Cruising the River Mekong
South East Asia’s magical Mekong River emerges from the Tibetan Plateau in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve and winds elegantly through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Covering a distance of just under 5,000 kilometres, the Mekong cuts through some of South East Asia’s most dynamic cities and weaves gently along the bucolic banks of the region’s rural heartlands. On a Mekong river cruise, immerse yourself in the connecting cultures found along the river, reflecting a mixture of Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese influences and the diverse customs of the multi-ethnic river communities. The Mekong basin is second only to the Amazon River as the world’s richest area of biodiversity. The river is bursting with unique wildlife which inhabits the waterway itself and the surrounding areas, including the Mekong giant catfish, the smooth-coated otter, the Siamese crocodile and the Irrawaddy dolphin. An unspoiled natural sanctuary, it is no wonder the name Mekong translates as ‘Mother of All Rivers’.
Why choose Mekong river cruises
Cruising down the Mekong River provides travellers with the opportunity to drop anchor in some of South East Asia’s most majestic nations, visiting the big-hitting cities and the lesser-known towns all in one comfortable and efficient boat trip. Cruisers on a Mekong river cruise can disembark in the lively metropolises of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Vientiane in Laos and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, all of which offer fascinating insights into the contemporary, cultural and historical delights of urban Asia. Country bumpkins on Mekong river cruise holidays will find pleasure in exploring the more rustic areas along the Mekong such as the sleepy river towns of Chau Doc and Sa Dec in the Mekong Delta. There are more than enough cruise lines to choose from, with companies including Riviera Travel, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways and Viking River Cruises tailoring their routes to reveal all of the Mekong River’s magnificent treasures.
Find your ideal Mekong river cruise
Mekong river cruises: Countries of the Mekong River
After 50 years of military oppression, Myanmar is finally opening its doors to foreign tourists who are keen to discover what this mystical nation has to offer. This enigmatic country is slowly becoming a superb tourist destination, packed to the brim with extravagant gold-gilded temples, ethereal lakes and towering mountains. The Irrawaddy River slices the country in half, running through Myanmar’s most exciting cities such as Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. Don't miss out on Myanmar on your next luxury Mekong cruise.
Enclosed by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, the landlocked nation of Laos is covered in craggy limestone cliffs, steamy jungles and quaint old colonial towns. Laos is generally overlooked by tourists venturing through South East Asia, but this captivating country has just as much to offer as its crowd-pleasing neighbours. Whether you’re looking to trek through a shimmering rice paddy, ride through the forests on a native elephant or admire the architectural beauty of the country’s charming towns, Laos truly has something for everyone on cruises down the Mekong River.
Thailand is teeming with ornate and to some, possibly even garish, temples rooted in Theravada Buddhism – the country’s primary religion. The agricultural identity of Thailand’s rural regions, filled with rice paddies, humid forests and small villages, lies in stark contrast with the hedonistic, cosmopolitan metropolis of Bangkok. Distinctive again from the rest of the country are southern Thailand's verdant tropical islands, surrounded by azure waters and glistening coral reefs. For sun, sea, food and culture on a luxury Mekong cruise, look no further than twinkling Thailand.
Cambodia remains an energetic and highly spirited country despite its sombre history under the notorious Khmer Rouge. Reminders of this cruel regime can be found at the Killing Fields in Pnom Penh, which offer an uncensored picture of Cambodia’s difficult past. On your cruise down the Mekong River, you will also find beautiful religious buildings and monuments strewn across the country’s gorgeous landscapes, reaching a climax with the spectacular temple complex of Angkor Wat.
Vietnam is South East Asia’s most hospitable nation, and a must-see on a Mekong river cruise, stapled in the north by the frenetic capital of Hanoi and in the south by the skyscraper-filled city of Ho Chi Minh – formerly Saigon. The eclectic historical and cultural buildings and monuments of Vietnam reflect the country’s complex history. French colonial influences can be seen in the architecture in some of Vietnam’s towns, while ancient temples reflect Chinese and Hindu elements. Relics from the Vietnam War with the United States are also dotted around the country, most notably at the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh.
Mekong river cruises: Ports of the Mekong River
Positioned at the heart of the Golden Triangle – the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers – is the serene Kengtung. This quaint little town is relatively isolated from the rest of the country and is surrounded by charming local villages inhabited by native ethnic groups. For an unforgettable and authentic taste of Myanmar on your Mekong river cruise, schedule in a visit to Kengtung’s friendly Wa, Shan, Akha and Lahu hill tribes, during which you can learn about their traditional dress, animist beliefs and rural lifestyle. Rising high above the town you’ll also notice the iconic Standing Buddha which reaches a height of more than 18 metres. As you make your way towards this opulent landmark, you will also pass by the gorgeous Naung Tung Lake. Embrace Kengtung’s natural beauty by climbing up the unusual Lone Hill Tree or taking a dip at the Pin Tauk Waterfall on the outskirts of Kengtung. The Kengtung Hot Springs are another popular attraction amongst locals and tourists alike and make for a fantastic afternoon of relaxing in warm mineral waters while on a Mekong river cruise.
Also located within the spectacular Golden Triangle, Chang Rai is the northernmost major city in Thailand and one of the country’s oldest settlements. It is a laid-back provincial town boasting an impressive collection of historical and cultural monuments. As the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Rai still has strong roots in the Tai ethnic culture. Pay your respects at the life-size monument of the Lanna King Mengrai the Great, the city’s founder, before becoming engrossed in the history of Chiang Rai at the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park or the Oub Kham Museum. Wander through the museum’s tiled pathways to find five exhibitions rooms displaying Lanna tapestries, ancient Buddha images, tribal artefacts and the splendid golden throne of Chiang Tung. The city is also packed full of lavish, gold-gilded temples such as Wat Klang Wieng, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong. If you have time off of your Mekong river cruise, venture over to the small river town of Chiang Saen which is about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai. Another ancient Lanna stronghold, Chiang Saen is famed for its many temples and old city walls.
Honey-hued Siem Reap is the gateway city to the extraordinary Angkor Thom temple complex. Visitors come here in droves to explore this enchanting ancient site where dazzling pink- and orange-coloured skies create an exquisite backdrop to the magnificent Angkor Wat as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Angkor Thom is enormous and it is almost impossible to see every temple in a single day. Look out for Ta Prohm temple on an excursion from your Mekong river cruise holiday which is overgrown with trees and was famously used as the setting for Tomb Raider before making your way to the Bayon Temple with its gigantic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara carved into the rock. Although Angkor Thom is Siem Reap’s crown-jewel, the city itself has a lot to offer. Hop on a boat on the massive Tonlé Sap lake and visit the floating village of Kompong Khleang which pulses with colourful local life. Also on your Mekong river cruise, discover the giant reclining Buddha at Phnom Kulen National Park, where you will also notice orange-robed monks cooling off in the park’s sparkling waterfalls.
Phnom Penh has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of war and revolution to once again earn its nickname as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. The city has taken its solemn history in its stride, offering travellers the opportunity to learn about the terrors of Pol Pot’s regime at the Tuol Sleng Museum, which was once a prison, and at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where more than 17,000 detainees were executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. You will feel your hairs stand on end as you walk through this chilling orchard and see the memorial stupa displaying more than 8000 skulls of actual victims. For a less poignant experience, admire the architecture at the Royal Palace which has been decorated in classic Khmer style and pop your head into the Silver Pagoda which stands adjacent to the palace. Discover the Khmer arts scene at the National Museum of Cambodia which bursts with intricate sculptures and look around the city’s two most beautiful temples of Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom. Don't miss out on these incredible experiences on your Mekong river cruise holiday.
Unveil the real Cambodia in the charming sun-drenched streets of Kampong Cham. Lined with brightly coloured Chinese chophouses and grand colonial buildings, this mellow little town is the perfect escape location from the bustling streets of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. The gleaming waters of the Mekong River lap the town’s grassy banks and merry local tuk-tuk drivers bump around the town unhindered by dense traffic. Walk along the rickety Ko Paen bridge which is built by residents across the Mekong River in the dry season to connect the town of Kampong Cham with the families on Koh Paen island. Stray into the Kro La Commune on the outskirts of Kampong Cham to find the hills of Srey and Pros which balance pretty pagodas and temples on their summits. Not far from the town, you’ll find a small temple complex at Banteay Prey Nokor which resembles a miniature version of Angor Wat and is home to the 11th- century Angkorian temple Nokor Wat. Fulfill your travel dreams on your next Mekong river cruise.
Ho Chi Minh
The centre of culture and commerce in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is a dizzying, high rise city where ancient pagodas and bustling markets sit nestled amongst tall, glassy skyscrapers and stylish hotels. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City was the capital of South Vietnam during the infamous Vietnam War and was renamed after Vietnam’s reunification, in honour of the country’s, now deceased, victorious communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The War Remnants Museum brings the country’s complex history to life, hosting collections on the brutality of the war, and Reunification Palace marks the spot at which the first communist tanks invaded Saigon in 1975. You can learn more about the architectural history of Ho Chi Minh City at the HCMC Museum and the Central Post Office, and art lovers will enjoy viewing the gorgeous paintings and sculptures in the Fine Arts Museum. If you love art, or just want a taste of culture in Ho Chi Minh, make sure to immerse yourself in the environment on river cruises on the Mekong River.
Luang Prabang translates to ‘City of the Golden Buddha Phra Bang’ and is, unsurprisingly, home to a vast collection of Buddha statues cast in bronze, gold and silver. Off your Mekong river cruise, walk through the stately entrance hall of the Royal Palace Museum, the former residence of King Sisavang Vong which depicts a blend of French-colonial and Lao architecture, to see the 83cm tall gold-alloy Buddha after whom the city is named. Wander at a leisurely pace around the palace to find yet more unusual statues and exhibits, such as the iconic Floating Buddha and the Royal Palace Car Collection. The Royal Palace is also home to some exquisite gardens, in the corner of which you will find the towering Wat Ho Pha Bang – a multi-roofed pagoda that will one day house the magnificent Prabang golden Buddha. As evening falls, head up the 100-metre-tall hill to Phu Si to enjoy astonishing views of the sunset.
Vientiane offers a seductive mix of picturesque boutique hotels, delectable French restaurants, a thriving café culture, ornate Buddhist temples and authentic street markets. Without a doubt, the most striking attraction in the city is the Cope visitor centre which is a rehab clinic and free museum focused on supporting the victims of the United States’ bombing missions that discharged thousands of deadly ‘bombies’ across Laos’ countryside every eight minutes, 24-hours a day, for nine years straight. It is estimated that around 30 per cent of the bombs failed to detonate at the time and are therefore at risk of exploding at any point to this day. The Patuxai Victory Monument in Vientiane is hard to miss, as it stands impressively in the centre of the town and resembles Paris’ Arc de Triomphe but with a flair of Lao. If you’re not yet feeling templed-out, make your way around some of Vientiane’s mesmerising stupas such as Pha That Luang and Wat Si Saket. The eccentric Buddhist and Hindu Xieng Khuan sculpture which rests proudly in the middle of the majestic Buddha Park is another must-see. Don't miss this city full of both history and culture on your Mekong river cruise.
Known as Vietnam’s ‘rice bowl’, the Mekong Delta is patchwork of luscious green fields and rolling hills that are divided up by the region’s innumerable waterways. When you enter the Mekong Delta on your cruise down the Mekong river, you are truly entering a deeply rural part of the country where cone-hatted farmers farm fruit and sugar cane, and multi-coloured boats forming floating markets drift along the canals and streams. The most popular of these is the Cai Be floating market, where local traders tout their wares at all hours of the day and organise their produce into artistic-looking arrangements in order to attract more customers. Close your eyes and let your ears ring with the cacophony of voices bartering loudly alongside singing rowers and the splash of paddles. On the banks of the Mekong waterways, you will come across a multitude of small riverfront towns and rustic settlements such as My Tho, Ben Tre, Can Tho, Chau Doc and Sa Dec.
Mekong river cruises: Best things to do on the Mekong River
Get lost in the markets
During your cruise down the Mekong River, you will come across vibrant markets, both floating and stationary. The night markets in Luang Prabang and Vientiane are particularly spectacular, while the Mekong Delta’s Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets really are like no other. Chiang Rai offers a mix of flea markets and night bazaars, where you can buy a range of goods - from fried insects to local handicrafts.
Take a cooking course
Get to know the varying cuisines along the Mekong River by taking a cooking course in one of the main cities. In Siem Reap, you can make your own deep-fried spring rolls and amok curry at the authentic Paper Tiger cooking class. Lily’s Secret Garden is another popular option for perfecting your culinary skills. In Ho Chi Minh city, try out a class at Lua’s Kitchen or Grain Cooking Studio and in Luang Prabang check out the Bamboo Tree Organic Garden and Cooking School. Take advantage of the great locations along your Mekong river cruise and try out many cuisines that you can go home and cook yourself.
Go on a bicycle tour
A bicycle tour is one of the best ways to see as much of the stunning Mekong Delta as possible, particularly as the area is so vast. Cycle through colourful orchards and fertile rice fields with companies such as Cruise n’Bike Tours and Mekong Eyes Cruises. Venture off the beaten track through small villages, quaint temples and along leafy canals before returning to your Mekong river cruise holiday.
Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels
Not far from Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll come across the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is a remarkable secret network of narrow under tunnels constructed by Viet Cong fighters during the Vietnam War. Visitors are able to climb down into some of the non-restricted tunnels and experience what life might have been like for a guerrilla fighter in the Vietnam War. These tunnels were used as protection from US bombing and as supply and communication routes. History lovers will want to stop here on their Mekong river cruise!
Get a massage
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are all renowned for offering fantastic massages by experienced locals. Khmer massages rely on the body’s natural moisture and do not use oils, while Thai massages use the body’s pressure points to eliminate areas of tension. Visit Panmanee Thai Massage in Chiang Rai or Soma Spa in Phnom Penh for a relaxing spa experience. In Vietnam, you can also try Cupping Therapy which is designed to provide muscular relief. Try it all out on your next Mekong river cruise.
TUI River Cruises launches Nile cruises onboard new ship, TUI Al Horeya
TUI River Cruises new discount code to discover the beauty of Europe this summer for less
A-Rosa becomes first river cruise line to offer swimming lessons
Grape Expectations: A Post-Lockdown Bordeaux River Cruise with CroisiEurope
Return to the Rivers: The River Cruises to Look Forward to in 2021
Join Aled Jones MBE On An Incredible APT Rhine River Cruise In 2021
Champagne & Castles: A Magnificent River Cruise Through Europe
Châteaux, Rivers & Wine: Why A River Cruise From Bordeaux Is The Ultimate Lockdown Antidote
How Avalon Waterways Is Leading The Way With River Cruise Health & Safety
Beyond Budapest To The Black Sea: Why A Danube River Cruise Is Perfect Post-Lockdown