The Mekong River is a South-East Asian adventure to add to your bucket list. The best way to see the Mekong and the surrounding destinations is on a cruise.
Here, we'll reveal the best routes for cruising the Mekong. For our full guide to planning your journey, keep scrolling. Or click your chosen question to skip through the guide...
What are the best routes along the Mekong?
Can you combine any of the river cruises on the Mekong?
When's the best time to cruise the Mekong River?
Why visit the Mekong River?
Back in the 1990s, the Mekong River felt like the final frontier for travellers. At its northern reaches, it marked the border between the comfort zone of Thailand and the then undiscovered world of Laos, which a combination of conflict and communism had pushed off the overland map of South-East Asia.
Crossing the newly built Friendship Bridge over the border from Nong Khai and heading towards Vientiane in 1995, I felt like an explorer. This was long before the days that Beer Lao T-shirts were as common as Red Bull vests among Bangkok backpackers.
The Lao capital of Vientiane was a sleepy backwater and the now long-gone Bar Mixay was the place to be – a ramshackle old building on the shores of the Mekong River that attracted everyone from Russian spies to wide-eyed travellers.
The Mekong River at Luang Prabang is an altogether different creature, as it winds its way past the historic old town, the opposite bank cloaked in a blanket of spinach-green jungle.
That side of the river summed up the spirit of Laos in the early days: an unknown jumble of ancient temples, Hmong villages and DIY jungle treks where adventures lay in wait.
Travelling southwards back to Vientiane by cargo boat took three long days in rain and shine, and we lived off the fresh oranges that were being transported from China’s Yunnan province to Thailand. Vitamin C boost aside, it was a relief to finally get back on dry land.
Exploring its southerly reaches – rambling through Cambodia and Vietnam – was not without incident either. In 1995, it was necessary to reach Siem Reap by speedboat to due to ongoing Khmer Rouge ambushes on the Cambodian highways via Kompong Thom or Battambang.
After exploring those famous temples of Angkor with barely a visitor in sight, it was then time to explore the canals and floating markets of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, another world entirely from laid-back Luang Prabang and the edgy bustle of Phnom Penh.
Times may have changed since then, for better and worse, but in some ways the Mekong River is timeless – imbued with myth, history and culture, and flowing it through the very heart of South-East Asia. Following its course remains an aquatic adventure to savour.
1. The Golden Triangle to Luang Prabang
Best for: River deep, mountain high & religious remnants
Duration: Seven days
Route: Chiang Rai (Thailand) • Chiang Khong • Huay Xai (Laos) • Pak Beng • Luang Prabang
Why do it? The perfect way to begin or end a Mekong River encounter. Get over the jet lag with a gentle river cruise to Luang Prabang or hold o the return to everyday life by unwinding on the water – this is your decompression chamber between East and West.
After a few days amid the wats of Thailand’s Chiang Rai, make for the Laos border, where boats leave from the bustling town of Huay Xai on the Lao side.
The mountains soon overshadow the meandering river, and by sunset they are almost gorge-like as the boats stop overnight at Pak Beng, a transit town bursting with guesthouses and a couple of more upscale lodges.
On day two, pay a visit to a typical Hmong village complete with a lao-Lao (rice whisky) distillery. As forested slopes yield to cli s, the final flourish on the approach to Luang Prabang is a stop at the Pak Ou Caves.
Cut into the limestone, these natural rock chambers overflow with thousands of images of the Buddha, left here as marks of faith by successive pilgrims.
The cruise ends in Luang Prabang. Languid and lovely, this UNESCO World Heritage site is home to over 30 stupa-studded wats. As dawn breaks, a line of safron stretches as far as the eye can see as Buddhist monks shuffle along the streets in search of alms – an iconic image of this historic town.