Imagine the Mekong River as it winds its way through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea. A unique and exotic riverscape with houses on stilts, fishermen tossing nets, gilded temples, and rhythmic music with each paddle stroke. In my mind I hear Tina Turner wailing, “Rollin’ on the River.” Every dream begins with a romantic vision that ultimately must face reality.
A more appropriate and honest tune would be, “Roasting on the river…” as we were met with 95+ degree days, portable, but slow inflatable kayaks, smoke-filled skies from rice farmers burning their paddies, and, yes, our aging bodies.
As the 75-year-old “Paddle Pilgrim”—I have paddled the Mississippi River, Erie Canal, the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty, and the fjords of Norway—I was confident the Mekong River team I recruited was capable. Dr. Deby Cassill, 75, is a world-renowned field biologist, David Gehrke, 74, a frequent pilgrim on the Camino del Santiago, and Pastor Tom Glasoe, a youngster at 48, and a Vietnamese-American, was coming home.
Whether paddling a river or navigating a life journey, mid-course corrections are crucial, and the Mekong paddle adventure was no exception. As we shared our stories and pictures with friends back home, a change in perspective began taking place. One friend noticed we weren’t paddling as much as expected and commented, “Looks like you are stopping to smell the roses.” After a moment of grieving that change, I realized a new phase was taking place on this adventure.
Rivers can become teachers, and the Mekong was telling us to slow down. In addition to reveling in the twists and turns and rapids, the Mother of Waters was pointing us to the people on her shores, to their unique cultures, their challenges, and their welcoming hospitality. Because the lotus is the symbol of Southeast Asian culture and frequently seen along our journey, we decided to “linger with the lotus.”
As we paddled in southern Laos toward the Khone Falls, the largest waterfall by width (9 miles) in the world, we snaked our way through the land of 4,000 islands. Our paddle was both beautiful and treacherous, and we were delighted late one afternoon to see a large structure on the river’s edge. It was the PonArena Hotel. After camping on sand bars, a shower sounded wonderful. The hotel was beyond our imagination with a swimming pool, dining room, and river view rooms all at $30 a night, including breakfast.
Pon, the owner of the hotel, was our first “river angel.” Business was slow as the economy was still recovering from COVID, but he took us under his wing and became our host and friend. One highlight was his guiding us to the Falls where we and he both captured spectacular drone images of the cascading waterfalls bathed in mist. On the way he made a special stop to show us a huge construction site being developed by China as a tourist “city,” with hotels, restaurants, and a golf course. This was our first encounter with a major challenge facing this region—significant investments by China in dams, infrastructure, and tourism. This was our initial taste of “neo-colonialism.”
Our next “river angel” was Dr. Phil, an expatriate American who has lived in Cambodia for many years doing a different kind of development work with the Dignity Project. The project helps the country heal and recover from the trauma of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed 2 million people and is described in the film, The Killing Fields. Each evening he helped us process our experience and see hope amid struggles.
Our final angels were a host led by Dr. Quang, a professor at Can Tho University in Vietnam. Dr. Q, through the Mekong Environmental Forum, does research about the effects of climate change in the Mekong Delta, and develops strategies for creating sustainable agriculture, fisheries, enhancing the role of women, rural health, and eco-tourism. We were back on the water again as we toured pilot programs with floriculture projects raising crabs, shrimp, fish, and bees, and cottage industries with local crafts including silk weaving. We were honored to attend a conference led by his students who as “citizen scientists” have been gathering data to help with rural development.
Our journey ended with a visit in Cambodia to Angkor Wat, a magnificent temple at the center of the Khmer Dynasty, which ruled this region from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Lingering with the lotus, we were filled with gratitude for the river, the people, and the cultures we experienced on our Mekong River adventure.
Dave Ellingson is a Lutheran pastor, master gardener, former distance runner, and father of five grown children. You can listen to his podcast at https://anchor.fm/david-ellingson. He lives in Edmonds, Wash.