Mekong – The Most Famous River in Laos
Whenever you are in Laos, check out the Mekong River. It is the sixth-longest river in Asia, approximately 4,900 km. From its source, the waters of the Tibetan Plateau, the river runs through several South Asian countries before ending its journey in the South China Sea near Vietnam.
The Mekong is particularly important from a trade perspective, despite the fact that some parts of it are not suitable for traversing by ship due to rapids and a wealth of waterfalls. That said, in areas with calmer waters there are multiple established trade routes.
On top of that, Mekong is known for its rich biodiversity. The only river which surpasses it in that regard is the Amazon. The Mekong basin is home to tens of thousands of different plant species as well as all sorts of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. You’ll also find several hundred species of fish – freshwater fish such as catfish are native to the Mekong.
What makes this place particularly fascinating is the fact that many of the species which live in and around the Mekong are seemingly yet to be discovered. In 2009, over 100 new animal species were discovered. On the other hand, many species are now endangered. One example is the Siamese crocodile, which only inhabits certain parts of Cambodia and Laos these days.
So, if you’re thinking about taking a trip to Laos, you’ll want to spend some time visiting the Mekong River. We’re sure that you’ll be blown away by the breathtaking nature in and around this river. And conveniently, there are numerous cities and villages located not far from the river which you can also visit. In this article, we’ll tell you all about them and explain what we think makes them so interesting.
Towns Along the Mekong
Huay Xai is a border town in Laos. The Mekong is the only thing separating it from the neighboring country of Thailand. So, if you travel to Laos from Thailand, HuayXai will likely be the first city you’ll come across.
At one time, the only way to get to Thailand was by ferry. But the construction of the FourthThai–LaoFriendship Bridge in December 2013 provided a much nicer option. It allows you to get from Laos to Thailand really easily.
In HuayXai, the Mekong also plays an important role in connecting the town to numerous other cities in Laos. For instance, via the Mekong, you can travel by boat to towns such as PakBeng or LuangPrabang.
Walking through HuayXai at night is a particularly cool experience. It’s almost impossible to miss the many food stands where you can try all kinds of Lao specialties.
And as you’d expect from a city with a history as eventful as HuayXai, it boasts several interesting sights. One of them is the ruins of Fort Carnot, which the French built here in colonial times. The view you’ll get of the Mekong from the fort makes the journey into the ruins particularly worthwhile.
In HuayXai, you can also visit several awe-inspiring temples. The WatThadsuvannaPhakham – which you’ll find around three kilometers south of the city center – is particularly impressive. The gilded Buddhas in this colorful temple make Wat Thadsuvanna Phakham an absolute must on your journey along the Mekong.
Of course, this is only one of many Buddhist temples which you can visit in HuayXai. As well as the Wat Thadsuvanna Phakham, the WatKeophoneSavanthanaram, the WatKhonekeoXaiyaram and the WatJomKhaoManilat also have much to offer.
If you’re travelling from HuayXai in the direction of LuangPrabang, make sure to check out PakBeng – a small Lao village located on the banks of the Mekong. While it can’t quite match the architectural beauty of the other two cities, it does have its own charm.
Pak Beng comes highly recommended, particularly if you want to stop for a quick snack or meal. Among other things, here you’ll find a few very affordable restaurants and cafés which sell some delicious treats. As many of them are located on a hillside, you can admire the view of the Mekong while drinking a delicious coffee.
But PakBeng is also a great choice for a longer stay. The village is a great starting point for trips, and some can even be taken on a traditional wooden boat.
The market stands are just one of the highlights. You’ll find these on the main street. At these, you can buy all sorts of delicious snacks as well as fresh produce. The baguettes with a cheese or egg filling are particularly tasty.
It probably won’t surprise you to find out that PakBeng is also home to a Buddhist temple. The WatSinJongJaeng dates back to the beginning of the colonial era and is still in amazing condition. While the eaves were newly painted a while ago, you can still admire a faded mural on the eastern exterior of the prayer hall.
Sainyabuli is one of those travel destinations that may seem uninteresting at first, but the more you see, the more fascinating it gets. The city has some rather showy avenues, which are not actually home to very many sights. Most visitors mainly use the newly constructed roads to quickly get to the Elephant Conservation Center nearby.
You’ll definitely want to put this animal sanctuary on your bucket list. The easiest way to access it is via the Nam Tien Lake, which takes place nine kilometers south-west of the city. At the sanctuary, you’ll see elephants who have been given refuge from potential poachers.
If you want to stop off for some food after visiting the sanctuary, head to one of the local restaurants. We’re sure that the incredible view of the enormous rice fields extending as far as the horizon will make your meal even more spectacular.
And as you might expect from a Southeast Asian city, here you can also visit some amazing Buddhist temples and monasteries. One of the most interesting is the WatSibounheuang, which seems a little peculiar at first glance due to its lopsided stupa. Among other things, in this monastery you’ll find a reclining Buddha and a beautiful garden which houses the ruins of a temple which stood here until the 14th century.
Most of the Buddhist temples are located a little outside the city. If you’d rather visit a more central temple, then we recommend the WatSisavangvong. King SisavangVong built this temple at the same location where another much older temple once stood.
From Sainyabuli you can take a short trip to PakLai, one of the most bustling port towns on the Mekong. There are not, however, many historic buildings there. Most were built during the colonial era. But what you will find is the WatSisavang temple and a market where you can buy all kinds of local products.
Hongsa is another city which offers the chance to see a few elephants. Most of the buildings in the city center are relatively new. There’s a power plant not far from the city, which admittedly takes away from the city’s beauty a bit. But perhaps that makes you appreciate the gigantic rice fields even more.
In Hongsa, you can also visit a few Buddhist temples. One of the most interesting is the WatSimungkhun. We’re sure you’ll be inspired by the HangSongPa – one of the temple’s pavilions. Its elegance stands almost in striking contrast to the ordination hall, on top of a raised stone platform. The stone covers a hole which in Buddhist tradition is said to lead to the end of the world – though we must admit that we didn’t check to see if that’s really true!
Laos is one of the most exciting countries to visit in Southeast Asia, so put it at the top of your bucket list. Wondering which parts of Laos are particularly worth visiting?
Well, we definitely recommend a trip along the Mekong River, Asia’s sixth-largest river. Along the river, you’ll come across different cities. If your journey along the Mekong starts in Thailand, you’ll first come to HuayXai – there’s even a bridge connecting Thailand and Laos.
But other places such as PakBeng, Sainyabuli and Hongsa are also worth a visit. These cities are great starting points for some exciting and nature-filled trips. That’s why it’s sometimes worth staying in one place for a while. For example, why not take a trip to one of the animal sanctuaries and observe the elephants from close up?
The Mekong is also worth exploring when you’re travelling through Laos. And its status as one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions is something which even we were not previously aware of.
So, what are you waiting for? Laos awaits!