My introduction to the Mekong River was a little jarring – rude for how early it was – yet it was a fitting departure from the dusty tumult of Phnom Penh, my favourite city in South East Asia. My partner and I had slept in and had to hasten towards our boat, waiting by the docks. We were lucky to find half a bum space squished in between people, animals and foodstuffs next to a rowdy smoke-spluttering engine.
The wind exploded across my face as we accelerated, disturbing the sleep still wedged in my eyes. I couldn’t hear above the rattling din, although shortly after we settled in my senses tuned into the surroundings. Fishermen and their children appeared so at ease on the river, their bronzed figures looking peaceful in the morning light.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, there’s also a whole slew of activity beneath the Mekong’s surface. In the 1970s, during the Indochina wars, a significant amount of unexploded ordinance sank on the Cambodian side of the river. Only since last year have Cambodian volunteers begun training – in league with the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, within the US State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs – to remove this hazardous material.
On a more positive note, the Mekong River is also home to some of the most varied biodiversity in the world, second only to the Amazon. Renown for its large fish, the Mekong contains the Siamese Carp, which can reach a whopping 3 metres in length and the Mekong Freshwater Stingray, which can span up to 4.3 metres. Other inhabitants include the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin, the Asian giant softshell turtle and over 20,000 plant species.
Humming above such activity, we arrived several hours later in Kratie, a small town perched on the banks of the river. After checking into our accommodation, I wandered off with my camera to a remote hill above a riverbank where I spied children taking lessons in a rudimentary school.
That afternoon, I stood by the river, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin I’d heard flopped about these parts. The sun began to set, changing shapes into darkness, space into gold. Still I saw no sign of this creature. My partner and I turned our thoughts to food, dining on the river, drinking beer and trying the local rice wine by moonlight – all for the price of a Mars bar I’d buy at home.
The next morning I went for a stroll, taking in houses on bamboo stilts, children staring from rice fields and fishing nets launching in the background. We then boarded our boat and crossed the border, one by one, into southern Laos.
Venturing into the widest part of the Mekong – which can span up to 14 kilometres in the wet season – we crossed into the area known as the 4,000 islands, which has exactly that. Many of these are inhabited and welcome visitors. We headed to the largest, Don Khon, a popular island housing a lively cascade known as Li Phi Falls which churns its way across handsome, craggy terrain.
Luck was on our side, for as we were heading back we spotted a couple of Irrawaddy dolphins leaping just metres from the boat, their rounded heads parting, then vanishing through the murky water. Feeling high, we decided to venture further north to celebrate our sighting with a drink in a small roadside bar – a place devoid of the English language and tourists. Here we sat and had a memorable tipple.
To life on the Mekong.