The latest Armchair Travel presentation was presented by Panorama resident, Phyllis F. who went on a three week Road Scholar trip to Southeast Asia this past January. Come along as Phyllis takes us on a perception-altering journey along the shores of the Mekong River.
We begin with an introduction to the river itself. This “Mother of all waters” takes form in the Tibetan plateau and stretches through parts of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, nurturing 60 million people along the way. Resources from the river provide income and food accounting for up to 80% of animal protein available to the people of the lower Mekong Basin. The river accounts for 25% of the global freshwater fish catch, making it the world’s largest inland fishery. It is second only to the Amazon River in biodiversity but is in grave danger of losing this position. The construction of multiple dams on the river over the past decade has caused an interruption in fish migration, endangering the aquatic population. This is expected to continue increasing as additional dams are built for hydroelectric power. With this brief introduction to the context of the Mekong region, we begin our journey in Laos.
Phyllis paints Laos as serene and spiritual, with majestic scenery and traditions that cleanse the soul. The group was welcomed with a customary baci ceremony which is meant to invoke kwan, or protectors of the body. As part of the ceremony, white threads that symbolize peace and harmony are tied to the wrists and worn for three days without being removed. After three days, the strings are untied (never cut) and placed in a spiritual place. Phyllis found the perfect resting place for her strings in an old forgotten altar on the grounds of a monastery.
Every morning, Phyllis enjoyed breakfast at the dining area of her lodging that faced the river. She recalls reflecting in the tranquility of her surroundings, as the mist gracefully rose from the water and enveloped the area in a peaceful and majestic haze. Other highlights of her stay in Laos include delivering much needed supplies to a local school and seeing the daily custom of 1,000 monks traveling through the streets at sunrise, receiving alms of food and prayers from the people.
“It was easy to be emotionally swept away by the beauty and grace.”
This feeling of peace and spiritual growth to be felt in Laos comes in spite of its burdens of widespread poverty and dangerous remnants from the past. Known as the most heavily bombed place per capita on earth, Laos is said to have received one B-52 every 8 minutes, 24 hours, everyday between 1964 – 1973. That’s about 1 ton of explosives per man, woman, and child. Although the bombardments ended, the country was left with about 80 million bombs that failed to detonate upon impact. Since 1974, 20,000 people have died from delayed explosions of these leftover mines.
We leave Laos and continue on to Bangkok, Thailand, a city of “pulsating energy and terrible traffic,” but also a city with a continuous sea of street vendors and avid shoppers. This city, with its emerging economy and high rise skyline, is unique to the region. Here, Phyllis took an authentic Thai food cooking class, watched an unbelievably intricate shadow puppet show, and rode on the back of an elephant.
“It was pure joy, on the back of an elephant.”
In Cambodia, Phyllis was taken aback by the sight of floating villages and towns on stilts but the awe-inspiring view of Angkor Wat stands in the forefront of her memory. Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century, is the largest religious monument in the world, and what a site it is!
Our trip with Phyllis ends in Vietnam where she experienced the energetic and mysterious city of Hanoi, with people hustling about on mopeds. A magical water puppet show and an overnight cruise in Halong Bay brought her unforgettable trip to a conclusion.
As with every Armchair Traveler, Phyllis left us feeling as if we were actually experiencing these phenomenal sights. She also left us with a stronger idea of the culture and greater understanding of the struggles faced even in such breathtaking landscape.