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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Journey vs Destination

As Jeff and I hiked up the Kuang Si waterfall, we discussed a yak I was working on: journey vs destination. I told him how my homestay families in both Camodia and Laos had several family members that work very far away (such as in Bangkok or in cities 1.5-2 hours away) and come back home, at most, twice a month. During those homestays, I wondered the impact it had on the kids. I remember when my Cambodian host-nephew Darvi would get excited to sleep next to his parents when he usually hated going to bed and his eyes were no longer glued to a screen when his parents came home one weekend. So I wondered, is it worth the money to miss out on your children’s lives and them growing up?

Then I brought up the hike in Vang Vieng, where we took both forks in the path. The first fork lead to a beautiful view of the lush valleys and mountains of Laos. But the second fork was a lot more dangerous, and I got stung by a mass of wasps, leaving me with a swollen hand and eleven stings across my body. After hiking and climbing up those unstable rocks, we stopped at a peak with a mediocre view. So was the second journey worth the destination?

But then I recalled the second cave we visited in Vang Vieng. I was exhausted and didn’t want to go, but since I wanted to embrace my time here in Laos, I decided to tag along. We climbed hundreds of steps to get to a cave filled with LED lights, stairs, walkways, and railings. I felt like I was in Disney Land, where it was so manufactured and felt inauthentic. I rushed back down, ready to head back and take a nap, but Jeff decided to swim in a cave infested with tourists. We followed him and swam past the crowd and under an arch, leading us to an array of hidden caves. Tomás decided to grab a headlamp, and we swam through the dark caves, admiring the curves and crevices of the limestone. It was one of the most magical and mystical places I’ve ever explored, where the crystal-turquoise water seemed to go hundreds of feet into the ground. I felt so energized and alive gliding through the water, wandering through our Narnia. “This journey,” I told Jeff, “was definitely worth the destination.”

“But the destination was a journey itself, wasn’t it?” He asked. I hesitated before nodding. He proceeded to explain how lots of people in the modern world focus too much on the destination and neglect the journey. But the destination would not be the same without the journey; we see the destination differently when we take a different journey. Back in the day (60-80 years ago or two generations ago), traveling across the world meant sailing on a boat for a few months. That’s how Jeff’s grandparents ended up in Ireland and how my grandparents ended up in the U.S. from Japan. Now that we can hop on a plane and get to a destination within hours, we miss the transitions between different places.

On this course, we travel so far, yet we still only travel by water and land. We see the road conditions and obedience to traffic laws change when we cross borders. We see thousands of trees on one side of the Mekong, but concrete jungles on the other side. We see the signs in Laos include different languages such as Khmer, Laos, Thai, and Chinese as we drive up the country. We see more light pollution coming from chains such as 7/11 when we cross to Thailand, something Cambodia and Laos lack. If we had taken a plane from Phnom Penh to Vientiane to Kunming, our view of these places would have been drastically different. The journey is what makes our destination.

By the time Jeff and I hiked down, the waterfall was different. It was no longer water pouring down from a multi-tier cliff. It was water that was so clear that you could see all the rocks and mud in the small pool above. It was that water that gained momentum, dropping from one edge of the limestone cliff into another pool. It was that water that traveled down several more cliffs and pools, growing to a creamy blue color from the travertine in the limestone. It is that water that cascades into a large pool where mothers bathe their kids amongst foreigners swimming in their bikinis and shirtless bodies. It is that water that forms streams, eventually flowing into the Mighty Mekong, connecting millions of people who speak different languages, celebrate different religions, and have different cultures and histories together.