Mekong Semester: The Tibetan Plateau to the Heart of Southeast Asia, Sample Itinerary

This is a sample itinerary. No two Dragons courses are the same. Every itinerary considers the unique strengths of the instructor team and interests of the student group.
Weeks 1 & 2 Our journey together begins in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital and China’s “City of Eternal Spring”. After a brief time acclimating to the 8000ft elevation and new environment, we begin our time together heading north to the Upper Mekong region for orientation and getting to know our new travelling family. During orientation we’ll look into our course themes that will guide us throughout: Turbulent River, Mind Like Water, Bombs and Bureaucracy and Daily Rhythms. At the conclusion of the first week, we’ll have a good idea of where we’re going, course curriculum, goals and what we’ll be able to contribute and draw from our the diversity of our experiences to come. Yunnan is one of the most culturally and environmentally rich provinces in all of China, and our jaunt along the Mekong begins in the rural regions of this diverse province. Celebrating and jumping fully into our new adventure, we will trek through mountainous and verdant lands and be reminded of how beautiful and simple it is to carry the belongings on your back and nothing else, all the while learning the languages, customs, and rhythms of the people of the land.
Weeks 3 & 4 We will journey south and have our first opportunity to participate in homestays and experience a level of deeper cultural immersion, which we hope will come to define our trip, staying in a remote mountain village with terraced fields and sweeping vistas not far from the Mekong. We will close out our time in southern Yunnan with our first student-led expedition phase in the region of Xishuangbana before preparing to make our first border crossing of the trip. Laos awaits us, and we reflect on the valuable lessons that China has taught us.
Weeks 4 & 5 Crossing the China-Laos border is technically little more than a line on a map, but the change is noticeable. The pace of life slows just as the Mekong collects and burgeons, fed by the many tributaries flowing down from the highlands. We find will find ourselves deep in the jungle for to reconnect with nature again trekking in a very different environment from the one we explored in Upper Yunnan, before having our first opportunity to get on our Mother River, Mekong, and take a boat south to Luang Prabang: the cultural capital of Laos. Here we’ll get our first full introduction to Southeast Asia’s only landlocked nation. Luang Prabang is famous for its Buddhist temples and novice monks, and LPB will provide a poignant setting for sinking into comparative religion. We’ll sleep right along the Mekong as it bends through dramatic, jungle-choked peaks and relish in the contrasts of East and West, tourist and traveler, saffron and the lush green of foliage alive from recent rain.
Week 6 From Luang Prabang we’ll head south downriver to Vientiane, the political capital of Laos. It’s here that we’ll begin to delve into the Bombs and Bureaucracy focus of inquiry. The legacy of the Secret War in Laos and its victims are prominent here, and highlighted powerfully by local NGOs still working to put together the pieces left behind. Vientiane is one of the quietest capitals in the region, but it is a city undergoing rapid change and it is feeling the full of weight of globalization.
Weeks 7 & 8 Our final weeks in Laos will take us to the Central and Southern regions of this long limb of the nation. Close to Thakhek (Somsanid’s home!) we’ll settle in for 2 weeks of homestay on a small island in the middle of the Mekong. Here we will stay with families whose livelihoods come almost entirely from the land and its bounty: farming rice, fishing, and weaving baskets from bamboo. Their pace of life will become our pace, and the days will be that wonderful combination of very long and very short: very long because they began with the sun, very short because we wish they were longer. After this homestay we’ll follow the river right down to Don Daeng, one of the many islands braiding the Mekong at Laos’ beautiful conclusion. On the sandy beaches of Don Daeng we’ll relax and reflect on what we’ve learned thus far while we look ahead to what’s still in store.
Week 9 Our second and final border crossing brings us into Cambodia, Land of the Khmer. From the rugged northeast we’ll make our way along rivers and forests to the provincial capital of Kratie. In Kratie we’ll chance to catch a glimpse of the Mekong’s endangered Irriwaddy dolphin while learning about ways local communities and NGOs are partnering to ensure its survival. From Kratie we will journey down river again to Phnom Penh where we’ll take a sobering look at the tragic truths of this country’s recent history, all the while being reveling in the youthful dynamism and creative energy that is defining the yet unwritten future of this place.
Weeks 10 & 11 From Phnom Penh we’ll change pace as we head right into the pulsing heart of Southeast Asian tourism: Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. Opting for quieter environs, we’ll bed down at the Metta Karuna Reflection Center just on the edge of town. Spending a few days to cycle the temples, investigate the realities of a small town flooded by international tourism, and delve into pertinent human rights issues, our time in Siem Reap will be chock-full of physical and intellectual stimulus. From Siem Reap we’ll head down the Tonle Sap, south past Phnom Penh, to Koh Khsach Tonlea village for our Cambodian homestay on a river channel paralleling the Mekong. Just 40 km north of Phnom Penh, Prek Pdao manages to maintain its rural charm while being inevitably affected by its proximity to the ever-expanding capital. We’ll spend our time here learning language, enjoying lessons, and lazing around in hammocks of woven water hyacinth. Much as in Laos, the pace of this place sinks into you, making the end of each day something to be savored.
Week 12 As our time together draws to a close, we’ll escape the car horns and revving motos of Cambodia’s biggest cities to regroup along the coast. This is a time for us to unwind and think about all we’ve seen and done in the previous 3 months together. We hope to feel the satisfaction of a few months well-lived, a time in which we engaged deeply, shared openly, and thought creatively about who we are and who we’re becoming in the context such various and compelling landscapes. We take this time to appreciate our experiences and one another, and to look ahead at how we can transfer our lessons along the Mekong to whatever awaits us next.