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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Four in Review

Crossing the border into Laos was an introduction to Lao culture, a look into the complications of development, and a reminder of China’s stronghold on managing this region. We walked across the Chines/Lao border, passing long lines of semi-trucks coming from Laos into Yunnan full of rocks and fruit and vegetables and boxes of unknown contents. At immigration we filled out our visa applications and then sat on our backpacks, waiting for the officers to return from their lunch. We were told to wait 30 to 90 minutes. The wait was the latter. Our bus driver kept poking his head in, impatient that our passports were holding up the other passengers. We smiled knowingly and apologetically, but there was nothing anyone could do. After officially being stamped in, we piled onto the bus and motored south. The first half hour of the drive was a practice in trying to understand. The land was raw and scarred; tracks of dirt and stone being scooped and pushed and managed. In a section the length of a football field we counted over 25 excavators clawing their way into the hillside. The treeline was diminishing at each swipe. While this is Lao land, China has a 90 year right to build on it, and build they are. Already the area is a sea of construction and upward movement. In a few years, in a decade, it will be homes and hotels; less of a one-stop noodle shop on the way to somewhere else. It was sobering

We paused in Luang Namtha for a night before going to Huay Xai where we spread ourselves out on a long-boat and spent two days traveling a few hundred kilometers down the Mekong. These two days were much needed. We had the chance to rock ourselves to sleep in the hammocks, to read and draw and write. To play cards and listen to music and eat fruit and make friendship bracelets. Outside of Pak Beng we set up tents and swam in the river and played games by the fire and fell asleep to sounds of water buffalo moving in the bamboo and noctural animals calling out. Our boat travels brought us under massive construction projects: bridges and bridges being built to connect countrysides to urban centers. We traveled under a railway that China is funding to transport goods and services from some Chinese city to Laos, Thailand, all the way to Singapore. An 11 billion dollar project. One Belt, One Road.

Our boat stopped in Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Luang Prabang is a beautiful small city on the banks of the Mekong. It is filled with temples and young monks and lots of small cafe’s. While in Luang Prabang we had the chance to re-calibrate and rest, and learn a little about the city’s cultural heritage. One day we went to Kuang Xi Waterfalls and spent the day cooling off and exploring. These spring-fed falls run over limestone rocks on their journey down the mountain, and the light refraction from the calcium carbonate found in the rocks creates a beautiful turquoise color, making it all the more enjoyable to spend time in. In the forest near the falls is Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center, a bear sanctuary center that takes in bears that have been trapped and trafficked to other countries. We had the chance to see moon bears resting on platforms and playing with one another. It brought up interesting conversations about conservation and preservation and piqued our interest in further environmental and social issues present in this region.

From Luang Prabang we traveled to Vang Vieng, a former backpacker’s paradise located on the Nam Song River. Vang Vieng has an interesting history that includes a strong party culture and a lack of traveler’s sensitivity surrounding local customs and traditions. This has resulted in a changing local economy, tourist deaths, and a scene that has been created to meet the demands of tourists traveling on a tight budget. Over the past few years, however, with pressure from the Lao government and locals, Vang Vieng’s tourist attractions have changed and it is nothing like it used to be. We stayed at an organic farm that specializes in mulberry growing. They make mulberry juice and, until recently, had silk production. The farm also produces goat cheese and many vegetables. They focus on sustainable practices, and have filled their land with plants and trees and flowers that have edible and medicinal properties. We had the chance to learn about how to make compost and fertilizers from natural products. The main purpose of our time at the farm was to pause and reflect upon our first month and look forward to the two we have left. While it was not technically the halfway point of our course, we used this quiet and comfortable space as a venue to provide feedback to one another, make requests, and share gratitude. It was fitting in many ways, as the 13th of October was Awk Phansa, the day that marks the end of Buddhist Lent, a time when monks sit in meditation for three months during the height of the rainy season. To mark this occasion there are morning offerings made at the temples, boat races during the days, and in the evening lai heua fai, the act of putting banana leaf boats into the river with candles to send away negative energy and worries. Awk Phansa always takes place on the day of the full moon, which we too, recognized. We took part in the festivities and set boats into the water and lanterns into the air, hoping our lights would carry forth and our worries would subside.

Our transition from mid-course took place at Panyanivej Farm in the Bamboo Village. For twenty-four hours we fished, harvested rice, learned to weave, and slept in homes. This was a really nice moment to get a feel for what home-stays will be like and practice our Lao. Anticipation for home-stays is rising and we are getting very excited.

We have just entered Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. For the next few days we will explore this place and visit some NGO’s that are doing work to support various communities in this country. Our days are filling with lessons, more autonomy, and student-led activities. We are doing well and adjusting to the heat by eating mangos and drinking smoothies.