On the Mekong



A Slowboat Trip on the Mekong River

The film describes a two days journey downwards the Mekong River on a slowboat from Huayxay in the north of Laos to Luang Prabang, an ancient, a bit mystical town with a longer history of regional importance. The scenery is so much back in time, that you could imagine yourself back in the 19th century. It's all green and mountainous, no roads, no electric wires, no cities. Huayxay and Chiang Khong, seen at the beginning, are small places with a few thousand inhabitants. Luang Prabang itself is not a big city either. On the whole way down there are only a few hamlets seen on the riverbanks. Most of them have no electricity. Only the stopover in Ban Pak Beng, which consists of one road and a few guesthouses and restaurants for tourists, gives at least a little bit of a contrast.

Since the above was written and my latest journey on this Mekong section is a gap of 20 months only. Nevertheless are the changes at this section of the Mekong River huge - the laid back atmosphere and the nature is more and more sacrified for the sake of the road and construction building industries. For the state of the section in March 2013 look at 'The Mekong between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang'.

Published on January 25th, 2012

Last update on April 1st, 2013


Video: 'On the Mekong'

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

On the Mekong

Running time: 14:44min, July 2011

Practical hint:
The quality is fine, but the file is 115 MB big. That means a certain download time. Best you press the "Start" button and, after the download starts, press "Pause". Then give it some time and you will be able to watch the movie without interruptions.

The Mekong River is among the biggest rivers on earth. That means length, widths, water volume, littorial countries, people living from it... It's also the river with the second richest biodiversity in the world, right after the Amazon in south America. But more than that the Mekong is a really particular river because it's still relatively untouched. That's because it's not passable over long distances. When the French colonialists entered Indochina in the 1860s they were very interested in getting a long shipping route from the coast of the South Chinese Sea up the whole way to inner China. But it wasn't possible. Too many rocks block the way, parts of the river are too wide and therefore to shallow to come over it with big transport boats. At the border of nowadays Laos/Cambodia are waterfalls. It's also not easy to maneuvre a ship on the Mekong. Many accidents happend over the time.

For the river it's a blessing. Instead of being highly industrialized the Mekong remains a quiet, big and widely unchanged river in it's old, natural state as it was since thousands of years.

But it's not all sunshine here. The Giant Mekong Catfish is almost or already extinct, due to the interruption of it's migration route up to Lake Erih in Yunnan, China. The way is blocked by four dams now, four more are planned or already under construction. In China are also rocks blasted to make the waterway passable for ships. That hurts the ecology much.

In the Vietnam War Laos and Cambodia were bombed back to stone age. Therefore the development of these countries delayed over decades. Now things change and they come up in development, supported by foreign capital. That threatens the nature, here the Mekong very much. For the reason of making an income by exporting electricity, Laos already started the construction of a megadam at Sanyabury. The consequences of this project will be huge. Also it's just the beginning of a series of dozens of dams following. For more information about the dams, have a look here: Damming the Mekong.


The Situation on the Slowboat

The tourist boats from Huayxai to Luang Prabang and vice versa are normally the only overcrowded boats I see on the Mekong. All the other boats of the same kindare never filled up or even crammed with people.

So, the situation on board is that the most of the passengers are Westerners, normally younger ones in their twenties or thirties. A certain part of the passengers are Laotions, but they don't go all the way on the boat - they are taken or dropped at certain points, say hamlets on the way.

A part of the passengers starts drinking from an early point on, short after departure. From the beginning on frequently cigarettes are smoked, so that all over the drive there is cigarette smoke in the air. In the past many Westerners liked to climb up onto the roof of the boat. But since they are overestimating their skills, particularly when being drunk, many fell into the river. Now it's no more allowed to sit on the roof - what is a pity. From there one would have the best view around and could escape the crowded atmosphere downstairs. As more passengers climb the roof, as relaxter remains the situation downstairs.

The engine is as strong as noisy. Besides it produces the usual, unhealthy and avoidable clouds of black smoke. Since the Laotians have little to no skills in maintaining technical devices, the engines are generally in a bad state. Sitting in the back of the boat means being exposed to the heavy noise of the engine, the sometimes incredible smog, the people who go to the back of the boat for smoking cigarettes (the more addicted appear every twenty minutes or so); additionally are the toilets in the back of the boat, so that there are frequently passengers passing by, being on the toilet run.

Unsatisfying as always in Laos is also the way how the baggages are dealt with. Either they put them all in a chamber under deck - then it get pilled up and one has no control anymore over one's bag. Fragile content might be squeezed and damaged and it could be that there comes water inside the chamber.

If there is no space under deck (the boats are different), it all is collected at the back of the boat. There should actually be some space for people who want to stand up and stretch their legs. But no, it's all blocked with bags. Also the way to the toilet is usually blocked or at least half-blocked. The Westerners now, who want to smoke or to leave their seats are going to the back and start squatting in the piles of bags. I saw Westerners sleeping on top of some twenty bags. If one has a computer or other fragile stuff inside one's bag - goodbye! I don't understand this mentality, but nobody cares for anything. The Laotions, of course, are not any better. If they handle bags, they treat them as they were their usual rice bags or other rough peasant stuff.

Nevertheless is the boattrip really worth being done. It gives still unique glances into a river biology and surrounding which will be soon destroyed.

Rock Formations at the Mekong River between Chiang Khong and Ban Pak Beng by Asienreisender

Everywhere on the upper and middle part of the Mekong River appears a variety of stone formations. In rainy season they are under water, in dry season they appear more and more until the water level rises again. Here: between Chiang Khong/Huayxai and Ban Pak Beng. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Published on April 1st, 2013

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on January 25th, 2012

Last update on April 1st, 2013