miles, from the mouth of the Nam Heung to the mouth of the Mae Nam Mun, the Mekong acts as the border between Laos and Thailand. Along this reach, the Annamese Cordillera is visible on the eastern horizon. On the Thai side of the river, a level plain unfolds for as far as the eye can see.
Before leaving Laos, the Mekong skirts to the west of the town of Pakse. The river here is simply beautiful. Its sprawling, mile-wide channel courses through a lush land of rice paddies and palm trees. To the east of Pakse, timbered hills quickly climb to the Bolovens Plateau. Immediately south of Pakse, the river swings to the southeast. After passing a tall hill on the right bank, the Mekong disappears into the wild lands of south-eastern Laos.
Soon after entering Cambodia, the Great River cascades over a series of waterfalls. North of Kratie, the Mekong thrashes and foams through the Samboc Rapids. Deep-draft river boats can travel all the way from the river’s mouth to Samboc Rapids but can go no further.
In the early 1860s, French businessmen in Saigon envisioned the Mekong as a water route, linking their colony in Cochinchina to Laos and southern China. But the Samboc Rapids thwarted their imperial plans.
Samboc Rapids explains why south-eastern Laos and north-eastern Cambodia remained two of the most biologically-diverse regions in Southeast Asia up until the late twentieth century. The rapids made it difficult for profiteers to access the area, which saved the forests and wildlife from destruction. Unfortunately, modernity is currently reducing the rapids to rubble. The Chinese are blasting a channel through the rapids, which will open the region to international commerce and deliver a death sentence to what remains of its biological diversity.
Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital city. It is located at the convergence of four rivers – the Mekong, Prek Thnot, Bassac, and Tonle Sap. Located in the heart of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap is the most interesting of Indochina’s rivers. It is actually more of a lake than a river. When the Mekong is at low stage, the Tonle Sap flows from northwest to southeast. But when the Mekong goes into flood, the high waters of the bigger river act as a dam of sorts, blocking the southeast flow of the Tonle Sap and forcing it back upon itself. As the Mekong pushes higher, it pours its waters into the Tonle Sap, causing lake levels to rise from an average of 6.5 feet to 32 feet. The high inflows push the Tonle Sap far beyond its low water boundaries. The lake normally covers an area of 1,042 square miles, but in the monsoon season it can grow to over 6,000 square miles. When the Mekong drops below flood stage, the Tonle Sap reverses course again and its waters drain back into the Mekong.
Because of the lower Mekong’s increased depth, Phnom Penh is a deep-water port. Ocean-going vessels regularly dock there. Not far from Phnom Penh, the Mekong makes a sharp turn to the east. Once it crosses the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, it enters its delta and spreads out into several narrow channels, known to the Vietnamese as the Song Cuu Long or Nine Dragons.