Photos on the Mekong River

I’ve posted (rather a lot of) photos I took during the time we spent on the Mekong River to my Picasa Web site.

The Mekong River is often overlooked (at least in the West), but it really is one of the world’s great rivers. According to The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, New York, 2000), the Mekong River is the world’s twelfth longest river, traveling either 4350 km (2700 miles) or 4800 km (3000 miles), depending on the authority you consult, in its journey from its source on the high plateau of Tibet to its delta in the South China Sea in Vietnam. The Mekong’s waters form parts of the boundaries of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In fact, the only portions of the river that are not international boundaries are a long stretch in China, a couple of short stretches in Laos, and the delta in Vietnam.

Measured by volume rate of flow of water, it is the world’s tenth largest river. In Cambodia, the river has an interesting interaction with Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. During the dry season, the lake drains to the Mekong through the Tonle Sap River which intersects the Mekong at Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. But during the wet season, the Mekong’s water level rises and the Tonle Sap River actually reverses direction, filling up the lake. This annual rise and fall of the lake level is responsible for Tonle Sap Lake’s incredibly rich fish production that provides more than 60% of the protein intake of the Cambodian people.

It has been and continues to be a source of international tension. The rice farming region of the Mekong Delta had long been occupied by the Khmer people of Cambodia, but has been part of Vietnam for the last three hundred years. According to one of our Vietnamese guides (his story was probably much influenced by the Vietnamese state-controlled press, though see the Wikipedia article that generally agrees with his assessment) threats by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot to reclaim the delta for Cambodia led to the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in December, 1978.  Looking to the future, there are grave concerns by the countries on the lower Mekong about China’s growing use of the Mekong to generate hydroelectric power. This threatens other uses of the river downstream and China has not been receptive to entreaties for  international consultation and control of the Mekong.

Another draw of visiting the Mekong is that it has been a long time since Westerners were allowed access to this region. After the US exited from Vietnam, all the countries except Thailand that share the Mekong had communist governments with unfriendly relations with the West (and often with each other!). Time passes and the prospect of tourist dollars prompted Vietnam to open up the Mekong Delta. Cambodia and Laos are also more open to visitors than in the past, but tourist facilities are not very developed along the Mekong in either country, with the exception of Phnom Penh.

The photos, like most of my posted photos, are in rough chronological order. We left Saigon by SUV on September 26th for the drive to My Tho, Vietnam. Along the way, we stopped at a Buddhist temple (Vin Trang, according to our itinerary) built in 1849, views of which comprise the first set of pictures. At My Tho, we boarded a boat for a ride up the Mekong with our guide silhouetted against the gray sky as we raced up the river. The boats on the Mekong have distinctive eyes painted in their prows in accordance with local superstition. We then landed at a village that made coconut based candy, very similar to a taffy. (Sadly, there are no leftovers from the two sacks we bought.) A short walk found us at a fruit farm and Kris took lessons in carrying fruit on a pole in case she needs a new profession when she gets home. We had a delicious lunch with live folk music and then boarded a narrow canoe to be paddled along a palm-lined canal, the Vam Xep, eventually emerging back onto the Mekong where our river boat was docked. This gave me a great opportunity to take closeup pictures of our boat-(men and women).  We then returned to My Tho and were driven to Can Tho, Vietnam to spend the night. (Hmm. Good political slogan once democracy returns to Vietnam: “Yes, we Can Tho.”)

The next day saw us take a boat further up-river to the Cai Rang floating market. The floating market is just as advertised. When a village has a harvest of fruit, they load it into a boat and the boat anchors at the floating market. To advertise their wares, they hang one example of each fruit they are selling from a tall pole. Generally smaller boats of buyers then tie up alongside the bigger boats and the haggling begins. It was clearly not staged for the benefit of tourists. Our boat generally stayed out of the way and the only people who tried to sell us anything were the two little boys with the cans of soft drinks. We went up one side of the anchored boats, then down the other side, and then we returned the way we came, back to Can Tho. From there, we were driven to Chau Doc, Vietnam where we stayed at a very nice hotel, the Victoria Chau Doc (this is NOT my photo).

The next morning saw us on a fast motor launch. First I have to explain that at Phnom Penh, the water appears to flow in mathematically impossible ways. As I said before, Phnom Penh lies at the convergence of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong River. What took me longer to figure out, because I thought it physically impossible, is that Phnom Penh also lies at the divergence of two rivers, the Mekong River and the Bessac River. So, topologically, the water flow forms a giant X at Phnom Penh, flowing in on two arms and out on two arms, the latter seemingly impossible. Now Chau Doc actually lies on the Bessac River, but there is no port of entry into Cambodia on the Bessac, so our launch first had to go downstream to the (next) confluence of the Mekong and the Bessac and then turn upstream for the final run to Phnom Penh.

The border crossing was kind of interesting. The border was actually kind of hard to make out on the water, but our captain knew where to land the boat on the Thai side of the border. (I hesitate to think what would have happened had I been driving the boat!) Our guide collected our passports and disappeared into a little building. Armed men milled about. Then the guide returned and the boat moved to another landing about 100 m upstream where armed men in different uniforms milled about. This time we had to get out and bring all of our belongings. Though we never did follow through with getting our Cambodian visas in advance, we were granted tourist visas on the spot with no problem.

Though the pictures are a little fuzzy because of the distances involved, one can see several exotic Buddhist temples along the shores of the Mekong once one crosses over into Cambodia. There is another interesting change at the border. On the Vietnam side of the border, the Mekong is rather densely lined with houses and businesses. But on the Cambodian side, the river bank is only sparsely occupied. The last picture shows the rather magical, Disney-esque, temple that dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh.

This is the portion of our journey which brought me fame and fortune. Well, fame anyway, but no fortune. And really not all that much of fame either, if it comes down to that. If you Google “How to pronounce Phnom Penh” you will find my blog entry on the subject in the number two position (as of last Friday, anyway). And since the  number one search result does not actually answer the question, one can make the case that my blog is now the world’s foremost authority on the pronunciation of Phnom Penh. Scary, isn’t it?

Tim

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1 Comment

  1. Elliott said,

    December 27, 2008 at 5:54 am

    I just checked and you are still #2 when you search for that phrase but if you input “How do you pronounce Phnom Penh” then you’re only #4. 😛


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