The Mekong Discovery Trail: A Cambodian eco-journey

A 230-KILOMETER path traversing the north-east of Cambodia along the fabled Mekong River, the Mekong Discovery Trail is an exciting opportunity to combine cycling and cultural community-based tourism.

The trail starts at the Laos border and takes you into the heart of the Mekong, with ample opportunities for homestays in traditional villages and chances to see the Critically Endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Along the trail, cyclists and those who choose the less eco-friendly method of taking a motorbike can stop along the way to trek on foot through the surrounding jungle, sample local cuisine and fresh fruit from village markets, and take in the gorgeous scenery along the Mekong.

Accommodation options include homestays, which are plentiful in the villages and display an easily recognizable blue sign outside the dwelling. If you want to combine your accommodation with your Mekong tour and prefer to relax rather than cycle, you might want to consider staying on a houseboat.

From Tourism Cambodia:

A very special way to relax and experience the Mekong River is on a traditional river boat. Sit back and enjoy the magnificent sunsets and sunrises and spectacular flooded forests of the Ramsar wetlands. Buy fish from passing boats and stop at riverside villages to shop in local markets.

One of the highlights of the Mekong Discovery Trail is the chance to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, a smaller relative of the orca, which inhabits both freshwater and coastal oceanic habitats. The Irrawaddy’s cute rounded head and perpetual smile make it look a bit like a Japanese cartoon character. Its plight is far from a fairytale, however.

From Wanderlust Travel Magazine:

Watching them is a sedate affair – no Flipper-style antics from these boys. They are graceful, shy creatures. We’d nudge the boat closer; they’d drift further away. Yet why should they trust humans? They were slaughtered for their fat and for target practice in great numbers in Cambodia’s recent conflict-ridden past. Nowadays, accidental gillnet capture, river pollution, overfished food stocks and high calf mortality are paramount concerns.

Mekong River dolphin. Pic: CRDTKratie (Flickr CC)

One of the best places to spot an Irrawaddy is near the former French colonial town and provincial capital of Kratié. Though not developed for commercial tourism, Kratié is well known on the backpacker circuit. Things to do in and around Kratié include visiting the local basket weaving villages, dolphin boat trip tours, visiting the Phonom Sombok temple and the archeological site of Sambor, an ancient settlement with several temples.

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There is not a lot of information available online regarding the Mekong Discovery Trail aside from some trip diaries and a few commercial sites. It’s not a very developed region for mass tourism or anything, but you won’t be a trailblazer either. However, if you fancy a bit of bicycle trek, exploring at your own pace and interacting with local village culture, it may be just the thing for you. Trips along the trail also have the advantage of directly benefitting the local community and have minimal negative impact on the environment.

Phnom Samtuk. Pic: Jan-one (Flickr CC)

Here’s an excerpt from a travel diary of a motorcycle ride on the trail (via

To top things off, all of the villages and the scenery by the road were just picture perfect. Nice houses, palm trees, oxcarts and the mighty Mekong by the side with scattered little islands in the middle of it. The atmosphere was great and I didn’t want to stop riding. I think I didn’t stop smiling during the whole trip.

Check out this Google Maps travel route for a list of stops along one 43 km section of the trail.

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