Meet the Mighty Mekong
THE Mekong River weaves through six Asian countries, supporting some 100 million people from nearly 100 indigenous and ethnic groups. Annually, the river yields up to 1.3 million tons of fish—four times the catch in the North Sea! Stretching for 2,700 miles [4,350 km], it is the longest waterway in Southeast Asia. And because it courses through a number of countries, the river has many names, the best known—Mekong—being a contraction of the Thai name Mae Nam Khong.
Born high in the Himalayas, the Mekong bursts forth with youthful vigor as it cascades down mountain slopes and surges through deep gorges. By the time its waters leave China, where it is called the Lancang, they have already traversed almost half the total length of the river and have plunged a dramatic 15,000 feet [4,500 m]. The lower half of the Mekong drops only 1,600 feet [500 m]. As a result, that stretch of the river is much more sedate. Upon leaving China, the river forms the border between Myanmar and Laos and much of the border between Laos and Thailand. It divides in Cambodia and flows into Vietnam as two branches that fan out and empty into the South China Sea.
In the late 1860’s, the French tried to find a navigable route up the Mekong into China. Their hopes were dashed, however, when they encountered rapids near the town of Kratie, in Cambodia, and a formidable series of cataracts called the Khone Falls, in southern Laos. More water tumbles over the Khone Falls than over any other waterfall in the world, even double that of Niagara Falls, which straddles the border between Canada and the United States.
A River of Life
The Mekong is vital to Southeast Asia’s economy. Both Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, are port cities on the river. Downstream, the Mekong is the very lifeblood of Vietnam. There it splits into seven branches, forming a delta of 15,500 square miles [40,000 sq km], with an estimated 2,000 miles [3,200 km] of waterways. This abundance of water irrigates fields and rice paddies and enriches them with precious silt, enabling farmers to grow three crops of rice annually. Indeed, Vietnam is the world’s second-largest exporter of this popular staple, surpassed only by Thailand.
An estimated 1,200 species of fish live in the Mekong, and some of these, as well as shrimps, are farmed. One popular local fish, the trey riel, has a unique claim to fame—the Cambodian currency, the riel, is named after it. The Mekong is also home to an endangered species of catfish that can grow to nine feet [2.75 m]. In 2005, fishermen netted a 646-pound [290 kg] catfish, perhaps the largest freshwater fish ever found anywhere in the world! Another endangered species, at least as far as the Mekong is concerned, is the Irrawaddy dolphin. Researchers say that there may be fewer than 100 left in the river.
Besides feeding millions of people, the Mekong serves as a highway for craft of all sizes—small boats ferrying passengers, larger vessels carrying goods, and freighters steaming to and from the open sea. The river is also popular with tourists, many of whom like to travel beyond the Khone Falls to visit Vientiane. Famous for its canals, pagodas, and houses on stilts, the city has been a hub of commerce, politics, and religion for over 1,000 years. From Vientiane, one can venture upriver to Louangphrabang. This port city once served as the capital of a large Thai-Lao state and for a time, including the period of French rule, as the royal capital of Laos. A French colonial atmosphere still pervades this historic city.
Recent times have seen unsettling changes along the Mekong. These include destructive fishing practices, deforestation, and the construction of massive hydroelectric dams. To many observers, the situation appears to be out of control. But there is hope.
The Bible promises that our loving Creator will soon intervene in human affairs by means of his Kingdom. (Daniel 2:44; 7:13, 14; Matthew 6:10) Under the guidance of that perfect world government, the whole earth will be healed, and the rivers will, figuratively speaking, “clap their hands” out of sheer joy. (Psalm 98:7-9) May the mighty Mekong share in that applause.
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Rice paddies, Mekong Delta
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About 1,200 species of fish live in the Mekong River
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Floating market, Vietnam
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Rice paddies: ©Jordi Camí/age fotostock; fishing: ©Stuart Pearce/World Pictures/age fotostock; background: © Chris Sattlberger/Panos Pictures
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Market: ©Lorne Resnick/age fotostock; woman: ©Stuart Pearce/World Pictures/age fotostock