The name “Mekong” evokes images of a broad, brown river coursing among green seas of rice through the heart of Southeast Asia. But it is more than a body of moving water; it is Southeast Asia’s lifeline, binding together diverse nations and cultures.
Tumbling down from the snowy peaks of the Tibetan Plateau before flowing majestically to the torpid South China Sea, the Mekong River has provided sustenance, served as a highway to a wider world, and been a powerful symbol in daily rites and rituals.
On its 4,400-km. journey, this liquid thread binds together the fortunes of six nations, rising in China’s Qinghai province, slicing through Tibet and Yunnan, past Myanmar and Thailand, and on through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before completing its long run in the sea. The world’s 11th-longest river has shaped the geography and cultures of each of these countries. More importantly, it has witnessed a variety of permutations on common ethnic and cultural themes.
The term “Mekong” embraces more than its main stem. Through its multitude of tributaries, it reaches deep into the countryside, away from both banks. Comprising watersheds and tributaries, its basin touches the lives of more than 60 million people of dozens of ethnicities. Moreover, this river system’s water not only nourishes crops and provides fish, it is a roadstead into remote regions, linking them with faraway towns and the world beyond its mouth.
The Mekong’s paramount role is that of provider of the staples of life. The foundation stones of the cuisines of all six countries is rice and fish, which grow abundantly in the lands watered by the great river system. In addition to rice, the river in the Delta is a gigantic hydroponics pond where waterborne vegetables are grown and sold in floating markets that dot the estuary.
Fishermen in all countries drop nets and hooks into its waters. Until recently when they perceived a need to curtail fishing in order to save the species, Thai and Lao villagers caught plaa buk, the giant catfish the size of a cow. The largest freshwater catfish ever caught, was netted by northern Thailand fishermen in 2005. It measured 2.7 meters long and weighed 646 kg.
Cambodia’s Tonle Sap—considered an element of this great river system because it is linked to Mekong by the Tonle Sap River passing Phnom Penh—is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. It also holds the world’s highest concentration of freshwater fish. Many are migratory so are caught and eaten through Cambodia and Vietnam.
Common to all fishermen are both the techniques used to land the fish as well as the methods to cook them. Boiled, grilled, fried and laden with spices, fish dishes can be found all along the river’s course. Several cooking techniques have survived since antiquity. Watch a Cambodian villager grilling small fish pressed between two bamboo sticks and held over an open fire, and then view the same scene etched into the stones of the Bayon 1,000 years before.
Given the river’s enormous seasonal rise and fall, it is not surprising that riparian inhabitants build houses as much as 15 meters above it. While villagers do erect houses on stilts, seldom do they place homes on pontoons, so great is its flow. Only when it slows in the Tonle Sap and as it approaches the South China Sea do people brave its waters by living in floating homes.
The river has served as a roadstead, but 19th-century dreams of turning it into a River Road to China were thwarted by the Khone Falls on the border between Laos and Cambodia. A natural fault line has created a river that broadens to 14-km. wide in floodtide, dotted it with 4,000 Islands, and created a series of thundering waterfalls. At its heart is Khone Prapheng, Southeast Asia’s biggest waterfalls; during the monsoon, more water flows over it than plummets down Niagara Falls.
With this obstacle and the sandbars which appear when the river falls during the hot season, it once took 37 days and nine boat changes to travel from Saigon to Luang Prabang. That the exact numbers is known suggests that despite the difficulties, it was considered worthwhile to spend the time and effort in order to reap the riches of the interior.
The river, long an obstacle to land travel, is now being bridged, enabling travelers—foreign and local—to experience the beauties of the region. Moreover, commercial boats now ply the river, carrying travelers from Phnom Penh to the Mekong Delta and Saigon, from Phnom Penh to the Lao border, the length of Laos, and from northern Thailand to southern China.
Indicative of its vast diversity is the fact that it has no common name. The derivation of the name “Mekong” is unknown, unless it was borrowed from the name of the Sankritic goddess Mae Khongka who inhabited India’s Ganges River. The Tibetans call it the Dza Chu or “River of Rocks”. The Chinese know it as the Lancang Jiang or “Turbulent River”. To the Thais and Laos, it is the Nam Khong or “Serpentine River”. Cambodians know it as the Tonle Thom or “Great River”. The Vietnamese portion bears two names, Song Lon (Great River) and the Song Cuu Long (Nine Dragons River) for the nine distributaries into which it divides as it flows through the Mekong Delta to the sea.
What is common to all is its importance in riparian cultures. The religion of the Mekong region is Buddhism, with Mahayana adherents on either end—in Tibet and China, and in Vietnam—and Theravadans in the middle in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Buddhist monasteries face it and monks bathe in it; many monks make their morning alms pilgrimage by boat.
The symbols associated with it are common. Nagas, the powerful, mythical, dragon-like serpent is believed to inhabit the waters along its entire course. Those same nagas decorate the balustrades and eaves of Buddhist temple. Lotuses, symbols of the purity of the Buddhist scriptures, grow in its quieter portions.
Songkran, the traditional New Year, is observed each April on and near the river. Celebrants in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia gather on its banks to toss water at friends to bless them and cool them during the intense heat of the day. In October, village men all along the river launch longboats on the Mekong, challenging each other to races, cheered on by thousands of villagers on the riverbanks. In the winter, Buddhists carry river sand to monastery courtyards, replacing sand which has been carried away by the rains of the previous months.
There are numerous beliefs about the mythical creatures that lie just below the surface, waiting to trip the unwary or to bring them the river’s bounty. The best-known are the fireballs said to be launched the nagas lurking beneath the Mekong dividing Thailand and Laos. The spectacle has been viewed by 100,000 people, gathered to witness the miracle.
The Mekong’s moods and rhythms are also mirrored in textiles of the region, the sinewy lines mimicking both the waves and the bends of the great river.
In short, not only does the Mekong flow through the heart of Southeast Asia, it courses though the lives of 60 million people who regard it as vital to their existence.