The Fertile Nations of Southeast Asia Are Fed by Rivers, Lakes, and Seas
Peering out your plane’s window as you descend to land into any Southeast Asian country, you see it immediately. One simple fact blankets the earth below: These countries – Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam – are a thousand shades of green. It seems the most trivial thing at first, but you soon realize that where there is so much green, there is water to feed it.
Indeed, water is abundant here – in rivers, canals, lakes, and seas. And though you know that water feeds life on the entire planet, this lush corner of the globe seems reliant on it and shaped by it in a way you’ve never imagined. Indeed, what you are noticing is far from trivial. It is central to life throughout Southeast Asia. It is the thread that ties these nations together and allows a rich and fertile culture to thrive.
Cambodia: Natural and Manmade Wonders of Irrigation
In Cambodia, the tides of the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia dramatically affect the lives of locals. Tonle Sap, loosely translated as “Great Lake,” has an unusual geographic feature that affects daily life on its shores. The flow of water feeding and exiting the lake changes direction twice a year. The lake empties into the Tonle Sap River, which later spills into the Mekong River and flows into the Mekong Delta. During most of the year, the lake is fairly small and just three feet deep. But during monsoon season, the delta backs up. The resulting backwash reverses the Mekong’s flow and pushes water up the Tonle Sap River into the lake, enlarging its size six times and increasing its depth to 27 feet.
The phenomenon pushes thousands of fish into the lake from downstream and sets the fish-breeding season in motion. Locals on Tonle Sap shores celebrate the new tide with the Water and Moon Festival, a three-day party of racing ancient canoes carved from the coki tree. Once the waters recede and fish-breeding season ends, fishermen take to the waters. It’s one of the most unique fishing seasons in the world.
The ancient Khmer Empire practiced a similar concept of storing and releasing water, as early as the 13th century. In Angkor, massive reservoirs were constructed to collect rainwater during the rainy season. As water was needed for crops during dry months, it was diverted to fields through an irrigation system that took advantage of the land’s natural slope. This may seem a simple concept, but it was carried out on a grand scale that fed an ancient city of 390 square miles whose population, by some accounts, was as high as one million people.
Cambodia offers rich examples of how the ebb and flow of water shapes civilizations, even today. And in Thailand, a key waterway held the fate of a king’s capital.
Thailand: A Capital Grows Around a River
After Burmese attacks led to the fall of Ayutthaya, Rama I moved his capital to Thon Buri, on the western bank of the mighty Chao Phraya River. It remained here only 15 years, until the continued threat of the Burmese persuaded Rama I to move his court across the river. The waterway served as a protective wall, and the city of Bang Kok, or “riverside village of the wild olive,” was born.
Today, rice barges drift along Thailand’s mighty Chao Phraya River carrying the nation’s most valuable crop. Locals call this bustling waterway Mae Nam, or Mother of Waters, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubting the river’s maternal-like beauty, but it’s easy to forget that without it – and without the countless canals that branch from it – Thailand’s economy would dry up.
And that would be a shame, because Bangkok’s fascinating canals, or khlongs, are reason enough to visit the Thai capital. Along these manmade waterways, vestiges of floating markets appear at every turn. Long sampan-style boats with fruits and vegetables and all manner of wares drift by and dock at hot selling spots. They offer intriguing insight into the history of transport and trade along Thailand’s waterways.
Just how much does Thailand worship its water? Just ask anyone who has attended the Songkran Festival in April. This raucous water party is not only a way to ring in the Thai New Year; it’s also a good time for a real soaking as residents drench each other in every way possible with hoses and water pistols and buckets.
Laos: Freeways of Water
Laos may be landlocked, but it is by no means dry. And it’s a good thing, because outside of major travel areas, unpaved roadways make it difficult to get around. So many locals rely on the Mekong River and its tributaries for transport. All told, the waterways of Laos comprise more than 2,700 miles of navigable routes through cities, villages, and emerald-green farmlands.
One interesting illustration of the Laotian penchant for river travel is at the Pak Ou Caves north of Luang Prabang. From within the caves, thousands of Buddha figures of all shapes and sizes and colors look out over the Mekong River. Some are seated in meditation; others recline. It is an eerie sight, and you might feel as though you have stumbled upon a king’s lost treasure. On the contrary, over the centuries, kings have willfully commissioned statues to be carved for placement here. Some statues are 300 years old and the unprecedented collection draws Buddhists pilgrims by land. But we think the best way to approach this magnificent sight is by river.
And there’s something else nurtured at many riverside locales and worshipped by Laotians: rice wine. Waterlogged rice paddy fields are everywhere, and not all of the grain ends up on people’s plates. Laotians will happily teach you that rice is sometimes better served in a glass. In fact, there is no better place to sample rice wine than in the region where it was invented.
Vietnam: Legends of the Sea and the Harvest
Vietnam’s coastline is 2,140 miles long, so it’s little wonder that its legends were borne from the sea. In the north, a spectacular natural wonder hugs the shores of the mainland. Within Halong Bay, more than 1,600 islands of towering karst dot the seascape. One Vietnamese fable tells of the dragons that created this breathtaking sight: During the nation’s earliest days, its people were threatened by seafaring invaders. For protection against the attackers, the gods sent dragons to the coast. But instead of fire, the dragons breathed thousands of jewels and jade into the bay, causing the enemy ships to crash and sink.
Other legends are played out on stages across northern Vietnam in the form of water puppetry. This fine Vietnamese art, believed to have been created in the 12th century in the Red River Delta of the north, began in flooded rice fields. The first puppeteers built a pagoda in waist-deep water and stood inside the structure, unseen by the audience. The performance thus served as a celebration of the rice harvest. Today, the stage is typically created in villages on a local pond, in mobile tanks for traveling shows, or in a 15-foot-square pool of water built into a stage. Puppeteers stand behind a façade at the back of the “stage” and control the puppets with underwater rods.
Southeast Asia is fertile with legends, natural beauty, and rich history and culture – much of it shaped by the waters that course through this magnificent, emerald-green region. With Discovery Tours, you’ll experience it all up close as only a small group can. We hope you’ll join us in this luxuriant and copious land.