WORDS ON THE STREET 70th anniversary of Hanoi's Liberation Day Vietnam - Asia 2023 Smart City Summit Hanoi celebrates 15 years of administrative boundary adjustment 12th Vietnam-France decentrialized cooperation conference 31st Sea Games - Vietnam 2021 Covid-19 Pandemic
Apr 22, 2023 / 07:10

Paddling along Mekong River: Adventure full of surprises

The Mekong Paddle Adventure has become more than just a journey for four American kayakers because in addition to their original goal of raising money for local charities, they had the chance to experience other cultures and enjoy their time with river angels.

The biggest takeaway of the Mekong Paddle Adventure is the “surprises” for a man who spent almost his whole life going on adventures.

 Adventurer, author, and speaker Dave Ellingson ready for the Mekong Paddle Adventure in March 2023.

In many ways, the 600-mile kayak journey Mekong Paddle Adventure became the Mekong River Adventure as we, a group of four American kayakers, gained broader and deeper experience from the month-long journey through Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam that ended in late March 2023.

In the Mekong River, we soon learned that the weather was much hotter than we expected. The thermometer usually read between 95- and 100-degrees Fahrenheit (35-37 degrees Celsius). We didn’t expect the hazy skies from smoke caused by farmers burning their rice paddies during the dry season. Our inflatable kayaks didn’t move as fast as we expected, and our aging bodies didn’t have as much stamina as we hoped.

I thought a fitting description of our adventure was Lingering with the Lotus. This meant that we spent more time ashore with people and experienced not only the river but the culture and history on its banks.

We are most grateful to all the river angels, hosts, guides, and teachers. You blessed our journey and are now our friends!

Why Mekong River?

My Mekong Adventure was originally planned for 2019 and was postponed by COVID. I have been joined by 3 good friends who all wanted to experience the very different cultures in Southeast Asia along the fabled Mekong River. We each hoped to immerse ourselves in the ancient wisdom of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as well as learn how these lands are addressing the issues of the 20th century. The Mekong called and we answered, “Let’s paddle!”

When I first imagined the Mekong River Adventure, I wondered who might join me on this epic journey. The first was Tom Glasoe. I first met Tom when he was in high school and attended a video workshop I organized for gifted young communicators. I was intrigued by his moving story of being an orphan after the war, coming to America, and later becoming a pastor. I called Tom and asked if he would like to join me, and he said, “Absolutely…let’s do it!” Returning to Vietnam was a homecoming. I invited David “Gerk” Gehke after learning he had spent a good deal of time in Vietnam and loved the place and people and the food. His Facebook pictures of food “whetted my appetite.” He was eager for a second course. Dr. Deby Cassill, a biology professor from Florida, has been a friend since high school. A world-renowned scientist and expert in “fire ants,” she added the perspective of a scientist and a woman in our largely male crew. Each of us brought a unique perspective, sense of humor, willingness to “go with the flow” and eagerness to learn. We began as friends and ended as paddle brothers and sister. 

My formative and young adult years were a time of great social movements that have shaped my life deeply. It was during the war in Vietnam that my social consciousness was born. I didn’t serve in the military because of my deferment to attend seminary. In fact, I protested the war and was even jailed as part of my 1st Amendment right to free speech. I believed that the war was not only painful for American boys and their families, but ruinous for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This Paddle Pilgrim pilgrimage seeks to honor all those who were wounded and died on both sides of the conflict. I pray for continued healing and peace. I am grateful for the warm welcome we received in each of these countries and am very impressed by the progress I see in the rebuilding of their lands, people, and life.

 Four American kayakers of the Mekong Paddle Adventure in Tra Vinh, Mekong Delta. From left: Dr. Deby Cassill, biology professor, University of South Florida; David Gehrke, former owner of Law Offices of Gehrke, Baker, Doull & Kelly, PLLC; Dave Ellingson; Tom Glasoe, Lutheran pastor; and Dr. Nguyen Minh Quang (C), founder and director of the Mekong Environment Forum (MEF). Photo: Minh Tho/MEF

Beyond an adventure

Spiritual Pilgrimage: I learned early that I was not a tourist but a pilgrim on a spiritual journey.  All the great world religions have pilgrimages. Muslims to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, Christians to Rome, Buddhists, and Hindus to Angkor Wat. On this pilgrimage, we frequently visited wats and bots. Pilgrims make a journey for a host of reasons: self-discovery with a particular emphasis on experiencing the holy, seeing the divine beneath the ordinary, seeing the world with new eyes, renewing one’s sense of wonder and awe. A pilgrimage renews the soul. The Mekong River Adventure made me aware of my own mortality and the unlimited potential for growth and awareness. The river became my teacher.

River Angels: On each of my adventures I have encountered angels. People who have appeared at just the right time to provide food, beverages, hospitality, and care. In Buddhism, they are called Gandharvas. In Hinduism, they are known as Devas. Here are a few of those spirits that appeared on the Mekong. Pon: After paddling through the twists and turns of the land of 4000 Islands in Laos, we were welcomed to his wonderful hotel on the banks of the river. In addition to delicious food in his dining room, he guided us on a tour of the magnificent Khone Falls, the largest by width (8 miles) waterfall in the world. Dr. Phil: an expatriate American who has lived in Cambodia for many years, helped us process the tragedy (Killing Fields) and the triumph of the Dignity Project, which helps with rural development. Saquon: While staying in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our hotel receptionist went “above and beyond” with ideas for experiencing her country and helping with local transportation, all with a wonderful smile. Dr. Phu and Mr. Hieu: welcomed us at the border to Vietnam and for several days were our guides as we began our learning experience with the Mekong Environment Forum. Dr. Quang and the Mekong Environment Forum (MEF) student “citizen scientists.” helped us learn about a variety of creative projects which address the challenges of climate change through sustainable programs supporting fisheries, rural development, and ecotourism.

The Mekong Environment Forum: One of the highlights of our journey came from our experience with the MEF. I read about the work of the MEF in Brian Eyler’s excellent book “The Demise of the Mighty Mekong.” When I contacted Dr. Quang, he began planning a week of experiences along and on the river highlighting the research and programs he and his students have created to support sustainable farming and fisheries, elevate the role of women, and promote economic development through ecotourism. Our week was a non-stop immersion with the residents who are putting into action creative projects like shrimp and crab raising, silk production, bee farming, local crafts, and employment of women. Having young people as our guides and teachers is a very hopeful sign for the future of Vietnam.

 Mississippi River, one of the rivers in Dave Ellingson's paddle adventures. Photo: Dave Ellingson

 Paddle Pilgrim

This is my 5th Paddle Pilgrim adventure, and each journey begins with my readers and friends and me wondering “Why?” I can still remember well-intentioned people asking with a look of dismay and astonishment, “Why in the world would you want to paddle 2350 miles down the entire Mississippi River?” It got to the point where I simply sang my response, using the words of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Still crazy after all these years…” But I do have my reasons for each adventure, some are new, and some remain the same. So “Why?” And ultimately, Why the Mekong River?

Huck Finn: Both then and now a paddle down a river or on a fjord is an opportunity for the boy-in-me to go on an adventure. Huck and Jim headed out to escape painful situations in their lives, but along the way, they became close friends…a poor white kid and a runaway slave. Mark Twain weaves an adventure tale that I believe is the great American novel as something new comes around each river bend and the author uses their characters to comment on American life in the mid-19th century. I am still a boy-at-heart who loves to set out from the shores of the status quo to the refreshing waters of life. 

Different Cultures: My previous paddles took me to part of America on waters that I had lived along. The Mississippi River was followed by the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty. Each had a familiarity that was both comforting and renewing. While on the Erie Canal I heard the call from my Norse ancestors who as immigrants had followed this path to farm in the Midwest in the 19th century. The relatives said, “Come to Norway, paddle the fjords, come home!” So, I did and as in each case I have written a book chronicling my journey as well as producing a film to add moving images and music to my words. I returned to the Mississippi with good friends in the summer of 2022 to enjoy a peaceful and meditative passage but instead was baked by record heat, receding water, and a new storyline, “climate change.” 

 Paddling on Erie Canal, New York. Photo: Dave Ellingson

Adventure: When I was a boy my mom said “You have ants in your pants…” which meant I couldn’t sit still. I was in perpetual motion. I was never diagnosed and medicated because mother’s cure was “Go outside and play…” I did and I am still doing this every day, rain or shine. The Norse proverb is my motto, “There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” The outdoors is my happy place. It is my playground. Each day the bell rings for “recess.” During COVID each morning was spent writing. In the afternoons I paddled, biked, or walked. I suggested this prescription to folks who are depressed or anxious, and they told me “It worked…” Much cheaper than drugs and more fun! My paddle pilgrimage on the Mekong keeps me young, healthy, confident, and happy.

The Bigger Why? My paddle pilgrimage books and films have drawn lots of interest. As we were planning this adventure, we chose three organizations for people who were following us to donate to as worthy causes… a bigger why. The first is the Dith Pran Foundation which supports education for young people in Cambodia. It is named after the photojournalist who documented and named the tragic “Killing Fields” genocide which led to the deaths of 2 million people. I have a personal connection to this cause, as the son of Dith Pran, Titonath Dith, is my physical therapist here in the Seattle area and helped me to learn to walk again after knee replacement surgery. The second is the Center for Rehabilitation and Support for Handicapped Children in Ho Chi Minh City. One of our paddlers, Tom Glasoe, lived the first years of his life in this orphanage before being adopted by a family in America. We spent a day at this wonderful facility. The third is the Dave Ellingson Scholarship for Environmental Studies. When I retired from full-time teaching, my students and colleagues created this scholarship to support students majoring in Environmental Studies, one of the courses I loved to teach. For more information about each of these causes and to donate, go to: http://www.paddle-pilgrim.com/mekong-paddle-adventure.html

Adventurer, author, and speaker Dave Ellingson is most well known for his Paddle Pilgrim books, films, and podcasts. For more information his website is www.paddle-pilgrim.com.

 Norway Fjords, the land of Dave Ellingson's ancestors. Photo: Dave Ellingson