The mighty Mekong river has many routes. here's our favourite river cruises  (Shutterstock)
Article Words : Nick Ray | 29 May 2019

How to plan your perfect Mekong River cruise

Winding its way from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River brings together the best of Indochina old and new – explore stilt villages, mountain temples and more with our guide...

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.

Traditional fishermen in the Mekong at Vientiane, Laos (Dreamstime)

Traditional fishermen in the Mekong at Vientiane, Laos (Dreamstime)

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.

Looking across the Mekong from Laos' peaceful river city of Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

Looking across the Mekong from Laos' peaceful river city of Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

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.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat - a popular time for visitors looking for atmospheric shots (Shutterstock)

Sunrise over Angkor Wat - a popular time for visitors looking for atmospheric shots (Shutterstock)

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.

The floating market in the Mekong Delta (Shutterstock)

The floating market in the Mekong Delta (Shutterstock)

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

Wat Xieng Thong temple in Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

Wat Xieng Thong temple in Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

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.

The village of Pak Beng, Laos (Dreamstime)

The village of Pak Beng, Laos (Dreamstime)

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.

The Mekong flowing past the Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

The Mekong flowing past the Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang (Shutterstock)

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.

Buddhist monks collecting alms at dawn (Shutterstock)

Buddhist monks collecting alms at dawn (Shutterstock)

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.

 

 

 

Must see

Take a boat trip down the Mekong River to the sacred Pak Ou Caves, crammed with Buddha images. 

 

 

2. Vientiane to Pakse

The Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge joins Tha Khaek with Thailand's Nakhon Phanom Province (Shutterstock)

The Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge joins Tha Khaek with Thailand's Nakhon Phanom Province (Shutterstock)

Best for: Dramatic karst landscapes, hidden caves & crumbling colonial-era towns

Duration: Six days

Route: Vientiane (Laos) • Tham Kong Lor cave • Tha Khaek • Savannakhet • Pakse

Why do it: Central Laos is often overlooked by visitors, but is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes in the country. Throw in a few less-visited towns, such as Tha Khaek and Savannakhet, and it’s easy to have an off-the-beaten-track adventure.

The karst-studded landscape of Khammouane Province (Shutterstock)

The karst-studded landscape of Khammouane Province (Shutterstock)

Landlubbers unite – now’s the time to leave the riverborne transport behind and travel by road through central Laos.

Tha Khaek is a sleepy old colonial town that provides a gateway to the karst-studded landscape of Khammouane Province. Venture inland on the scenic Tha Khaek loop to the Tham Kong Lor cave, where a river flows for 7km into the mouth of a mountain.

Colonial-era architecture still dominates Savannakhet (Shutterstock)

Colonial-era architecture still dominates Savannakhet (Shutterstock)

Further south is Savannakhet, Cambodia’s second-largest city, although in reality it feels more like a provincial town. Old French-era architecture conceals affordable boutique hotels, while the colonial influence continues in the emerging restaurant scene.

 

 

 

Don't miss

Tham Kong Lor cave offers a glimpse into the underworld — a Styxian river that flows seven km into the heart of a jungle mountain in central Laos 

3. Si Phan Don

Khon Phapheng Falls (Shutterstock)

Khon Phapheng Falls (Shutterstock)

Best for: Mountain temples, waterfalls, island life & hanging around in a hammock


Duration: Seven days

Route: Pakse (Laos) • Champasak • Wat Phu temple • Don Khong • Don Khon • Don Det

Why do it? Southern Laos is often cited as one of the most traditionally Lao regions in the country. If the Lao people can be characterised as laid-back compared to some of their more driven neighbours, they become positively horizontal on the river archipelago of Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands). Relax, take your time and experience Laos at a local pace.

Houses on Don Det island - one of the '4,000 Islands' (Shutterstock)

Houses on Don Det island - one of the '4,000 Islands' (Shutterstock)

Venturing deeper into southern Laos, the Mekong reaches its widest point before spilling over natural waterfalls into Cambodia. This area was once part of the mighty Khmer empire, and the legacy of Angkor is evident at the temple of Wat Phu, built in the shadow of Lingaparvata mountain.

 

A fisherman at Khon Phapheng Falls (Shutterstock)

A fisherman at Khon Phapheng Falls (Shutterstock)

Si Phan Don is where the Mekong splits into tiny tributaries, creating an archipelago where the pace of life is unhurried and the people unconcerned by the changing world beyond. The main islands to visit are Don Khong – the largest at 18km long – Don Khon and Don Det.

The dramatic Khon Phapheng Falls (dubbed ‘the Niagara of the East’) is the most spectacular feature along the mother river and plays host to a drama of its own, as fishermen scale bamboo ladders to trap fish from the unrelenting spray. Sample their wares in the form of a delectable fish laap, a spicy Lao salad with a fiery kick.

Must see

Climb the slopes of Lingaparvata mountain to the ancient  Khmer sanctuary of Wat Phu, one of the most dramatically situated temples in the region 

Or why not take a detour?

the incredible tentacle-like tree roots of Ta Prohm (Shutterstock)

the incredible tentacle-like tree roots of Ta Prohm (Shutterstock)

Heading to the Angkor temple via the Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap Lake, the largest body of freshwater in South-East Asia, is an astonishing natural feature that provides fish and irrigation water for as much as half of Cambodia’s population.

The lake is linked to the Mekong at Phnom Penh by the 120km-long Tonle Sap River. In the rainy season (May to early October), the level of the Mekong rises dramatically and its waters flood into the Tonle Sap River, reversing its flow back north-west into the great lake.

During this period, the lake balloons to more than six times its size, from 2,500 sq km to around 15,000 sq km. Come October, the water level of the Mekong begins to fall and the flow of the Tonle Sap River reverts to its previous direction, draining the waters of the swollen lake back into the Mekong. A natural flood barrier protecting the pancake-flat delta of Vietnam, the Tonle Sap system is nature’s masterclass in water control.

The ancient Khmers understood the power of these waters better than anyone. They harnessed them to create the mightiest empire in South-East Asia, bequeathing humanity the most magnificent temples on Earth in the process.

Enough ink has already been used in singing the praises of the temples of Angkor – suffice to say, they don’t disappoint. Don’t miss Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious structure, but also make time for the enigmatic stone faces of the Bayon and the incredible tentacle-like tree roots of Ta Prohm – a real-life Indiana Jones experience.

4. Stung Treng to Phnom Penh

Women selling vegetables on the market in Stung Treng (Shutterstock)

Women selling vegetables on the market in Stung Treng (Shutterstock)

Duration: Five days

Route: Stung Treng (Cambodia) • Kratie • Chhlong • Kompong Cham • Phnom Penh

Why do it? This is the most remote and wild stretch of the Mekong in Cambodia and reveals isolated island communities and traditional lifestyles that are fast being abandoned in the cities. The real highlight is spotting the rare river dolphins of Kampi, although there is also a gentle charm to the nearby town of Kratie and the Mekong island of Koh Trong. Earn a night on the town in Phnom Penh after this remote adventure.

A rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin in the Mekong River near Kratie (Shutterstock)

A rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin in the Mekong River near Kratie (Shutterstock)

Heading south, into Cambodia and past Stung Treng, the shores become a hive of activity as local people cast out nets, paddle their boats or fire up their pumps to harness the waters and earn a living.

Approaching Kratie, the river provides a habitat for some of the region’s last freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. Some dolphins are coy and expose no more than a peep of flesh; others are bolder, showing visitors their full form as they push upwards for a gulp of air.

The smart riverfront of Pnom Penh at sunrise (Shutterstock)

The smart riverfront of Pnom Penh at sunrise (Shutterstock)

Further south, the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is a chaotic yet charming collision of past and present. It’s a petite place compared to many metropolises in neighbouring countries, with a gentle riverine atmosphere that also belonged to a Bangkok of long ago – although this is fast changing with Chinese investment now redefining the city skyline. Indulge in blissful boutique hotels, fine dining and some noteworthy nightlife.

Must See

Cambodia's National Museum in Phnom Penh is home to the world's finest collection of Khmer art and a must for anyone planning a pilgrimage to Angkor. 

 

5. Phnom Phenh to Ho Chi Minh City

The glittering skyline of Ho Chi Minh City (Shutterstock)

The glittering skyline of Ho Chi Minh City (Shutterstock)

Best for: Floating markets, river life & big-city buzz


Duration: Three days (by river); Seven days (overland)

Route: Phnom Penh (Cambodia) • Chau Doc (Vietnam) • Can Tho • Vinh Long • My Tho • Ho Chi Minh City

Why do it? Enjoy life in the slow lane on a river journey from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City – still known by its old name of Saigon to many.

Nevertheless, the cross-border contrast between Cambodia and Vietnam, where the Mekong is a major transport route, is stark – like switching from a country lane to the M25. At the end of the road, the former Vietnamese capital offers sophistication and the option of an extension in the likes of Phu Quoc, Con Dao or beyond.

One of the many floating markets in the Delta (Shutterstock)

One of the many floating markets in the Delta (Shutterstock)

As the Mekong leaves Cambodia, the river splits into nine arteries. The Vietnamese know this section as Song Cuu Long (River of Nine Dragons), for it’s here that it breathes life into their country’s delta and fire into its agricultural economy.

Daily life is fascinating to observe, as traders, travellers, fishermen and farmers bustle for space on the water. In a pancake-flat land that floods whenever the monsoon arrives, rivers are equal to roads in importance.

Befitting a commercial centre, Can Tho is ringed by floating markets, of which Cai Rang is the largest, bringing together hundreds of tiny vessels selling fruit, vegetables, fish, flowers, and a sprinkling of souvenirs. Observing from afar, it’s a riot of colour, punctuated only by the conical hats that protect the sellers from the sun.

A side street in Ho Chi Minh (Shutterstock)

A side street in Ho Chi Minh (Shutterstock)

As the final destination on a downstream Mekong journey, Ho Chi Minh City is the dynamic face of new Vietnam. There’s a real buzz here at the heart of the Delta, and we’re not just talking about the motorbike engines.

Bold and beautiful, cultured and commercial, historic and holistic, this metropolis offers something for everyone, and makes a fine place to end a trip along one of the world’s great rivers.

Must see

Rise early to explore the Cai Rang floating market, near Can Tho. See hundreds of boats jostle for position, providing a feast for the senses.

Can you combine any of the Mekong River cruises? 

Yes you can. Put together a few shorter cruises to build your own epic itinerary along the Mekong River...

A fisherman on the Mekong near Vientiane (Shutterstock)

A fisherman on the Mekong near Vientiane (Shutterstock)

With so much to see along the Mekong, chances are that a single cruise won’t suffice, so why not mix a few together? Choose from a river adventure in Laos or a two-country cruise in Cambodia and Vietnam. Or go for the big one and follow the river from the Golden Triangle to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). 

Laos: 14 days

The Mekong flowing past Vang Vieng (Shutterstock)

The Mekong flowing past Vang Vieng (Shutterstock)

Start in the Golden Triangle and take a two-day cruise to Luang Prabang via Pak Beng. After a few days soaking up the atmosphere, continue overland to Vientiane via the reinvented adventure centre of Vang Vieng.

From the Lao capital, head south to the sleepy charms of Tha Khaek and the incredible Tham Kong Lor river cave. Pass through the second city of Savannakhet before reconnecting with the Mekong at Pakse to board a three-day cruise into the heart of Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands). 

Cambodia and Vietnam: 10 days (or 14 days with a costal extension)

Cruising past Phnom Penh during sunset (Shutterstock)

Cruising past Phnom Penh during sunset (Shutterstock)

Begin this Mekong cruise in the commercial capital of Vietnam, bustling Ho Chi Minh City, and after a few days exploring, take a four-day cruise through the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh.

Experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Cambodian capital, including its excellent restaurant scene, before continuing on to Siem Reap, gateway to the temples of Angkor. Take a few days to soak it all in, then consider a flight to Sihanoukville to round off with a beach break on the island of Koh Rong.

Alternatively, opt for a coastal adventure around the twin centres of Kep and Kampot or an eco-experience in the wild Cardamom Mountains at Cardamom Tented Camp.

When's the best time to cruise the Mekong River?

A woman rowing a boat down the Mekong in rural Vietnam (Shutterstock)

A woman rowing a boat down the Mekong in rural Vietnam (Shutterstock)

Weather-wise, the best time to cruise the Mekong River is usually November to February, although the temperatures may be a little fresh in the morning air of northern Laos.

The wet season months offer some impressively green landscapes and discounted itineraries from the big cruise companies. April and May are very hot with low water levels in some areas.

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