Project Description

NATURE

WATER ACTIVITIES

CAMPING

HISTORY

Highlights: Mekong river biodiversity / River hydrology / Endangered freshwater dolphins / Pre-Angkorian temples / Life styles and legends of local Lao / Khmer people

Dolphin Days & Naga Nights – 7 Days

This trip offers students an adventure few have ever experienced – a cycling, kayaking and boating expedition down the legendary Mekong River from Southern Laos to Central Cambodia.  Up to 14km wide in places, and laced with 4,000 islands and stunning waterfalls, the stretch of the Mekong along the Laos/Cambodian border has been declared a Ramsar Site – a wetland of global significance.  Incredibly rich in bird life, it is also the last sanctuary for the critically endangered Mekong River dolphins.

There are only a few isolated populations of fresh water dolphins remaining on the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia.  Students will spend time at several of these dolphin pools, mapping their movements to determine impacts from motorboats on feeding behavior and photo documenting surfacing dolphins to distinguish individuals in an ongoing attempt to determine population numbers.  There is, of course, much more to this region than wildlife and stunning scenery; it is an ancient land stepped in legend where 2,000 year old temples depict stories sculpted in sandstone and animistic traditions blur the boundaries between myth and realty.  Nothing figures more prominently here than the legendary Naga – a river “dragon” inspired by a real-life Mekong creature.  Throughout, this trip students will delve deeply into local folklore, photo documenting Naga images at ancient ruins and interviewing villagers by lamplight in remote settlements to piece together the cosmology that permeates their ancient way of life.

Cycling along the back roads of the Mekong, past villages where time seems to have stood still, students will experience the genuine warmth and hospitality of a region still unaffected by large-scale tourism.  Get fit for this unforgettable journey; it will provide tales to tell your grandchildren.

Arrival

  • After clearing Cambodian Immigration, our team will transfer by mini vans 5 hours to Stung Treng on the banks of the Mekong River.
  • Healthy snacks will be served at a rest stop along the way and an onboard activity will be conducted to better prepare students for their study adventure.
  • For this activity, students will randomly choose titles for a role play exercise conducted later in the trip that examines the Mekong’s amazing biodiversity / food productivity and impacts development plans will have on it. Farmers, fishermen, conservation organizations, hydroelectric proponents, and government officials will be among the many roles students can start preparing themselves for during the long drive.
  • Arriving at our lodge for a late dinner, we check into rustic rooms and clean up before enjoying a delicious welcome dinner featuring fresh Mekong River fish and other local specialties.
  • Mekong Bird is a unique nature lodge set on a peninsula that juts out into the Mekong River. Elevated viewing platforms serve as wonderful observation towers to view flocks of passing waterfowl, fishermen setting their nets and spectacular sunsets. Time seems to stand still here in this family-like compound that combines rustic charm with understated elegance.

Overnight: Mekong Bird Lodge, Stung Treng, Cambodia

Study Focus: Mekong village life & dirt biking / meditation / school service project spirit spot/ cross-cultural awareness activities

  • Today is a cultural immersion as well as community service day. Students can watch the sun rise over the Mekong while enjoying breakfast from elevated platforms set out over the river.
  • Right after breakfast, half the students and one teacher (Team A) will set off with a guide on mountain bikes. Cycling along a trail that hugs the bank of the river, they will pass rural homes perched on stilts, rice fields, water buffalo and excited children shouting out the only English words they know: “Hello, hello, goodbye, hello”.
  • Meanwhile, the other students and a teacher (Team B), will commence a service project for the local elementary school.
  • Both Teams A & B will meet back at Mekong Bird at 12:30 to share lunch before reversing activities in the afternoon.
  • At 5:00 pm everyone returns to the lodge to shower and relax before dinner at 7:00 pm.
  • Sunset is the most reflective time of day and students on this trip will set aside a 20-minute period each day (between 6:00 & 6:30 pm) to find a private place outdoors to help them make heartfelt connections with the natural world in solitude.
  • After dinner, students will take part in cross-cultural awareness exercises to better prepare them for working and traveling with Khmer youth over the next few days.

Overnight: Mekong Bird Lodge, Stung Treng, Cambodia

Study Focus: Mekong River geography & geology / French colonial history on the Mekong / Irrawaddy dolphin conservation

  • Everyone rises early this morning to watch the sun rise over the Mekong before we eat breakfast, pack up for our expedition and set off on a 3-day adventure on Southeast Asia’s largest river.
  • Motorized launches will transport us up the Mekong to the Lao border and the furthest upriver dolphin pool. It’s a long journey by boat to get that far upriver, but a stop can be made for swimming from a beach and a picnic lunch along the way.
  • We will set up our first camp on a beautiful white sandy beach on an island in the middle of the Mekong and after a safety briefing and basic paddling instructions, students will launch 2-person kayaks in the river and paddle out to view the Mekong dolphins. We will paddle to the west bank of the river where the Preah Rumkel Commune has set us a community-based ecotourism project.
  • The Mekong River reaches its greatest width above the delta at this point – a staggering 14-km wide interspersed with over 4,000 islands. The Mekong River escarpment stretches 10-km along this boundary between Laos and Cambodia creating dramatic falls between the islands.
  • Students will learn how it took millions of years of slow, steady erosion to create this escarpment where hard rock meets softer rock. Students will also learn about the French colonial era in Indochina when they struggled to access the rich trade with China by circumventing this natural barrier to shipping.
  • During the afternoon, one student team will conduct a water quality study of the dolphin pool by analyzing dissolved oxygen, pH, and the presence of phosphates, nitrates and ammonia in the water. Comparative analysis can take place further down river during the trip.
  • Another student group will spot and map dolphin movements in relation to fishing boat and tourist boat traffic to get some interesting data for their Mekong River Commission role play near the end of the trip. Students doing this exercise might ask themselves when does wildlife observation cross the line and become wildlife harassment?
  • Sadly, the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) has undergone severe decline in Mekong waters due to decimation during the Khmer Rouge reign when large numbers of these mammals were rendered down for oil. Even today the dolphins face multiple threats from fishing by electrocution, getting trapped in nets, having their fish food stocks depleted and becoming trapped in isolated pools as a result of irregular flows from hydroelectric dams upstream. Only 10-15 dolphins are now resident in these uppermost reaches of the Mekong between Stung Treng and the Laos border.
  • Kayaking back to our camp before sunset, students will learn the art of net tossing from their Khmer “brother.” With a little luck, students may be able to add fresh fish of their own to our dinner menu.
  • A traditional dinner will be served family style on beach mats this evening as we take time to share food with our Khmer student friends and interview them about their beliefs.

Overnight: Anlung Cheuteal Dolphin Pool Camp, Mekong River Island

Study Focus: waterfowl / river hydrology and ecology of the “flooded forest

  • Students waking at first light this morning will find a peaceful time for their meditations. The only sounds to break the silence will be the birds singing courtship calls while flocks of waterfowl cross the sky on the way to their daily feeding grounds.
  • We break camp right after breakfast, pack up our gear on the support boats and join the flow of the river in our kayaks. This section of the Mekong flows through a magical flooded forest rich in life, though a bit more skill will be required in negotiating our way through the trees.
  • The Mekong with its monsoon based annual flood pulse supports a biological diversity second only to the Amazon in numbers of fish, mammals and birds. Soft-shelled turtles, otters, herons, egrets, storks, cormorants, oriental darters, kingfishers, brahminy kites, white-bellied sea eagles, river lapwings, great thick knees, terns, green imperial pigeons, parakeets, kingfishers, and weavers are all resident in this Ramsar Site sanctuary so we will keep an eye out for any wildlife movement as we negotiate the waters flowing through the trees.
  • Today, we may visit a small village along our paddling route to interview locals about their dependency on the river. For these isolated communities the river provides their only road, the monsoon based annual floods fertilizes their agricultural lands and Mekong fish provides their main protein source.
  • In the late afternoon we arrive at our second night’s camp on a wilderness island in the Mekong. The botanical communities of the sandy islands of the middle Mekong River are unique in the world and of great biological value. Long tail macaque monkeys, Siamese crocodile and giant soft-shell turtles are among the islands residents.
  • After dinner tonight we will have a group discussion on the global significance of the Mekong as a biological “hot spot.” Recent estimates of the biota of the greater Mekong region put the species count numbers at 20,000 plants, 430 mammals, 1,200 birds, 800 reptile and amphibian and 1,300 fish species.
  • One quarter of all giant freshwater fish species in the world are found here. The giant freshwater stingray, possibly the largest freshwater fish on Earth, grows to 5 meters in length. The Mekong giant catfish is the world’s heaviest recorded freshwater fish (up to 300 kg) and the Giant silver Barb is only slightly smaller. Additionally, the infamous “dog-eating” catfish is found here in this “River of Giants.”
  • Students can gather around a campfire tonight to share in games and songs after dinner.

Overnight: Island Camp, Mekong River

Study Focus: Mekong River Commission role play

  • Students wake up to watch the sunrise and find a peaceful place to meditate and reflect on their trip.
  • After breakfast we break camp, pack up and complete the last section of the journey by launch and kayak.
  • Returning to Mekong Bird for lunch and showers will feel like coming home again.
  • After lunch students will have time to complete any unfinished work at the elementary school before engaging in a role play exercise where students will present their positions before a mock Mekong River Commission.
  • This real life commission was set up so that all countries the Mekong flows through (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) would have an equal say in development plans for the river that might affect inhabitants downstream. Unfortunately, China chose not to be a member and dozens of hydro dams are now underway in China and Laos that will forever affect the natural flow of the river and everything downstream that is dependent upon it.
  • Students representing fishermen, farmers, conservation groups, river transport companies, hydro developers and representatives of all 6 countries the Mekong flows through, will have a chance to formally present their cases and see what, if any, agreements they can reach to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.
  • Tonight, in a closing candle circle after dinner, students will reflect on their journey along the Mekong River.

Overnight: Mekong Bird Lodge, Stung Treng

Study Focus: Angkorian Civilization / Phare -the Cambodian circus

  • This morning after an early breakfast we pack up and climb aboard an air con charter bus for the 5-hour return drive to Siem Reap.
  • To break up the trip and to get a fascinating glimpse of the ancient Khmer empire we will visit Bang Mealea where we will also have lunch.
  • Exploring these ancient ruins, overgrown with strangler fig trees, is like a scene out of a Tomb Raider movie. Students will have a talk about the Khmer Kingdom on board the minivans so they will be free to explore the Bang Mealea ruins without being interrupted by presentations.
  • Arriving in Siem Reap an hour later, students can enjoy a beautiful outdoor swimming pool at our hotel until 4:00 pm.
  • We then transfer by bus 15-minutes for a unique experience at Phare – The Cambodian Circus – a unique entertainment venue with a strong social mission.
  • Started by nine young Cambodian refugees returning home after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the artists opened a school in Battambang that provides free public education and vocational arts training to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Since then the school has grown to over 1200 students and includes training in circus, dance, theatre, music and visual arts programs.
  • From 4:30 to 6:00 pm, students will have the unique opportunity to learn circus skills from some of the very talented Phare community that actually perform in the circus.
  • At the conclusion of our 90-minute workshop we will transfer to Siem Reap’s famous Night Bazaar for dinner at a restaurant that supports street kids and have some time to shop for gifts before returning to see the circus from 8:00 to 9:30 pm.
  • Uniquely Cambodian and daringly modern, Phare shows are unlike any in the world. Combining theater, dance, original live music and breathtaking circus arts the show narrates both traditional and modern Cambodian stories in a brilliant fusion of storytelling and acrobatics. Critics have called it: “Ridiculously impressive!”
  • Returning to our hotel, students will gather for a closing candle circle in the hotel grounds where each person can share some of the most memorable moments of the trip.

Overnight: Sonalong Village Hotel, Siem Reap

Departure

  • Students will depart the hotel for the 20-minute drive to the international airport where they will check in for their departing flight.
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