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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Mekong fall 2018 tentative itinerary!

Dear Students and Families,

We’re excited to present our tentative itinerary for this Fall. Even as we write this, the instructor team (I-team) is still chatting about the benefit of option A over option B, checking hotel availability, monitoring the weather, etc. That is to say, expect this itinerary to change. Traveling as a relatively small group allows us flexibility to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and to encourage students to follow their interests. Moreover, as you will soon learn, travel in Asia is not an exact science. Plan for moments where we will take it slow and embrace a different way of looking at travel—one that leaves room for missed buses and delayed trains and the new friends we will make because time was just a little more bendable.

Weeks 1 & 2

Our journey together begins in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, known in China as the “City of Eternal Spring”. We will begin our time together just outside the city, orienting ourselves to each other and our new home for the followingthree weeks. 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. Your body will start acclimatizing to altitude on arrival and once everyone has adjusted we’ll do our first hike on a mountain in northern Yunnan where we will spend two nights in a Lisu (an ethnic minority in China) village on top of the mountain and have a taste of the diversity of Chinese ethnic cultures. From there we will head down to the south of Yunnan to do our first homestay in Bangdong, a village beside the Mekongwhere tea and coffee are grown. While you follow your host families to pick tea and learn how to process fresh tea leaves and turn them into tea bricks, we will touch on subjects such as what role tea has played in the regional economy, andhow the Mekong is linked to the livelihood of locals.

At the end of this first fortnight of the trip, 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

In our last week in China, we will continue our journey south to Jinghong, a centre of the Dai ethnic minority and their culture. As an ethnic group with a fascinating history, the Dai people have faced and overcome many challenges. With fast-paced development gradually penetrating to every corner of China, this diverse city is a true representation of old meets new, as well as a living example of how ethnic minority identity is blending with mainstream Han influence.We will finish our time in southern Yunnan with our first student-led expedition in this area, before preparing to make our first border crossing of the trip. Laos awaits us, and at this point we will take some time to 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 14 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 Vuen Kham crossing, and, again, you will feel a change between Laos and Cambodia to meet our translator from Tour sanak and carry on to Kratie a small northern province, we begin again to get to know our last country from there and visit CRDT a small local NGO that works in the realm of rural development and sight seeing the world almost extinct Irrawady dolphin in the Mekong. Then we move on to Mondulkiri, northwest of Cambodia to start our jungle trekking 2 day 1 night.

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 and super excited!!

All the best,

The Mekong I-team.