One of the most significant life-giving waters on the earth, the Mighty Mekong River in Southeast Asia has given its residents the luxury to live a good life and that has allowed them to build strong civilizations, rich cultures and traditions. Have you ever thought about taking a Mekong River cruise?
The history along the river can be traced back centuries, with temples telling stories of religion, love, war and peace, but most importantly resilience. Passing through six beautiful countries, Mekong’s everflowing waters allow one to immerse in a rich cultural and spiritual journey and dive deep into one of the richest historical heritages in the world. For those seeking a journey through time, witnessing the intriguing past and learning more about the history and culture of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a Mekong River cruise will allow a life-changing experience.
The most popular Mekong river cruise routes either start in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, or in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam as the most convenient Mekong ports. We suggest you embark on a charter cruise in the vibrant Ho Chi Minh and witness life along the river as you travel through three different countries. You’ll get to discover the most sacred places, where locals seek refuge for centuries, finding salvation and peace. Let’s take a look at the temples and all these great historical sites you will get to see and experience when cruising along the Mighty Mekong.
Starting your Mekong River Cruise in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is home to some of the most magnificent Buddhist temples in Vietnam. They’re the most popular attractions for foreign visitors offering a thorough experience of the local culture. Some of them are centuries old, some testify to recent Vietnamese history. Ranging from big and luxurious to tiny and inspiring, each and everyone is worth paying a visit. Some of these significant temples are built near the Mekong. Their exterior and atmosphere together with the beautiful surroundings make for a completely profound experience, especially when seen and accessed from the river.
Vĩnh Nghiêm Pagoda – Ho Chi Minh
The 7-story tower that’s 40 meters high makes this Pagoda one of the tallest temples in Ho Chi Minh. It sits on 6,000 square meters which also makes it the largest pagoda in the city. Vĩnh Nghiêm Pagoda is unique and very significant as being the first pagoda built in traditional Vietnamese style but with concrete. This large complex consists of the pagoda, the 7-story tower and a separate building that houses monks and nuns.
For Buddhists, it serves as a center for belief practices. It’s home to Buddha and two of his followers; Manjusri, Samantabhadra. For curious tourists, it’s one of the most mesmerizing attractions to explore and experience.
Visiting the pagoda allows one to witness the rituals of the Buddhists. It’s especially interesting during the Lunar New Year in the middle of each month when many worshipers come and perform the regular rituals and hang around with all visitors.
Ngoc Hoang Pagoda – Ho Chi Minh
The Ngoc Hoang Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh, commonly known as the Jade Emperor Pagoda is the most famous one in Vietnam. It’s a Cantonese temple situated in the heart of the Ho Chi Minh city, devoted to the Jade Emperor, i.e. the God of Heavens. It mesmerizes its visitors with around a hundred statues made from cardboard, using only paper and bamboo laths that depict scenes with the almighty Jade Emperor. There are also a lot of artworks in the pagoda including paintings, statues, altars made from ceramics, paper, wood and cardboard.
Many Buddhists come to the pagoda to pray for fertility. In one of the halls, there is a statue of the goddess of fertility Kim Hua, in the act of blessing women and children that surround her. There is also a statue of the god of mercy Kuan Yin.
You may find the pagoda under another name “the Tortoise Pagoda” because the temple hosts a pond overcrowded with tortoises in the yard which is quite unique and a pleasant experience for the tourists. One thing to note, as the Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most famous, it is almost always full of curious tourists so it feels more like a monument. It’s recommended to take a guided tour to be able to understand the significance of all that the interior depicts.
Vinh Trang Pagoda – My Tho
When the cruise journey starts, traveling down south towards the mouth of the Mekong River, the first stop will allow one to see the best-known temples in this region of Vietnam. It’s an immense complex that is undoubtedly gorgeous and awe-inspiring. It is located three kilometers from the center of My Tho city but it’s easily accessible by water.
Pass the tall gates, made to resemble a fortress, a surprisingly big garden with fruit-bearing trees surrounds the big and beautiful temple. The fusion of renaissance and romanesque style patterns with Japanese tile and traditional Vietnamese architecture it’s immediately noticeable and this blend of styles makes the whole area unique and very beautiful, elegant per se.
It’s spread over two hectares and there is so much to explore and see. The pagoda complex comprises five buildings and two ornamental courtyards. The temple hosts around sixty statues made of different materials and three enormous Buddha statues which are awe-inspiring. Add to this the great location, just near the water, the beautiful nature and surroundings offer a chance to find inner peace and enjoy the great atmosphere of the pagoda.
Cao Dai Holy See – Cao Lanh
One of the most unexpected aesthetics and fusion of religions and traditions can be found in the Cao Dai Holy See temple. This mesmerizing building is located in Cao Lanh and it’s probably the thing that has put this small town on the map.
It’s a spectacular pagoda from where the Cao Dai movement started and spread. It’s a movement that unites different religions into one, mixing different religious ideas so it will unite them under one religious movement. The Cao Dai temples depict these ideas very vividly and this temple is one of the great examples. It is made with bright colors, with mosque-like pillars and statues of many great spiritual figures that different nations and religions across the globe worship. Among the interior one can see statues and relics devoted to Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Lao Tzu, Joan of Arc and even Victor Hugo, as Daoists saw them as the prophets of the same universal truth.
During your visit, you might be lucky to witness an ongoing religious ceremony which will make the experience complete.
Temples in Cambodia
Cruising down the Mekong river gives an amazing opportunity to visit these sacred places. The Mekong lower basin is home to rich biodiversity and nature that makes stunning sceneries. As the ship flows down, crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia one can witness a wealth of fish, large birds, and endemic wildlife which makes for a great adventure.
Arriving in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Phen presents a new opportunity to visit a number of amazing and unique temples. Phnom Penh is the cradle of the Khmer Empire and there are so many monuments and historical sites to see that depict Cambodia’s turbulent past. Temples are among the most visited by tourists, and here in this vibrant city, one can see exquisite examples. So let’s take a look at the ones that are a must-see.
Silver Pagoda (Wat Ubaosoth Ratanaram)
A temple that houses multiple national treasures, such as golds and jeweled Buddha statues, the Silver Pagoda is located within the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. The most significant thing inside is the small green crystal statue of Buddha, as well as a life-sized Maitreya Buddha made of solid gold that was commissioned by King Sisowath. It weighs a total of 90 kilograms, is dressed in royal regalia, and it’s set with 9584 diamonds, which is a stunning fact in and of itself.
An important fact to note is that the wat, and its grounds, are used for various ceremonies, both royal and national. To add to this, Norodom Sihanouk’s cremated remains are interred in the Kantha Bopha stupa, which is located within the compound.
A symbol of the name of Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom is a historical site that was made in 1373 to serve as a record of the Khmer national identity. The name comes from the discovery of the four statues of Buddha, Vishnu, Indra and Fat Buddha.
Back in 1372, there was a wealthy lady by the name of Doun Penh, which discovered a floating Koki tree in the river. When she scraped off all the mud from the tree, she found the four statues inside. The statues were made of bronze and brass, while one was made of marble. The temple, Wat Phnom was made in order to worship the four statues, and monks were invited to pray for them. The monks gave it the name of Wat Phnom, which is how it’s known to this day.
Located in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which sits on the Mekong River, Wat Langka is one of the five original wats of the city. It was built in 1422 and was initially established as a sanctuary for the Holy Writings. It was used as a meeting place for both Cambodian, and Sri Lankan monks. The wat was actually named in honor of these meetings, and it is located southwest of the Independence Monument.
Wat Langka was one of the temples that survived the destruction of the Khmer Rouge, which aimed to destroy Khmer Buddhism. The reason for this is the fact that it was used as a storehouse by the Khmer Rouge. The temple is now completely renovated, but considering the fact that it was, at one point, the primary library for religious writing, it has a significant place in Cambodian Buddhism. Even the name, Langka, stems from the fact that the temple originally housed an order from Sri Lanka.
If you’re looking to visit, note that the wat isn’t signposted in English. It is, however, rather easy to find if you’re in Phnom Penh, and if you ask any of the people around who know English, they’ll be able to point you towards it.
Temples in Laos
Laotian culture and tradition revolve around their faith in Buddha and their beliefs in ghosts and magic. They seem to immerse in the mysticism of the sacral and they erected amazing temples where they worship Buddha and feed their need for spirituality and peace. Laos has numerous examples of beautiful temples erected in the name of Buddha and decorated more beautifully than any other building or house. Temples represent the apex of their traditional architecture and they are indeed awe-inspiring. They were, and for Laotians, they remained a place for offering, donations and refuge for those in need of help and have an important role in Laotian life, culture, tradition and religion. The Mekong River cruise will take you to the ones that are a must-see and you can witness them from the water before stepping on the holy ground.
Wat Luang in Pakse
Situated by the Mekong and in the heart of the city, the Wat Luang temple is the first of the many beautiful temples that tourists visit in Pakse. It features beautiful bright colors, unique decorations and a nice garden where you can see a lot of monks, most of which reside here. It is one of the biggest wats in the city and it hosts a school that teaches courses for monks and a library with a lot of books on Buddhism.
In this beautiful temple, visitors can see a variety of paintings, relics and important historical artifacts. Apart from the front the great building and interior the surroundings and the nearness of the river offer great scenery and spectacular landscape. It makes a perfect atmosphere to relax, unwind and feel the true life of the Buddist monks. Taking that into consideration it is recommended to visit the temple early in the morning or in the late afternoon to enjoy the amazing view of the sunrise or sunset and have a friendly chat with the monks and fellow visitors.
Wat Phou Salao in Pakse
The golden Buddha – you certainly have come across a photo of the huge golden statue of Buddha sitting in front of the water of Mekong. Located on the top of the hill this is probably a wat with the best location and scenery. The Buddha that overlooks Pakse and the river is an awe-inspiring scene and the spot opens up to the best scenery of the city.
Although nothing beats the surprising authority of this great statue which size implies the influence Bushism has had on Laos and its people, the nearby wat is equally beautiful. It is diligently built and decorated with numerous small golden buddhas and the inside of the wat hosts the Jade Buddha where there are always monks that will welcome you.
And while the temple overlooks the river, to reach it one must hike uphill, but the effort will be rewarded with the best scenery and stunningly beautiful building.
Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang
Located on the northern tip of the Luang Phrabang peninsula in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong’s name translates into the “Temple of the Golden City”. This Buddhist temple is one of the most important Lao monasteries, presenting a significant monument to the spirit of royalty and religion. If ever you’ve taken a look at the Laos art and craft, you will find that this temple presents all the typical characteristics. With nine cascading roofs, gold stenciling and the Dok So Fa along the center of the roof, this place just keeps on surprising.
Now, being built back in the 1500s, this temple has gone through a couple of restorations to make it as beautiful as it is today. The latest renovations were done in 2012 and 2013, where the entire building has been carefully cleaned, the gold stencils were repainted, and any damaged windows, doors or tiles were restored.
If you want to enjoy one of the most stunning and historically significant monuments in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong is definitely a destination to visit.
Wat Si Saket in Vientiane
Just northwest of Haw Phra Kaew, the temple built to house the Emerald Buddha back in 1565, you will come across a Buddhist wat known as Wat Si Saket. At first, it might not seem like much, but this temple, located on the Lan Xang road in Vientiane, is a stunning testament to the Buddhist architecture’s Siamese style.
The temple was built in 1818, and the order was given by King Anouvong. The Siamese style dictated a surrounding terrace and a five-tiered roof, rather than the nine cascading roofs you’ll get with some of the typical Lao-style temples. And this exact fact is very likely the reason it is still standing today. Rather than demolishing it like most of the other temples in Vientiane, the armies of Siam used it as a headquarters and lodging place during the Anouvong’s rebellion in 1827. It was, however, restored on two occasions – once in 1924, and once in 1930.
The temple is overall very beautiful, but the highlight is the cloister wall, which contains over 2,000 images of Buddha, both ceramic and silver. There’s also a museum inside, which has a lot to offer – you should absolutely check it out.
Wat Si Muang in Vientiane
Built in the former Kingdom of Lan Xang, in 1563, the Wat Si Muang temple is a stunning monument with a statue of King Sisavang Vong in front of it. The temple got its name from a young woman, Si Muang, which, according to legend, sacrificed herself over 400 years ago in order to calm down the angry spirits. She jumped into the hole where builders were placing the central pillar, and when that pillar was lowered into position, she was crushed.
To make things even more interesting, the central pillar is also the center of town, which is why the temple is known among the locals as the “mother temple”. Not only is this one of the key points of the That Luang Festival, which attracts a lot of people, but if you ask locals, they’ll tell you this is the place you go if you want to get your wishes granted. The locals have a belief that if you pray for something, and you get it, you should go back to the temple and make offerings.
All things considered, not only is Wat Si Muang a beautiful temple to walk through and enjoy, but it is also of incredible significance for the functioning of the Laotian community.