In December my family and I embarked on an epic journey – a three-week, 1,500- mile trek down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.
The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world. It supports the world’s largest freshwater fish harvest, providing food and jobs for millions of people as it flows through China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
My wife and I were excited for our children, 8-year-old Wren and 10-year-old Luca, to experience such a special place. Although the Mekong’s future is uncertain, with dozens of major hydropower dams proposed or under construction, it is truly one of the world’s Great Rivers and probably the best example of how people, culture and rivers are intertwined.
We asked Luca and Wren to share their top 10 lessons learned on our trip. They’re as follows…
Lesson #1: “The shell of a soft shell turtle never gets hard.”
From Jeff: We visited a project run by Conservation International that pays people along the Mekong for protecting the eggs of the very rare Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle. A new group had just hatched and the kids got to release two hatchlings on an island and watch them scamper into the Mekong. Read more about their experience.
Lesson #2: “Roosters wake up a long time before the crack of dawn and crow very loud in the middle of the night.”
From Jeff: Although by reputation, roosters are supposed to crow when the sun rises, when we stayed in villages along the river we learned that they’ll crow at almost any time during the night, which sets off a chain reaction of other roosters’ crowing (heard in the video above).
Lesson #3: “Road travel is exhausting because the roads are in bad shape.”
From Jeff: Although we spent a lot of time on the river, we also had several long trips in buses or mini-vans. The roads were often in very rough condition, making for long, bone-jarring rides.
Lesson #4: “Fruit in the U.S. is really boring.”
From Jeff: The kids discovered the joys of Asia’s amazing diversity of fruits: mangosteen, rambutan, longon, dragon fruit, durian, multiple varieties of banana and mango.
Lesson #5: “Fishing is harder than it looks.”
From Jeff: The Mekong supports the largest freshwater fish harvest in the world and everywhere you look people are fishing. However, nearly everyone is using nets or fish traps and using a rod and reel, as Luca did, can be a challenge in the big, muddy river. See a video of Luca fishing.
Lesson #6: “Spiders in southeast Asia are really really big.”
From Jeff: Laos is home to the biggest spider species in the world. Though we didn’t see a giant huntsman spider, we did see some amazingly big spiders.
Lesson #7: “The people are very nice”
From Jeff: The people of Southeast Asia are very friendly and helpful. Here, the kids play soccer with Cambodian kids at the Sovann Komar Children’s Village.
Lesson #8: “Girls can’t sit next to or touch a monk”
From Jeff: We traveled for a few days with staff from the Association of Buddhists for the Environment and three novice monks. Because monks are not supposed to make contact with girls or women, we had to be strategic about what order we loaded up the narrow boats.
Lesson #9: “Monkeys look so cute and cuddly but they can attack”
From Jeff: At Angkor Wat we encountered a group of long-tailed macaques. They are very cute but they also know that tourists often have food in their bags. They charged us but I charged back and they left us alone. A few minutes later they jumped onto a German tourist.
Lesson #10: “There are very few dolphins left in the Mekong River.”
From Jeff: We spent four days with WWF’s Gordon Congdon and learned about WWF’s efforts to protect the Irawaddy dolphin, which has declined to only 75-90 remaining in the Mekong River. We were lucky to see a pair breaching and frolicking, although on our last day Gordon was called to pick up a large male dolphin that had become ensnared in a fishing line and drowned.
[All images © Jeff Opperman/TNC]