by Tamara Hinson, The Telegraph, December 11, 2018
Are you keen to encounter South East Asia’s vast variety of wildlife? The Greater Mekong area has 1,200 species of bird, 800 species of reptiles and amphibian and 430 species of mammal. Since 1997, 1,300 new species have been discovered.
Here’s how to admire the region’s wildlife on a Mekong river cruise. Just don’t forget to keep your camera to hand in case you stumble across some weird and wonderful new species – stranger things have happened, after all.
Best for: dolphins
The Mekong River is home to the largest of the five remaining freshwater populations of our favourite Mekong species, the cartoon-like Irrawaddy dolphin. They're most likely to be spotted on the stretch of river which winds from the Khone Falls in Laos to the waterfront town of Kratié in .
The latter is a stop-off on Pandaw's Classic Mekong cruise. Although the dolphins are occasionally spotted from larger river boats, they're notoriously shy creatures – there are under 100 left in the Mekong.
If you're hoping to spot this beautiful species, Pandaw is one of the few operators that allows passengers to travel by local boat to the dolphins' less-accessible, favourite hangouts. It's thought that this kind of non-invasive approach to dolphin-spotting is partly behind their recently-reported increase. Indeed, a recent study by the WWF revealed the first recorded increase for 20 years.
A seven-night Classic Mekong cruise with Pandaw sails from Saigon to Siem Reap. From £2,042pp, departing April 20, 2019 (0208 396 7320; pandaw.com).
Best for: birds
There are a staggering 1,200 bird species in the Mekong Delta, with many found in the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve – part of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve. Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve is regarded as the most important breeding ground for birds in South East Asia. An excursion to the reserve is one of the highlights of Aqua Expeditions' high water season (August to November) Siem Reap to Saigon sailings.
The higher water level makes it easier to spot the birds, including eagles, storks, pelicans, hornbills and ibises. Another popular stop-off for budding twitchers is the Vam Ho Bird Sanctuary in the riverside province of Bến Tre province. The sanctuary is home to 84 species, including an estimated 500,000 storks.
A seven-night Expedition Cruise with Aqua Expeditions sails from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). From £7,438pp, departing September 6, 2019 (0065 6270 4002; aquaexpeditions.com).
Best for: endangered species
It makes perfect sense that the more leisurely your voyage along the Mekong River, the higher the chances of spotting some of the region's most elusive species, so opt for a longer cruise if wildlife spotting is a priority. The section of river that passes through Thailand and Laos offers some of the best wildlife-spotting opportunities – Asian elephants (which are smaller than their African counterparts) and albino water buffalos are often seen here.
The forests of the Greater Mekong region contain the largest tiger habitat and you're most likely to see these big cats in Laos, although sightings are extremely rare. The Asiatic black bear is another creature to look out for in Laos. This critically endangered species loves hanging out in the thick forests of the Mekong Delta.
Laos features on Scenic's 23-day Indochina and Luxury Mekong adventure, which includes a nine-night Mekong River cruise from Siem Reap to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on Scenic Spirit. This vessel is ideal for wildlife watching as the 34 suites all have their own balconies. Beyond Laos, other endangered species to keep an eye out for included Siamese crocodiles (there are just 150 left in Cambodia) and the giant ibis, which you're most likely to see on riverbanks in northern Cambodia.
A 23-day Indochina and Luxury Mekong expedition with Scenic starts in Hanoi and finishes in Saigon. From £8,990pp, departing on July 11, 2019 (0808 252 7027; scenic.co.uk).
Best for: farm animals and fish
Bear with us here. The Mekong River accounts for a staggering 25 per cent of the global freshwater catch, provides an income for 60 million people and has the world's largest inland fishery. For this reason, visits to the Mekong's riverside fish farms provide a fantastic insight into the river's importance. One of the oldest is the Vietnamese floating fishing village of Tan Chau, where families live on floating houses with their fish farms suspended below.
Much harder to spot are the river's giant catfish. One of the best places to see them is the confluence of the Mekong and Ton le Sap rivers, and this particular stretch is covered by several cruises, including G Adventures' Phnom Penh to Saigon excursion. Opt for this trip and you can brush up on your knowledge of the local wildlife with a visit to the ship's onboard library. Don't forget to sign up for a ride in an ox cart, if you get the chance. This experience is offered by several river cruise operators and it's one of the oldest forms of transport in the Mekong Delta region.
A five-day Mekong River Adventure with G Adventures sails from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). From £959pp, departing on January 1, 2019 (0344 272 2060; gadventures.co.uk).
Best for: monkeys
There's something wonderful about seeing a family of monkeys scrambling over the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. The most spectacular time to visit the site is at sunrise – the air's filled with the sound of cicadas and birds, and the lack of tourists means you'll often find local primates sprawled, camera-ready, on the sun-baked stone paths, which wind between the temples.
Angkor Wat is a stop-off on many Mekong river cruises, but National Geographic Expeditions' Vietnam and Cambodia expedition, which includes a seven-night cruise along the Mekong River, is ideal if you're keen to visit this site in particular. You'll spend two days here, waking early on the first day to watch the sun rise over the world's largest religious monument.
A 13-day Vietnam and Cambodia along the Mekong River cruise with National Geographic Expeditions starts in Siem Reap and finishes in Saigon. From £7,995pp, departing on February 21, 2019 (0800 440 2552; nationalgeographicexpeditions.co.uk).