As we journeyed through South East Asia, setting sail on the Mekong was close to unavoidable. Even in an era of abundant travel options, it still proves itself relevant despite the ever-apparent risks. After all, the ride is far more fun when you're not entirely sure you're going to make it to your destination without having to swim.
Not all experiences were so hair-raising though. As border crossings go, taking a river ferry into Vietnam from Cambodia has to be up there with one of the most memorable. Travelling this aqueous highway to float on south puts you back in adventure mode no matter what mood you were in before.
On its journey from Tibet to Vietnam, the Mekong divides and surrounds land masses with ease. For centuries it has been a keen ally or a formidable adversary, depending on which side of it you are standing, but fortunately it's more of a placid guardian these days. This is demonstrable in Si Phan Don, Laos (also known as the 4,000 islands) where it no longer protects against invasion but shields the delicate settlements from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Just drift on over from Nakasang on a long, thin river cruiser for a dose of blissful calm.
The Mekong, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of river biodiversity, is also home to endangered species such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin. Where other environments have failed to sustain a substantial number of these scarce creatures, the Mekong has prevailed and continues to successfully shelter them from extinction...for now.
From large Chinese fishing nets to basic rods, you'll find many looking to the Mekong for sustenance. And the Mekong provides. Snapper, prawns and a surprising amount of large fish species make frequent appearances on menus everywhere in the basin.
Additionally, floating markets still play a role other than "tourist attraction" in parts of Asia, including a particularly lively incarnation in Can Tho, Vietnam. Locals gather together between 6am - 11am to sell their produce from vessels that seem too vintage to be real. Need a particular fruit or vegetable? Just head for the boat that has what you want hanging from the flag pole. And let's not forget that these crops were irrigated by the very same water they are floating on. It's a traditional, charming way to shop and sure beats a trip to the grocery store.
With so many dependents, it's no surprise that Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam setup the Mekong River Commission to ensure that decisions made up river don't negatively affect the other stakeholders. However, hydroelectric dams are still contentious and, with 12 dams in the planning stages for the lower basin area, we'll soon find out how affective this commission is.
The Thames and the Nile. The Hudson and the Saine. Rivers cast a reflective ribbon across some of the worlds most memorable scenery. The Mekong joins illustrious company here. From adding a little extra buoyancy to our happy hour at the Foreign Correspondence Club, Phnom Penh to underlining undeniably stunning views just North of Luang Prabang, this river adds gravitas to your shots, no matter how talented you are behind a camera.
When this much water pulses through a land mass the size of South East Asia, it inevitably bends the landscape to its will over time. The formidable monsoon season takes lush land underwater for much of the year. Raging waters carve out valleys and waterfalls. Wide, strong currents carry sediment downstream. And what remains? A malleable vista of jaw-dropping scenery.
A vivid example is back in Si Phan Don at the Khone Phapheng falls system that clashes through Don Khon. Turquoise water turns white momentarily as its thrown down and around the waterfalls and canyons. Luckily, such impressive landscaping is accompanied by some well-placed bars and restaurants so you can study the nooks and crannies over a couple of drinks.
We often hear the old adage "if these walls could talk", but in this case it should be "if these banks could talk". An immovable feature in unstoppable conflicts, the Mekong has witnessed horrific battles from which come tales of heroism and tragedy. From the fall of the Khmer Empire to the Vietnam war, you can read stories of grand battles in museums and countless books. Just remember to take into account where you're reading this historical information. Propaganda is still alive and well in Vietnam and, if the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi is to be believed, the French were boldly expelled several times with no record of having invaded in the first place.
However, not all the tale telling involves conflict. There's the first methodical exploration of the Mekong by the French in the 1860s and the wonderous discoveries of Kipling in his book "Letters from the East". And quite the yarn spinner it remains. All you have to do is combine someone who has visited with a few glasses of wine.
Having played these roles for longer than people have recorded such things, it's no surprise that the Laos and Thai people know this river as the Mae Kong or "mother water". And, like mothers all over the world, she occasionally loses her temper, is a force to be reckoned with and is unrelentingly nurturing.
It's hard to quantify the scale in which the Mekong influences its surroundings, but the best place to start is by coming to see for yourself. Just be sure to keep a camera, life jacket and childish curiosity nearby.