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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Mekong Spring 2018 Narrative Itinerary

As the departure date for our journey draws near, we now present the general flow of our course upriver from Cambodia to southwestern China. Below you will find a “tentative itinerary” for our trip. We say tentative, as we’ll remain nimble and flexible during the course of our program, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities that arise along the way, manage possible risks, and perhaps more importantly, integrate student-led activities and ideas. While we may wander from our plan from time to time, our primary objective is to travel with intention, making the most of relationships of our host communities along the way. Without further ado:

We begin our journey in the coastal town of Kampot, situated on the Cambodian section of the Gulf of Thailand. Taking a few days to get acquainted with each other, we set expectations and orient ourselves to Cambodia. Our orientation continues in Kirirom National Park, where we will hike through local pine forests and cascading waterfalls, developing a better understanding of the Mekong region and of our fellow travelers.

From the mountains we move into our first homestay experience in the village of Koh Ksach Tonlea, a community situated on an island in the Bassac River. Here, we are introduced to the beautifully slow pace of the Cambodian countryside and rural family life: we will connect with villagers, begin Khmer language lessons, dive into our curricular themes of development and comparative religion, get involved with community projects, and get our first taste of life on the river.

Bidding farewell to our new friends in Koh Ksach Tonlea and the peace of the island, we travel to Phnom Penh, the bustling capital of Cambodia and where the Tonle Sap river meets the mighty Mekong. Here, we have the opportunity to explore the streets and markets of the city, visit local Buddhist Wats, and learn about the nation’s tragic history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. We will also witness the capital’s rapid economic and cultural development, meet with several organizations, and broaden our understanding of urban life in Cambodia.

Traveling northwest to Siem Reap, we have our first glimpse of the magical temples of Angkor. It is here that we learn more about the rise and fall of the ancient Khmer empire, and how the mighty Mekong, running hundreds of kilometers to the east, greatly influenced the Khmer civilization living on the shores of the Great Lake (the Tonle Sap). As the group settles into respective leadership roles, we return east toward the Mekong, stopping briefly in Phnom Penh to board a boat that will take us upriver on the Mekong to the quaint hamlet of Kratie. Moving north along the river’s course into Cambodia’s northeastern provinces, we delve deeper into our survey of development and conservation issues, trekking through the jungles of Mondulkiri, and experiencing a new and fascinating region of Cambodia.

From here we bid farewell to Cambodia and travel upstream to southern Laos, home of Champasak, Wat Phu, and the tranquil island of Don Daeng where we downshift into Lao time, beginning the next phase of our journey.

After a few days in Paxse province becoming acquainted with the Land of a Million Elephants, switching tongues, and getting our first tastes of Lao cuisine, we continue upriver to Thakek, the capital of Khammaoune province (and Somsanid’s hometown). Not far from Thakek, we settle in for 2 weeks of homestay on a small island in the middle of the Mekong. Here we live with families whose livelihoods come almost entirely from the land, the river, and their bounty: farming rice, fishing, and weaving baskets from bamboo. While adopting the slower rhythm of our hosts and joining them in their daily tasks, we’ll also find time to practice language, continue our examination of development issues, deepen our understanding of Theravada Buddhism, and enjoy life along the Mekong.

After saying goodbye to our homestay a community, we’ll return to Thakek to gear up for a gorgeous multi-day walk through the limestone karsts, immense caves, and emerald lagoons of the Phou Hin Poun Protected Area. From here, we continue north to Vientiane, the political capital of Laos. While one of the quietest capitals in the region, Vientiane is undergoing rapid change and feeling the full of weight of globalization. Here we examine more closely the history and political landscape of Laos, meet with various NGOs working in the development realm, consider the long-term effects of the Secret War, and enjoy some urban comforts after our time in the countryside.

Continuing upriver to the glittering riverside town of Luang Prabang, we receive an in-depth introduction to the river’s meaning in everyday life and the contours of Laos history and culture. Famous for its Buddhist temples, French colonial architecture, topaz waterfalls, karst horizon and candle-lit wonders, Luang Prabang provides a poignant setting for sinking into studies of meditation and mindfulness, artistic traditions and ecotourism. Upon leaving Luang Prabang, we make our way to Luang Namtha, one of the jewels of the Golden Triangle. Here we venture into the jungles on a multi-day trek, passing through ethnic Khmu villages and sleeping in bamboo bungalows. We move west toward the Mekong and take a two-day boat ride south from Huayxay to Pak Beng, where we sleep on the banks of the river, to Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of northern Laos.

After crossing the border in Boten, we take a bus into Xishuangbanna prefecture, which straddles the Laos/Myanmar borderlands and is among the most ethnically and ecologically diverse areas of China. We orient to the language and ethnic Dai culture in Jinghong, the bustling capital of the region and an increasingly attractive location for real estate investors and Beijing snow birds. We quickly head to village of Manzhang where we are paired up with families who introduce us to local customs and culture and take us deep into the jungles to explore the environment on day treks.

Our travels continue northward, following the contours of the Mekong as we go against the current and feel the ground rise below our feet. As we come closer to the source, still more than a thousand kilometers to the northwest, we simultaneously find ourselves hemmed in by ever larger mountains as we climb into the foothills of the Himalaya and the cliffside communities who call the basin home. We settle into Bangdong surrounded by tea and rice terraces, overlooking a stretch of the Mekong that has been heavily impacted by the Manwan Dam. Students live with farming families and learn about agricultural systems in China. The stark realities of rural to urban migration come into view during this phase, as are compromises revealed about China’s rise toward economic superpower.

Curing the final week of the course we’ll slow down and begin the process of transference. As a representation of our journey, we stop in Shaxi, a World Monuments site and critical way-station on the ancient Tea & Horse Caravan routes to Tibet. We cycle to the Buddhist grottoes of Wei Bao Shan and wander the smooth cobblestone streets in the company of Yi and Bai mushroom hunters and farmers. The Shaxi basin — comprised of thirteen misty, picturesque villages — is a cultural melting pot from time immemorial and offers us our last glimpse of the region’s spiritual traditions through Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhist traditions. Embodying the Mind Like Water ideal, we board a train and settle into a guesthouse in an idyllic town nestled in the mountains outside Kunming to celebrate our final days together as a group.