What follows here is our tentative Mekong Fall 2017 semester itinerary. As you’ll probably notice, a few of the sections here are vague, very vague, and they’ve been left intentionally so. One of the many things that sets Dragons courses apart is the nature of their organic creation by each individual instructor team (iTeam), and our Mekong semester this fall is no different. While some of the exact locations of our adventures are still in the planning process, what is certain is that our course is going to be as dynamic, engaging, and as formative as past Dragons courses, which have set such a high bar for cross-cultural experiential education.
Weeks 1 & 2
Our journey together begins in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital and China’s “City of Eternal Spring”. We will begin our time together just outside the city, orienting ourselves to each other and our new home for a month, China. During this time, you’ll set goals for yourself and the group and we’ll take a closer look into the course themes that will guide us over the coming months. You’ll start acclimatizing to altitude on arrival and once we deem it safe we will begin our ascent up to the Tibetan Plateau. We will do our first three day homestay in Bucan, a Tibetan community led by the infamous Sina Duji. Here you will sleep and eat with your host families as we prepare for our multi-day trek to Yubeng.
At the conclusion of the first weeks, you’ll have a good idea of where we’re going, what the course curriculum entails, and what your personal and group goals are. Most importantly you’ll start generating questions of your own and we encourage you to share your thoughts and passions with us so that you can start to take ownership of your experience.
Weeks 3 & 4
After being on the move we’ll slow the course down a little and retreat into our second homestay (five days) in Manzhang near Jinghong. Living with the Dai people is an extraordinary experience. As an ethnic minority group with a fascinating history, the Dai people have faced and overcome many challenges. Today the community is trying to set itself up as an “eco-stay” and we will learn about tourism and its impact on communities. We will close out our time in southern Yunnan with our first student-led expedition phase in the region of Xishuangbana before preparing to make our first border crossing of the trip. Laos awaits us, and we reflect on the valuable lessons that China has taught us.
Weeks 4 & 5
Crossing the China-Laos border is technically little more than a line on a map, but the change is noticeable. The pace of life slows just as the Mekong collects and burgeons, fed by the many tributaries flowing down from the highlands. We will find ourselves deep in the jungle to reconnect with nature again trekking in a very different environment from the one we explored in Upper Yunnan, before having our first opportunity to get on our Mother River, Mekong, and take a boat south to Luang Prabang: the cultural capital of Laos.
Luang Prabang is famous for its Buddhist temples and novice monks and it’s a poignant setting for sinking into comparative religion component of our course. We’ll sleep right along the Mekong as it bends through dramatic, jungle-choked peaks and relish in the contrasts of East and West, tourist and traveler, saffron and the lush green of foliage alive from recent rain.
From Luang Prabang we’ll head south downriver to Vientiane, the political capital of Laos. The legacy of the Secret War in Laos and its victims are prominent here, and highlighted powerfully by local NGOs still working to put together the pieces left behind. Vientiane is one of the quietest capitals in the region, but it is a city undergoing rapid change and it is feeling the full of weight of globalization.
Week 6 & 7
Next, we’ll take a local bus south to Thaket and cross to our island home for the next 12 days on Ban Don Dohn. A catholic community, the livelihoods of the people come almost entirely from the land and its bounty: farming rice, fishing, and weaving baskets from bamboo. Their pace of life will become our pace, and the days will be that wonderful combination of very long and very short. We will fill our days adventuring, learning and sitting with our own minds. At the end of our stay on Ban Don Dohn we will catch a bus south to Pakse to debrief our experience. We’ll have fun together swimming in waterfalls and reflecting on what we learned from Laos.
Week 8 & 9
From Pakse we will make our way to the Chong Mek border crossing, and, again, you will feel a change between Laos and Thailand. Upon arrival, we’ll be greeted by P Gai and P Pai, our homestay coordinators who will take us to the Pak Mun River community where we’ll base for the next ten days. The people here are still fighting the Thai government to decommission the Mun River dam and you’ll see, first hand, what the true impact of dams in and what true community participation looks like.
Our final border crossing brings us into Cambodia, Land of the Khmer. From the rugged northwest, we’ll make our way along rivers and forests to the Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. Opting for quieter environs, we’ll bed down at the Metta Karuna Reflection Center just on the edge of town. Spending a few days to cycle the temples, investigate the realities of a small town flooded by international tourism, and delve into pertinent human rights issues. Our time in Siem Reap will be chock-full of physical and intellectual stimulus. We will be inside the pulsing heart of Southeast Asian tourism and we can reflect on what it is to be a traveler versus a tourist.
After we bid the Angkor complex you will begin your final student expedition phase. Where we go is up to you but we will have guidelines for you to follow.
Weeks 10 & 11
Arriving in Phnom Penh, your expedition phase will conclude and we’ll take a sobering look at the tragic truths of this country’s recent history, all the while reveling in the youthful dynamism and creative energy that is defining the yet unwritten future of this place. From Phnom Penh, we’ll head down the Bassac River, south past Phnom Penh, to Koh Khsach Tonlea village for our 12 day Cambodian homestay on a river channel paralleling the Mekong. Just 44 km south of Phnom Penh, the island village manages to maintain its rural charm while being inevitably affected by its proximity to the ever-expanding capital. We’ll spend our time here learning language, enjoying lessons, and lazing around in hammocks. Much as in Laos, the pace of this place sinks into you, making the end of each day something to be savored.
As our time together draws to a close, we’ll escape the car horns and revving motos of Cambodia’s biggest cities to regroup along the coast. This is a time for us to unwind and think about all we’ve seen and done in the previous three months together. We hope to feel the satisfaction of a few months well-lived, a time in which we engaged deeply, shared openly, and thought creatively about who we are and who we’re becoming in the context of such various and compelling landscapes. We take this time to appreciate our experiences and one another, and to look ahead at how we can transfer our lessons along the Mekong to whatever awaits us next.
We look forward to seeing each and everyone one of you soon! We are in the middle of calling you personally so please answer your phones. And please post an introduction Yak here (cheers to Soren for getting us started!).
Until then, be happy.
Your Mekong iTeam – Jess, Marcus, and Som.