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SURVEY THE MEKONG RIVER FROM GOLDEN TRIANGLE REGION TO THE MEKONG DELTA IN THE NEW YEAR HOLIDAYS

Photos and Commnents of Dr. Le Trinh, VESDEC Director
I love the natural environment, especially rivers and forests, very much. The Mekong River: Thai and Lao means "Mother River" - a great mother, who supplies water for living, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, developing ecosystems, nurturing more than 70 million people with about 100 ethnic groups, tribes and their cultures in Southwest of China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam - are always my inspiration to survey.
So over the past 30 years, I have investigated most of the rivers in the Mekong Delta, the Se San, and Srepok in the Central Highlands. In the Lunar New Year 2013, I went to the Mekong in Cambodia, in the Lunar 2018, I tried to reach the Golden Triangle - where the Mekong poured into Indochina. And from the 2nd to the 9th of the Lunar New Year 2019, I visited the Mekong and some other tributaries in the Northern Laos through an 8-day trip by car and motobike. The notes below can be useful for those who love this river to join hands to protect the water resources, ecosystems and extremely valuable cultural assets of the Mekong basin.

The Mekong River is 4,909 km long, originating from the Qinghai Plateau, along the length of Yunnan Province (China), through countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and then flowing into the East Sea. The Mekong basin has a total area of 795,000 km2, of which the lower part is located in the territory of four countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This is the 12th longest river and the 10th highest flow in the world. For Vietnam, the Mekong River plays a special role, nurturing two major regions, the Mekong River Delta and the Central Highlands, with nearly 60% of Vietnam's total annual flow and about 23% of the total Vietnam population (According to the Vietnam Mekong River Commission).
However, now and the future of the Lower Mekong Basin faces great challenges due to reduced flow, increased salinity intrusion, increased pollution, reduced ecological resources and socio-economic impact,  due to hydropower, irrigation, resource exploitation, agricultural, urban development at the upstream and the effects of climate change. Since 90% of Mekong's water supply to the Mekong Delta is from China, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, all water use and waste discharge activities in these countries directly affect the environment, resources and socio-economy in the Mekong Delta.

The Mekong River is 4,909 km long, originating from the Qinghai Plateau, along the length of Yunnan Province (China), through countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and then flowing into the East Sea. The Mekong basin has a total area of 795,000 km2, of which the lower part is located in the territory of four countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This is the 12th longest river and the 10th highest flow in the world. For Vietnam, the Mekong River plays a special role, nurturing two major regions, the Mekong River Delta and the Central Highlands, with nearly 60% of Vietnam's total annual flow and about 23% of the total Vietnam population (According to the Vietnam Mekong River Commission).
However, now and the future of the Lower Mekong Basin faces great challenges due to reduced flow, increased salinity intrusion, increased pollution, reduced ecological resources and socio-economic impact,  due to hydropower, irrigation, resource exploitation, agricultural, urban development at the upstream and the effects of climate change. Since 90% of Mekong's water supply to the Mekong Delta is from China, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, all water use and waste discharge activities in these countries directly affect the environment, resources and socio-economy in the Mekong Delta.

Map of the Mekong basin with many large hydroelectric dams: yellow: upstream; blue: downstream area (Source: WWF)

In this paper the Mekong and its ecosystems, riverine civilizations are described briefly from the top point (Lao-Thai-Myanmar border junction) to the lower reaches (Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Prey Veng, Kampong Cham and the Mekong Delta through my direct observation and understanding (only a few sentences in quotation marks "..." are taken from references and 4 more photos taken from the internet, with each note) through my trips.

1.  Mekong at the border of Laos - Myanmar - Thailand (Golden Triangle Region)


In the Lunar New Year 2018 we went to the Golden Triangle Region - where the Mekong after Yunnan Province of China poured into Southeast Asia, making the natural border of the three Laos - Thai - Myanmar countries, and also the former capital of the largest opium production and trading in the world. The river is located on a low mountainous terrain, the flow is gentle and clear. West bank is Chieng Rai Province - Thailand is a large tourist area with Buddha Pagodas and many passenger ships; East bank is Bokeo Province of Lao PDR, with few people and ships but a new economic zone. The North bank is the Shan State of Myanmar with only forests and some small houses.

  
Left: Crossing the border on the river: the left branch (on the left of the island) is Myanmar; the right branch is Laos; Thailand is located downstream to the right of this photo). Right: On the Thai side.
 
So, I met the Mekong at the Golden Triangle Region. From here, the Mekong has to flow over 2,200 km to reach the Mekong Delta! Feeling so special when I reached down to the cool water, and estimated the time when the water would reach to the 8 estuaries into the East Sea!

2. At the Mekong where confluence with Nam Ou River

The Nam Ou is a large branch of the Mekong that flows from the China - Lao border throughout Phongsaly Province to Luang Prabang Province and joins the Mekong mainstream. The Nam Rom river from Dien Bien Province of Vietnam is also a tributary of the Nam Ou. At the rocky mountain after the Nam Ou - Mekong confluence there is Pak Ou cave with 2 large limestone caves. These caves contain more than 4,000 ancient Buddha statues. If you want to go to these caves, you must take a boat from Pak Ou village on the other side of the river or take a cruise from Luang Prabang City for more than 3 hours.
On the 6th day of the Lunar New Year 2019, I arrived at the confluence of the Mekong - Nam Ou and crossed the river to admire Pak Ou cave

   
Left: The Mekong mainstream after the confluence with the Nam Ou; Right: Nam Ou River near the confluence with Mekong. There are many hydropower projects on the Nam Ou River which are under construction and planning.
 
Today the Pak Ou caves and the Mekong here are big tourist destinations. Cultural value of Laos, gentle and honest people, the beautiful and peaceful landscape is the source of attracting several hundred international tourists every day. 

  
Tourists row boats on the Mekong River and ride elephant along the river. It's peaceful, romantic; visitors enjoy, feeling safe and happy when coming to this place.
 
   
Left: Pak Ou village near the confluence of 2 rivers: spacious houses, electricity and clean water; Right: A grocery store in the village.
 
3. Mekong at Luang Prabang City
 
On the 3rd day of the Lunar New Year 2019 from Vienchan (Vientiane) I arrived in Luang Prabang City about 300 km to the north - the capital of the same name province and the ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom and the Kingdom of Laos from the 14th century to in 1946. Before 1975, this was still the royal capital of Laos. The old city has only about 23,000 inhabitants, who has been honored by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for architecture, religion and culture with many ancient Buddhist temples and old streets. The houses in the city only 1-2 floors, dark tile roofs and peaceful making feels like Hoi An of Vietnam. The city has well-known special buildings, which annually attract hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors: the Royal Palace, the Lao national museum, the ancient temples: Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Saen, Wat Xieng Muan…and, Phousi mountain.
It is hard to imagine between the high mountains in the continent, this sparse population that Lao people built a town with so many magnificent temples and pagodas. Especially, Luang Prabang is located on the confluence between the Mekong mainstream and the Nam Khan stream, thus increasing the rare natural beauty in Laos.
On the afternoon of the first day I eagered to get on the boat to survey along the Mekong River. Although far from the estuary over 2,000 km upstream, the Mekong at Luang Prabang is wider than the Da River after Hoa Binh and Saigon Rivers in Thu Thiem wharf in Vietnam; small ships easy to travel along the river.
 
  
Left: The Mekong River at Luang Prabang City is wide and deep. River water is not as in tributaries as Nam Ou, Nam Khan, seems to have been polluted from upstream along the main stream. On the right: Smoke from cooking at farmer families: reminiscents the memories of the northern countryside of Vietnam a few decades ago
 
  
Left: Miraculous sunset on the Mekong; Right: the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan in Luang Prabang.
 
  
Left: An old town corner along the river: reminiscent of Hoi An of Vietnam. The people of Luang Prabang are also gentle and sincere like Hoi An people. The old town is characterized by the local culture so it attracts tourists to coming here again. Currently foreign tourists to Luang Prabang are crowded but still few compared to Hoi An; To the right: The Nam Khan stream and an old and peaceful Luang Prabang corner (I took it from the top of Phousi mountain).
 
4.  The Nam Khan and Thuong Lao natural forests
 
Nam Khan is also a large tributary of the Mekong, originating in the high mountains of Houaphan Province and flowing into the Mekong in Luang Prabang City. On the 5th day of the Lunar New Year 2019, I went to Tak Sae waterfall about 30 km south of the City. To go to the waterfall it must cross the Nam Khan River by boat.
Strong impression on Northern Laos is natural forest on all the routes and along the Mekong River: almost all hills and mountains are covered with dry broad-leaved forests with different types of Dipterocarp species and teak or evergreen forest with 20-40 m tall, According to FAO statistics: although the Lao forest has been reduced, it still accounts for over 16 million hectares in 2005 (about 70% of the natural area), in which primary forest remains to 1,490,000 ha, modified natural forest to 14,428,000 ha. In difference with Vietnam in Northern Lao there is no forest plantation of acacia and eucalyptus.
 
  
Left: Teak forest (Tectona grandis), a very popular dry forest, and evergreen natural forest (right bank) along the Nam Khan River; Right: Common natural forest on my route.
 
  
 
On the left: In Northern Lao forest;  Right: First time tried riding an elephant in the Lao forest: no special emotions; I only feel sorry for the elephants here and in Dak Lak to serve guests all day.
 
5. Mekong in Vientiane
 
From Luang Prabang the Mekong flows through forests and several villages around 300 km downward, then to Vientiane City - Lao PDR’ Capital. The Mekong is wider here and has an islets like the one in the middle of the Red River in Hanoi. From Vienchan downward to Salavan province the Mekong is the Lao - Thai natural border. Vienchan inner city is only 130 km² but the population is over 200,000 people, the density is not low.
 
  
Left: The Mekong in Vientiane - Right on the islet is Nong Khai Province of Thailand (my photo was taken from the plane); Right: Statue of King Chau Anouvong (1767-1829) overlooking the Mekong.
 
Like Luang Prabang, Vienchan is an old city, though not modern, without many beautiful areas, most of the streets have no greenery (big negative points of this city); not lively, no big supermarket, flashy shops; rare people use fashions like Hanoi, Saigon and other big cities in Vietnam but is more quiet. It is very strange that Vienchan people have low income compared to Vietnamese urban people, but this city has a higher density of cars than in Danang or Cantho and very few motorbikes. 
Similar to the temples in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia: in ancient Lao temples there are many old statues and paintings; no crowded scenes, only offerings of fruits (coconut, bananas), flowers and candles. It attracts a lot of tourists to visit the temples (cost of tickets to visit temples: 10,000 - 20,000 Kip, good revenue source). These give us a sense of relaxation, light living. It is a great advantage of Laos, making a good impression for international visitors 
 
  
Left: New modern quarter along the Mekong river. Here, the spacious river embankment is where people of the city relaxes and there are many restaurants, that are always crowded in the evening; Right: Lao - Thai Friendship Bridge, connecting Vientiane and Nongkhai. This grant was funded by the Australian Government, completed in 1994 (this picture is from the internet). Today from Vientiane to Nongkhai it takes only 30 minutes; to Udon Thani 60 minutes and Bangkok  9.0 hours by expressway..
 
  
Left: Main boulevard of Vientiane, far away is Vatuxay (Triumphal Arch) - this is a most beautiful and widest road in the city; Right: Wattay International Airport - the symbol of Laos taking off. According to Wikipedia: the airport currently has only 1 runway of 3,000m, serving more than 800,000 passengers per year; it is expected that by 2025, the annual number of passengers will reach 2 million people (it is still small compared to the Danang and Camranh airports of Vietnam).
 
6.  The experiences of "survival" when surveying deep areas in the Northern Laos
 
Although I do not know Lao language and most Lao people do not know Vietnamese, but all people I met whether in the city or in the remote forest areas are gentle and honest. Therefore, I was quite easy to "survive". During the day and night, during survey the mountainous areas eating was available at the simple village foods; overnight accommodation was houses of villagers along the road. I just need to be friendly and happy with all conditions they offered (of course, we must pay but not expensive) and respect of them. I brought with me many kinds of medicines for prevention of diarrhea, malaria; insect repellent and dry foods etc., but I did not have to use them.

 
  
The cheap and nutritious delicacies are grilled corn, grilled sweet potatoes, grilled bananas, grilled river fish, grilled chicken, noodle soup,…. Each meal “combo” costs only 15,000-20,000 Lao Kip (about 2.0 USD),  enough for one lunch or dinner.
 
7.  The Mekong in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
 
From Vientiane the Mekong flows southward about 1,800km, then to Phnom Penh - the Capital of Kingdom of Cambodia. From Kratie, upstream from Phnom Penh about 250 km, the Mekong begins to create a low, flat terrain that stretches to the end of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
Through the window of the plane from Pnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, on the 10th Lunar New Year 2019 I captured this city from above
 
  
Left: Phnom Penh is the area of the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The Mekong moves water to Vietnam and the Tonle Sap moves Mekong water into the Tonle Sap Great Lake. The Great Lake is a water-regulating body for Cambodia and the Mekong Delta, so the Mekong Delta has a flood season in September-November, but not being devastated by floods; Right: Some new buildings and a new urban area are being built along the Mekong River in Phnom Penh City
 
  
Left: The center of Phnom Penh looks from the plane: this city has an area of 678.5 km² with over 1.5 million people growing fast: five years ago only a few buildings over 20 floors, now there are some tens such buildings have been completed or under construction; Right: Phnom Penh International Airport (Pochentong): the symbol of Phnom Penh is taking off. According to Wikipedia: This airport has a runway of over 3,000 meters, can serve 2 million passengers per year.
 
8.  The Mekong in Prey Veng and Kampong Cham provinces, Cambodia

In the beginning of the new year 2013, I drove across the Mekong River by ferry at Neak Luang in Prey Veng province to Pnom Penh. On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, I again crossed the Mekong with a bridge in Kampong Cham City. The Mekong River at these points is as wide as the Tien River in Dong Thap and Tien Giang provinces in Vietnam
 
  
Left: Ferry at Neak Luong; Right: The Mekong at Kongpong Cham City (2013).
 
9. And Tien and Hau rivers in Vietnam (this section is not related to my trips to Laos, Thailand and Cambodia)
After flowing through Phnom Penh City, the Mekong River is divided into two large branches flowing to Vietnam: the Mekong branch to the Vietnamese territory is called the Tien River; Bassac branch to Vietnam territory is called the Hau river.
The Tien River flows into the East Sea through 6 branches (Tieu, Cua Dai, Ba Lai, Ham Luong, Co Chien and Cung Hau); The Hau river flows into the East Sea through 2 branches (Dinh An and Tran De). All 8 rivers but Cuu Long (nine dragons) are still the common names of these rivers. With large volumes, high sediment loads the Mekong River have been depositing the Mekong Delta into the most fertile land in the basin.
The Mekong Delta is a large area, accounting for 12% of the area, 19% of the Vietnam population; has advantages in agriculture, food industry, tourism, renewable energy; it is the largest agricultural production center of Vietnam, contributing 50% of rice production, 65% of aquatic production and 70% of the country's fruits; 95% of exported rice and 60% of exported fish; is conveniently located in trade with ASEAN countries and Mekong Sub-region. However, this is still an area that seems lower developed compared to the Southeast, Red River Delta and the South Central Coast Regions of Vietnam, because of slower development in infrastructures, industry, trade and education.
 
  
Left:  The Tien Rievr with many islets in My Tho - the second largest city in the Mekong Delta with a population of over 270,000 people, more than Vientiane. This river as well as the rivers and canals in the Mekong Delta has 5 functions: the source of water for daily life, irrigation, fisheries, the main water ways and also receives all kinds of wastes from residential and industrial areas at the basin and from ships. This is the reason why these rivers and canals are polluted; Right: The Hau river with Can Tho bridge connecting Vinh Long and Cantho City (2 photos from the Internet)
 
 
  
Left: At the estuary of the Mekong River there is a mangrove ecosystem that used to have an area of ​​250,000 ha (1950), but at the present it is about 80,000 ha. This is the place for growing mangrove plants, aquatic species, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammal animals. Mangroves also have extremely important values ​​in responding to climate change, encroaching on sea, conserving biodiversity, developing fisheries and treating pollution in coastal areas.
Right: The Mekong is the water body providing the largest fishery resources to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. There are many species of giant fish such as giant catfish, that are not available in other water bodies in the world. Photo of a Catlocarpio siamensis over 50 kg was captured in the Co Chien river, one of the main branches of the Mekong (this last picture is from the Internet). Due to the development of upstream dams, uncontrolled waste emmision and over catching: these rare aquatic monsters will no longer exist
 
Ho Chi Minh City, February 16, 2019

Source: Le Trinh

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