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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Five in Review

The Mighty Mekong has arrived in home-stays and a whole new phase of this program has begun. We will spend the rest of our October days living on the island of Don Donh, a five kilometer long piece of land that sits in the Mekong with Thailand to the west and Laos to the east. Living alone with different families, we will have the chance to explore the island on our own time, and join our families to harvest rice, to fish, and to cook meals. Don Donh is a perfect end to our time in Laos because it allows for us to practice the language we have been learning, and engage deeper in the conversations we have been having about Laos’ socio-political history and the environmental challenges it has been facing.

Many hundreds of kilometers up the river from Don Donh is Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Once the administrative capital during the French reign of Laos, Vientiane wears its history in its architecture. Beautiful French-colonial buildings stand next to impressive Buddhist temples. Patuxai, a memorial monument in the middle of the city, bears a strong resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but has Buddhist details in its design work. You can go to the top of it and look out over the expanse of the city and stand in the shade, wondering about the changes this place has seen over the past century.

As is indicated by the name of our course, the Mekong River has been a central focus for us during the past five weeks. While we have had the chance to interact with and learn about the river in anecdotal ways over this time, we have not had the chance to connect with a lot of experts on the region. That was until we connected with Dr. Kim Geheb who works for the Mekong Region Futures Institute. Dr. Geheb engaged us in discussion about the geographical make-up of the Upper Mekong and Lower Mekong basins; the proposed, constructed, and canceled dam projects on the river; the impact of a changing climate on the Mekong Delta and its farmland and fisheries; and the different ethnic groups whose cultural heritage is linked to the land and the river, and how new economic development projects managed by Chinese, Thai, and Lao companies are forcing them from their homes and ways of life. Linking together our own observations from our time on the river with his statistics and anecdotes was a helpful way to further synthesize all we had been exposed to thus far and to expose us to new information that we will carry downstream.

Just as Vientiane is home to many organizations focused on responding to environmental and developmental issues in Laos, many social and humanitarian programs are based there as well. We had the chance to visit two organizations whose missions are to provide resources, trainings, and support to individuals with various physical disabilities. COPE Laos developed to provide prosthetic limbs to folks in need. They have most greatly served the community of people who live in regions that still have unexploded ordinances (UXO’s) from United States bombing missions that took place during the Vietnam War. From 1964 – 1973 there were more than 580,000 such missions, dropping bombs every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. Over two million tons of ordinance was dropped, and around thirty percent failed to detonate. Those UXO’s are still lodged in the Lao countryside today, and each year more surface, putting the lives of those who are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the men & women alive during the Secret War, at risk. We visited the visitor center of COPE Laos and took a tour, learning about the various services they provide for victims of these explosions and other projects they are working on to help populations of people born with various physical disabilities. COPE is funded almost entirely on governmental grants and private donations, and as a group we made a donation to support their mobile clinics.

The Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center (LDWDC) is a non-profit run by Lao women with disabilities for Lao women with disabilities. Tucked off of a busy street, the LDWDC is a series of buildings which are full of women practicing sewing, weaving, and English language skills. We spent almost a full day at the center, trying our hand at weaving, playing games, and hearing the stories of some of the women whose lives have been changed since having the chance to build new skillsets there. There are many areas in Laos that are rural and remote and do not have easy access to medical facilities. Being born with a disability in these secluded villages can make for an extremely challenging way of life, as there are little to no support services for these individuals. It can become especially challenging for women because certain societal expectations dictate their role in their communities. The LDWDC serves to empower women and provide them with tangible, transferable skills they can return to their homes with, to set up new businesses and try to resume a more comfortable, accessible way of life. It was an inspiring and thought-provoking visit, and left us with much to consider about underserved communities.

Being the largest city in Laos, Vientiane has a variety of international cuisine options, karaoke venues, and places to run along the river. We took advantage of all of these things. From Lebanese to French to Italian to Lao food, we ate well. We sang into the nights and watched documentaries and romantic comedies. We also talked about X-Phase. In one month students will have the chance to lead the course for ten days. They will plan an itinerary and curriculum that is in alignment with our course values and will transfer the knowledge they have gained about sustainable travel to make this time be full of meaningful experiences. To give time for this planning, students had the chance to hear about the goals and guidelines of X-Phase, and then discuss it. While being on an island for the next two weeks may be challenging for this planning process, it is all part of the travel experience, and helps each of us to grow.

Our last two nights have been in Thakhek, the nearest large town to Don Donh. This time was focused on preparing for our island time, through expressing hopes and fears, drawing maps of the island, and learning new helpful phrases in Lao. On our last night before moving into our homes we sat on the banks of the river, drank coconut and fruit smoothies and watched the bright red sun set over Thailand. We ate barbecue at the night market and rounded out our time on mainland Laos by taking over a restaurant and singing hits from Taylor Swift, the Mama Mia soundtrack, and Abba. Karaoke seems to have become a new priority for our group, and one we hope to create in some way in Don Donh.