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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Seven in Review (Goodbye Laos)

November and a new country to stamp into our passports: Thailand.

Now we look back at Don Donh from the Mekong’s western shores, and while excitement is present for our remaining adventures, and having the chance to explore Thailand for the next ten days, there are tinges of sadness at what we left behind on the quiet island, which, this weekend, is actually quite loud and lively.

At the beginning of this past week we visited the Nam Theun 2 Dam Visitor Center, located in the hills near Narkai, about a two hour drive from our island oasis. One of Indochina’s biggest mega dam projects to date, this dam was proposed in the early 90’s, and only 20 years later is it finally completed and open for energy production. During this time the Nam Theun Power Company, NTPC, had to meet concessions from the World Bank in order to receive funding to build. In the visitor’s center we read all about the work NTPC had done to to address the relocation of hundreds of villagers, the conservation of already-endangered and other at-risk wildlife, and preservation of land for agrarian and wildlife purposes. The dam itself is on the edge of Laos’ largest national park, and thus its requirements to prove it would have a low environmental impact were strict. We were hoping to have a tour of the power house, but it was closed for maintenance for three weeks due to issues with the turbines. No power is being generated during this time. We did have a chance to visit the reservoir; a large body of water that sits in the Narkai Nam Theun watershed and fills in the valleys and gullies near the mountains. Dead trees stand in the water, and boats travel across it. All populations there have had to adapt; accepting land-loss and appreciating new roads and health centers.

In the afternoon of that same day we visited with two women who work with the Narkai Nam Theun National Park. Annita Bousa is with the park law enforcement and shared with us statistics and stories about illegal activity–poaching, trapping, animal trafficking–that goes on in the park and how it is responded to. The park borders with Vietnam, and they try to work with Vietnamese officials to keep wildlife populations thriving, and human activity minimal.  After talking with Annita, we heard from Camille Coudrat, the founder of Association Anoulak, an NGO that focuses on conservation efforts and works directly with the national park to help monitor animal populations, track animal movements, and gather data on the health of the forest. It was a day full of information, but it was important to get perspectives from all sides in regards to energy production and land use. There generally is no simple answer to “good” or “bad.”

Life back on the island was filled with regular routines (bike rides, hanging out at stick-in-sand beach, cooking in our home-stays, and naps) as well as new activities, which included Halloween, making group flags, and celebrating All Saints Day. For Halloween Olivia & Nellie put in a lot of effort to ensure we had all we needed for a costume contest, pumpkin carving, games, and movie night. Home-stay siblings and cousins joined in the fun, and we spent hours eating candy, acting out different personas–typical tourist, nordic skier, Rabbi, Asian-fashion enthusiast–and listening to Michael Jackson and the soundtrack to Ghostbusters. It began to rain briefly, but the grey skies and cool temperatures really helped with the spooky feel.

In preparation for leaving Don Donh we read Pico Iyer’s “Why We Travel” essay and made flags that reflected our thoughts on travel and what we wanted to bring with us into our upcoming transition to new countries, new communities, and new challenges. The yellow, teal, and lilac flags will flutter their way into Thailand and Cambodia with our group, reminding us of the values we hold. Although five weeks of course are left, it is not too early to begin to think about how our mindsets have shifted in regards to how we live in this world and the ways we want to live and move after December 6th.

Our final day in our home-stays corresponded with All Saints’ Day, a Catholic holiday when you honor relatives and ancestors who have died. On Don Donh it is a great opportunity for celebration as well. Family from afar comes back to visit, and day-long feasts and fetes take place. To mark our departure we had a short, sweet baci ceremony, where our home-stay mothers blessed us and we gave thanks and appreciations. Then we returned home to prepare large meals that were both departure and arrival celebrations. Chickens were killed and eaten, sweet sticky rice was cooked over the fire. We met extended family that would be replacing our rooms and beds. We heard stories of family members who had passed away. As the lights of the day dimmed, families moved from homes to the graveyard, where we lit candles and set them on the graves of family members and friends who have passed away. It was a beautiful way to round out our time living in this small, quiet, yet noisy community.

We left on the ferry on Saturday morning. Our family members waved to us from the shore, where they also linked arms and shook hands with the full ferry-load of folks who had just arrived. As we turned our sights to the landing, and took five deep breaths, we found ourselves on the main land once again. The flags were folded in our leader bag, the word of one student on my mind:

“I travel through the world as this flag through the wind,
fleeing from creed and kin to home of new and old.”