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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Ten in Review

A few weeks ago when thinking forward to X-Phase we asked the group: what does being on an ‘expedition’ mean to you?

Students shared a range of responses:
“Working towards a shared goal.”
“Trying new challenges without certainty of the outcome.”
“Stepping into different roles to support peers accomplish a task.”
“Being flexible, while also having a plan.”

They described, in many ways, what a Dragons course is in its entirety and this past week the students of the Mighty Mekong Semester have shown that they can do what it takes to run a mini Dragons course, a travel-based expedition. They have worked together to bring us from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat, across the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, and exists as Cambodia’s heart, pumping life into fields and floodplains. It supports millions of lives through its seasonal pulses. As we cut across the top of it, winding our way through mangroves and floating villages, we were able to get a glimpse of the open water, an endless expanse of ripples, beckoning us south. Being on the river brought some closure in a way; having met the Mekong on the Tibetan plateau and then re-connected with it in various ways as we traveled downstream, the northern edge of the Tonle Sap was another terminus. During floods the lake expands, catching and holding all the water rushing in from the Mekong. It reverses flow in the dry season, reducing its size. Being where the river expands to once again further instilled just how massive the Mekong River Basin is, and just how vital it is to all organisms in this part of the world.

In Battambang we spent three full days exploring the art and food culture of the region. One day we met with local artist Khchao Touch, a Khmer woman who inspires her work, and being, from nature and meditation. After learning about her story and the techniques she uses when painting and drawing, we had the chance to work on small sketches of our own, and then gift them to one another. It was a calming activity and allowed for our artistic sides to shine through. In the evening we gathered together on the roof of our hotel for Art Share, a night dedicated to creating community and connection through storytelling and artistic expression. Over the course of many hours each member of our group shared their creative process–from poetry to songs, paintings to drawings, short stories to a theatrical interpretation of a Cambodian folktale that Annika, Ben, and Gai put on. That evening was a major highlight and brought us together as peers and people excited to express ourselves in deep, vulnerable ways.

Our last day in Battambang we went to visit Wat Ek Phnom, and on the way stopped in villages to watch the production of rice paper–small circles of thin dough, which are used for making fresh spring rolls. We had a chance to try making the paper and then the rolls; a perfect mid-day snack. At Wat Ek Phnom we sat in the shade, collected Bodhi leaves and frangipani blooms, and listened to Mikey share a lesson on Khmer history and Buddhist iconography. That afternoon we went to Nary’s Kitchen where we had a Khmer cooking class.

Outside of these busy plans, In the quiet moments, our time was spent listening to the life maps of Nick, Eleanor, and Nellie, and having a language lesson from Annika. In the afternoon heat we swam in the pool, and evenings we would sit on the roof and laugh and share stories. Battambang was a perfect place to begin X-Phase and we all slept easy and drank lots of coffee.

We are now in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, and the last location we will be in for an extended period–six days–before the end of our course. Our first two days here were spent diving into the history of the genocide and modern human rights issues in Cambodia. We went to the S-21 museum and to meet with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. While these topics can sit heavy with us, we have been reminded of the importance of honoring history with compassion, of identifying solutions to problems, of analyzing where the root of our troubled minds lies.

The students held a mid-phase check-in where they reflected on if they were meeting their expedition needs. As with all successful expeditions, there are areas of growth. In our group, in this experience, these include less instructor involvement, more student flexibility, and seeking out the chance to fail. With failure comes learning, and from learning comes greater awareness. We have already been so impressed with the responsibility this group of twelve has taken on, and look forward to the days to come and the challenges they set out for themselves.