This is what I learnt from the people who call the Mekong River home
Whenever I travel to a new place I always find it astounding that some people in western countries never even leave their home town. There are whole different worlds out there with people who live lives completely opposite to our own, and for me one of the biggest joys of travel is being able to immerse myself in these different cultures and communities. Doing this always makes me thirsty for more – to see more, do more and travel more.
My recent Asian Adventure trip with The Travel Project was my third Contiki trip (I’ve previously travelled to Europe and the Western Thai islands with them). Exploring and getting to know the local way of life in destinations is always my travel goal, so when The Travel Project suggested I go to South East Asia to see first-hand the local communities who base their lives along the great Mekong River, I of course jumped at the opportunity.
It didn’t take me long to realise how much of an impact the river has to those who live along or near it. About 40% of the river flows through Laos alone, and as a result about 75% of the jobs in this country are in agriculture. Laotians rely on the Mekong for their crops and livelihoods, and consequentially all along the rivers course you’ll find local farms, livestock, children playing, fisherman with their nets, people washing clothes. The river is the reason these people live where they live, and as a result it generates a massive sense of community.
During my travels I met some truly fascinating and wonderful people, each with their own story to tell. In Luang Prabang we set off on a bike ride around town and met an elderly man on the river banks selling his homemade Snake Whisky, aka Mekong Moonshine. This snake infused alcohol is given out in shot form and is supposed to help with strength (especially men … in the bedroom). The man explained to us that he has ‘no pension’ so even though he’s retired from his work he continues to sell Snake Whisky alongside the river. Whilst the prospect of having no pension or fall back plan might scare the living daylights out of some people, this guy didn’t seem fazed. Maybe it’s the fact that he never had much to begin with, but it’s always interesting seeing what people classify as ‘important’ in life.
On the trip I also met Dua, who was actually a local guide for Contiki and one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Dua welcomed us into his home and let us meet his family. He showed us his house that he’d built by himself, and he also showed us his beautiful butterfly farm – his ultimate passion. He told us that he usually has over 1000 butterflies in the garden, and that every morning he sits with his children, drinks tea, and watches the butterflies hatch from their cocoons. This moment of the day was his greatest pleasure, and it was a really humbling discovery. Just like most people I met on my trip Dua didn’t really have much, but he was absolutely filled with love and was so generous to me and the rest of the group. Meeting people like this really is one of the biggest joys of travel; you just get to see the kindness of human spirit, which we so often forget even exists nowadays.
That was pretty much my biggest takeaway from this trip – the people. All along the Mekong I was inspired by those I met, who have so much less than us yet somehow manage to do more with what they have available and share it amongst their community as well. For example, in Luang Prabang, we woke at 5am to participate in one of the most sacred Lao tian traditions – the sunrise Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Rice is a common offering for the monks, who depart from their temples to gather their daily meal from locals and travellers giving ‘alms’. The monks will often give any extra offerings to small children with baskets who take the food home to their families who may be less fortunate.
If there’s one thing travel has taught me, it’s to be appreciative and to embrace every moment – rain, hail or shine – whether there be delays on your trip, bad weather or even an unusual personality. You learn to have a positive outlook on life, and you realise just how fortunate you are to be able to travel in the first place. It really is a gift, and should never be taken for granted.
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