If you’ve decided you want to change things up for your next vacation, a cruise is probably a great way to do so. You’ll get to experience a lot of things you don’t usually see along the way, and you combine always being on the move with the fact that you aren’t switching hotels on the daily.
And when it comes to all the cruises you can enjoy, one of the first ones you should check out is a Vietnam river cruise that takes you along the Mekong river and through the Tonle Sap lake. These are places you just must experience, so let’s see why you should absolutely be going on a Mekong cruise.
The Mekong River is Stunning
The Mekong river has been the home of a lot of civilizations that have left their cultural marks over the years. When you go on a river cruise that explores the river, you get to experience all of them, and you’ll learn a lot. For example, the Khmer empire’s dominance in the area lasted for six centuries, and many remains are still obvious today. There’s also the prominence of Theravada Buddhism in both Cambodia and Vietnam, too, which is something you’ll definitely want to learn about.
But there’s just so much more than pure culture and religion along the Mekong. The lower Mekong basin is a cradle for nature, with a wealth of fish that feeds families that live there, and a host of large waterbirds, some of which you just can’t see elsewhere. With around 850 recorded species of freshwater fish, the Mekong river is second only to the Amazon river, which is a fascinating fact.
If you move out of the water, and onto the ground, you’ll find lengths of rice fields you can explore, and among them, a lot of wildlife species hide. There is also the Brahman ox, which is a beef cattle that works the rice fields. This is not much of a surprise, though, because Cambodia is one of the main producers of rice in the world, and over 70% of the population relies on agriculture.
Now, all this is nice, but the main reason why you want to do this on a river cruise is the ability for local excursions. You get to experience things up close that will bring the culture close to you such as the local markets that allow you to enjoy the local flavors. A great example is the Chau Doc, a floating market where people hang their wares on long bamboo poles in boats. If you’re looking for something specific, you can see it from far away. But that’s far from everything – the river cruise excursions really offer quite a bit. And then you get to the Tonle Sap lake.
The Breathing Lake
The Tonle Sap lake isn’t just Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, but it’s also a natural phenomenon like no other. For most of the year, you have the Mekong river that flows southwards, from the Tibetan highlands. When this is happening, the Tonle Sap water empties into it. But from May to October, the monsoon winds from the southwest bring increased rainfall, and the Mekong starts to swell. By June, the water of the river has risen to a level where it forces the Tonle Sap river to flow backwards, filling the lake back up with water.
This means that the river is basically the only river in the world that reverses its direction twice per year. It is these currents that the Khmer made use of in order to transport stones that were needed to build temples and monuments – the Angkor Wat. Come November, there isn’t that much pressure on the Mekong river, and the Tonle Sap river reverses its course once again. This is when you have Phnom Penh’s Water Festival, which lasts for three days.
How much of a difference does this make to the lake? Well, given that the Tonle Sap lake is its only outlet, the surface area grows, making the lake four times its size. It goes from 1,050 square miles to over 4,500 square miles at its peak. And it’s during this period that the Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.
The Floating Villages of the Tonle Sap Lake
The breathing lake itself is a phenomenon attractive to tourists. The sheer size of the life-giving waters of Mekong and Tonle Sap offers a lot of exciting experiences to tourists and a chance for them to immerse completely in the true Cambodian lifestyle and culture. The best way to witness all these is by paying a visit to some of the so-called floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake.
As mentioned before, these waters are the source of life and wealth and many Cambodians decided to not only live near the water but in the water. To achieve this, they have constructed stilt houses that float just above the water and form communities of small floating villages. When the water level rises these houses look like they are literally floating just above the water and during the dry season when the water levels are low the giant stilts are visible and people use ladders to get down in the water.
Among the famous floating villages that can be visited by tourists, as being easier to approach are Prek Toal, Kampong Phluk, Chong Kneas, and Kampong Khleang. Visiting some of these villages allows tourists to witness the daily life on the water. There are floating restaurants in some of the villages and small shops. In some of the villages, unfortunately, poverty can also be witnessed. Scams performed on tourists and children beggars are common. However, one can support the local communities by paying for a small boat tour around the village and shop for souvenirs and food at the village’s shops and restaurants.
It’s a Cruise You Must Experience
Pair the beauties of the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river with all the things you’ll get to experience on the shore excursions, and a Mekong river cruise is just something you must do at some point in your life. If you’ve been debating a river cruise as your next vacation, this is the one you will certainly enjoy!
A Mekong river cruise is ideal for those that like long trips. As the Mekong flows through several countries the most commonly chosen route is traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam on a Mekong cruise. One gets to witness the most scenic views, eat great local food, and learn a lot about both Vietnamese and Cambodian rich culture and traditions.