A modern-day adventure
RIB Expedition and Adventure S.L. in cooperation with
Impulse Tourism is on an expedition of the Mekong this November 2005 with
two RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) of eight meters length, made by AB
Inlatables, Venezuela, and specially equipped for expeditions.
The RIBs are extremely strong and stable inflatables with
a hard fibreglass bottom. Tried and tested by coast guard and military
service or as expedition boats, they have even become popular for
recreational purposes. They are robust, fast, reliable and safe
(unsinkable). The expedition boats are 7.25 meters in length, with strong
Yamaha outboard engines of 225 HP.
The Mekong is SE Asia’s lifeline and with a length of
4,500 kilometers, one of the major rivers of our planet. On its way from the
Tibetan highlands down to the South China Sea it passes through six
countries, China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. A
battleground of many wars and politically isolated for decades, the region
has remained largely unknown until well into the 20th century and has never
been traveled in its full length.
The first major expedition started in 1866. Ten French
officers, geologists and botanists lead by Doudart de Lagr้e and
Francis Garnier went upriver from Saigon in search of the Mekong’s source.
They never found it, in fact it was not until 1994 that it was discovered.
Nevertheless Garnier reached China after two years of traveling under the
most difficult conditions and with every possible complication one could
think of. De Lagr้e himself did not make it to China - in the course
of the expedition he died of a tropical disease. Details of this historical
undertaking are described in Milton Osborne’s book “A River Road to
China” published in 1974.
situation: Since the end of cold war the countries of the Mekong region
locked up behind the “bamboo curtain” have started to slowly open up to
the rest of the world. But as far as commercial shipping is concerned, the
Mekong remains of little importance - even in the 21st century. The river
road to China the explorers dreamt of still does not exist. And despite the
political changes of the past century, the landscapes along the banks of the
Mekong still remain largely unchanged. Recently the countries belonging to
the GMS (Greater Mekong Sub-region) signed a treaty that allows navigation
in the middle and the upper stretches of the Mekong. The GMS countries are
also working on the development of concepts for tourism. Under very critical
observation by the world are the projected dams, power plants and rapids
blasting along the river and its tributaries. A realization of this project
would put the Mekong people and their environment in jeopardy. The natural
balance of the river would be destroyed - with consequences that cannot be
The new expedition now wants to bring a deeper knowledge
and understanding of the whole region, its natural beauty and diversity to a
The route: The Mekong can be roughly divided into three
sections: the upper stretch from the Tibetan headwaters to the Golden
Triangle where the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos meet. Here
the river cuts deep into the landscape and is full of rapids. In the middle
stretch from the province of Ubon (Thailand) to Champasak (Laos) the Mekong
is slowly approaching flat terrain. Its lower reaches begin at the Khone
waterfall - here the river leaves Laos and plunges into Cambodia by way of a
stretch of enormous waterfalls. In south Vietnam the Mekong finally spreads
into a giant delta and reaches the China Sea.
The expedition will take three weeks in November as the
river will have enough water to navigate the tricky passages and shallows.
It starts in Simao Harbour in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Simao marks
the northernmost point of the trip - further upriver the Mekong is
impossible to navigate. And even downriver navigation on the Lancangjiang
(as the Chinese call the Mekong) is extremely difficult. Rapids and shallows
demand utmost concentration and a lot of experience.
The explorers leave China at Guan Luei and follow the
river South to the point where the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand und
Laos meet: “Sob Ruak” - the Golden Triangle.
At Chiang Saen (Thailand) the river makes a sharp turn
into an easterly direction. For a while Thailand will be on the right and
Laos to the left river bank. Then the Mekong leaves the border. Population
along the banks is sparse now - here mountain tribes like the Hmong and Yao
live their secluded lives in an absolutely breathtaking landscape. Further
to the East they will reach the Laotian Kings’ residence Luang Prabang.
The oldest undestroyed temple city of SE Asia was declared a UNESCO world
heritage site in 1995.
Leaving the highlands of Laos, the river becomes
considerably wider. It bends in easterly, then in southeasterly directions
and forms the border between Thailand and Laos. We pass Savannakhet, and the
rapids of Pak Saeng and Song Khon are waiting for us. A pilot is
indispensable to master this very difficult section of the river.
There are about 200 kilometres left to the Cambodian
border and we are approaching a unique region of wetlands known as “Si
Phan Don” (4000 islands). Here the river is up to 14 kilometres wide. The
waterfalls of Khon Phapheng lie ahead - a series of cascades and rapids that
continue for about 10 kilometers.
Facing those millions of litres of water roaring down
into the abyss every single second, the French explorers should have
realized that the waterway from Vietnam to China would remain a dream. Even
for us in our expedition RIBs there is only one chance: The RIBs are hauled
out and transported on land to be launched again on the other side of the
The river is now pouring down into the plains of
Cambodia. Very slowly it loses its untamed wildness and allows for regular
river navigation. Rice paddies appear along the river banks and become more
and more frequent. Rural Cambodia has a very peaceful and secluded
atmosphere and it is hard to believe that a generation past this tortured
country was suffering under the terrorist regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer
In South Vietnam it diverts into the nine major arms of
its delta and further into a vast net of little rivers and canals. Figures
alone are impressive: About 5,000 kilometers of rivers and waterways
crisscross the delta area that has a total extension of about 200,000 square
kilometers and is one of the biggest rice growing areas in Asia. The
expedition ends in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
The Expedition includes Andy Leemann, an archetypal
traveler and sportsman; Armin Schoch who has been living in the region for
more than twenty years whose pioneer work led to the first joint-ventures in
tourism with totally cut off countries like Laos and Cambodia. Ivor Heyer is
our specialist in Rigid Inflatable Boats; G้rard d’ Aboville is
another adventurer, having crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat, amongst
other intrepid feats of navigation. Also on board is Jean Pierre Mouzay
responsible at Yamaha marine for special markets and is well known as a
mechanical genius. Patrick Mage is another sea adventurer to round out the
group who are trying to accomplish something the French started in 1866, but
failed. We hope that this time, with modern technology, we can conquer one
of the oldest rivers in the world.
Further information is available at www.RIBexpedition. com and