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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Announcing Our Tentative Itinerary!

As the departure date for our journey draws near, we want to present you with the general flow of our course upriver from Cambodia to Southwestern China. Below you will find a “narrative itinerary” for our trip. We say narrative, 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.

 

WEEK 1: ORIENTATION IN KIRIROM & TRAVEL IN PHNOM PENH

After landing in Phnom Penh, we depart the city to spend our first few days in the Chambok community in Kirirom. This is our orientation: a time to get over jet lag, get to know your peers and instructors, and get acquainted with Southeast Asia in a calm setting.

After our orientation, we visit Phnom Penh and dive into Cambodia, visiting important places like the killing fields and local NGOs.

 

WEEKS 2-3: KOH K’SACH TONLEA HOMESTAY

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.

 

WEEK 4: SIEM REAP & SOUTHERN LAOS

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.

As we bid farewell to Siem Reap, we will cross from Cambodia into Laos. We will take local buses through Pakse in Southern Laos up to the Thakek area, where we will begin our island homestays.

 

WEEKS 5-6: BAN DON DONH HOMESTAY

Ban Don Donh (Ban means village) is a small Catholic community, whose livelihood rely on farming and fishing. It was established over a hundred years ago, on an island in the middle of the Mekong river. We will take a crossing boat to approach the village. There, we will be greeting by our host families, who are excited to open their homes to us. We will learn some Lao words and phrases that you can practice with everyone there. Over two weeks, we will be part of the family and the community. We hope you are excited to learn from your host family. You might find them planting vegetables in the garden, taking care of cattle on the farm, or fishing in the river—don’t hesitate to join them and get you hands dirty! This homestay is also a great opportunity to learn to cook and enjoy Lao cuisine (sticky-rice is very addictive, yum!). Evenings in Ban Don Donh are very exciting and energetic, when young people gather to play volleyball. We will be invited to play the sport and even challenged to compete with them. There is so much to do at Ban Don Donh; biking around the village, walking to the beach, or just enjoying the slow rhythm of life.

 

WEEK 7: VIENTIANE & LUANG PRABANG

After bidding farewell to our host families, we will travel to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Even though Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, it is still pretty quiet with a slow pace of everyday life. It is an important stop for us to learn more about the history and stories of Laos and its people. There are museums and important monuments and temples to explore. While in Vientiane, we will visit the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise or COPE, an organization formed to provide and coordinate rehabilitation services for people who are injured from unexposed ordnance from bombs dropped on Laos during the Secret War (from 1964-1973).

Depending on student interest, we may also have the option to do a short meditation retreat across the border from Vientiane in Nong Khai, Thailand.

From Vientiane, we will take a bus, traveling north through mountainous terrain, into its heart–Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of Lan Xang Kingdom (around 13th to 16th centuries). Since 1995, Luang Prabang has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its unique architecture and religious and cultural heritage. People in Luang Prabang get up very early to prepare food to offer to Buddhist monks, who walk calmly through the town around 5:30 am every day, collecting alms from the lay Buddhists. We can take time in Luang Prabang to visit the historic temples, review our lessons on Buddhism, and sample foods at the local morning market.

 

WEEK 8: BOAT RIDE TO HUAY XAI AND TREKKING IN LUANG NAMTHA

We will finally have a chance to take a boat on the Mekong River and see majestic mountains and small ethnic villages on the boat ride from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, the capital of Bokeo Province. The boat ride will take two full days and we will stop at a small village called Pakbeng for one night. Cruising upriver is truly special–the view is breathtaking. You can capture the memories by taking pictures, sketching, or writing in a journal.

From Huay Xai, we will travel north to Luang Namtha, where we will begin a short two-day trek led by local trekking guides. The trek is beautiful and allows us to be part of nature and to learn some skills of forest survival. We will build our shelter, collect firewood, and cook food in bamboo. Don’t worry if you haven’t had this experience before, our guides are very knowledgeable and they will make sure we are all well-fed and sheltered.

After the trek, we continue along the Mekong River through northern Laos towards its source in China.

 

WEEK 9: XISHUANGBANNA

Crossing the land border at Boten, we will take a bus into our fourth country–China! Our first stop in China is the city of Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna prefecture, on the border with Laos and Myanmar. It is also the region where Madeleine spent a year living and conducting research. Though Jinghong is one of the most laid-back cities in China, it will feel large and bustling compared to our time in Laos. We will orient ourselves to China, as well as the cultures of the Dai and Jinuo ethnic minorities in the region, and visit Dai villages, sprawling botanical gardens, tea plantations, night markets, and commercialized tourist villages as we delve into our study of ethnic tourism, commodification, and development. We will also learn about tea culture in China, the history of which stretches back thousands of years. We will ring in the Dai New Year by setting off colorful floating lanterns over the Mekong with thousands of other revelers. This celebration will also serve as our goodbye to the mother river, as we move northwards onto our next journey.

 

WEEK 10-11: TRAVEL TO LASHIHAI & NANYAO HOMESTAY

We travel north to Lashihai lake, in the mountainous foothills of the Himalaya, where we will settle into homestays in beautiful Nanyao village, surrounded by lakes, meadows, and even glaciers. Nanyao is a Naxi ethnic minority village, and from our homestays there, we can explore Naxi Dongba culture, Tibetan Buddhism, and local agriculture systems. We can also participate in farming, folk dancing, and tea-drinking, among other activities, to immerse ourselves in traditional ways of life in China–you will find that life here is quite different from Southeast Asia.

 

WEEK 12: TIGER LEAPING GORGE TREK & TRANSFERENCE

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. The inhabitants of the gorge are primarily the indigenous Naxi people, who live in a handful of small hamlets. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 meters wide), hence the name. We will be following the hunter’s path and see some of the most spectacular scenery that Yunnan has to offer.

After two days of trekking in Tiger Leaping Gorge, we will travel via overnight train to a guesthouse in a permaculture community outside of Kunming and begin our transference. Transference is like orientation in reverse. Rather than preparing us to engage deeply in experiences, transference helps us process those experiences and connect them to our lives beyond the course. We will reflect on our experiences, talk about ways in which we can take what we have learned home with us, give and receive feedback, participate in permaculture farming activities, and enjoy each other’s company. Hopefully some of the pieces of the puzzle will start to fit together and a picture of your time along the Mekong will emerge. We’ll try to help you take that picture and place it within the collage of the rest of your life, so that this trip continues to be part of you even when it’s just a memory.