Paddling down the Mekong River: An Exciting Journey of Unexpected Discoveries

Four American kayakers have found that their Mekong Paddle Adventure is much more than just a journey to raise money for local charities. Along the way, they have had a unique opportunity to explore other cultures and build relationships with the locals they call 'river angels'.

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The Mekong Paddle Adventure is an incredible journey that takes adventurers from the heart of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to the remote Cambodian island of Koh Rong, while experiencing unforgettable sights, sounds and cultures. From the moment you set foot on the boat, you are surrounded by the stunning beauty of the Mekong Delta and the vibrant culture of the local people. You will be in awe of the magnificent views of the river, the lush rice fields, and the colorful fishing villages as you make your way through the delta. Along the journey, you will be able to experience the daily life of the locals, who are warm and welcoming, and who will share their stories and culture with you. You will also get the chance to eat the delicious local cuisine, and learn more about the history of the region. The most memorable moments of the Mekong Paddle Adventure, however, are the surprises that await you. From hidden beaches to secluded fishing villages, you will get the chance to explore untouched parts of the delta and get a unique insight into the local culture. The Mekong Paddle Adventure is an unforgettable journey that will leave you with lifelong memories.

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

In many ways, the 600-mile kayak journey known as the Mekong Paddle Adventure became much more than just a kayak trip as we, a group of four intrepid American kayakers, gained a broader and deeper experience from our month-long journey through Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam that ended in late March 2023. From the stunning natural beauty of the lush landscapes and vibrant culture, to the warm welcome we received from the friendly locals, this was an adventure of a lifetime that we will never forget.

In the Mekong River, we quickly found out that the temperature was far higher than anticipated. The thermometer typically read between 95- and 100-degrees Fahrenheit (35-37 degrees Celsius). The air was hazy due to smoke from farmers burning their rice paddies in the dry season. Paddling in our inflatable kayaks was slower than expected, and our aging bodies weren’t as full of energy as we had wished.

We talked with locals, explored ancient ruins, and enjoyed the beauty and splendor of the lotus-filled wetlands.

I thought a fitting description of our adventure was Lingering with the Lotus. We spent more time ashore exploring the culture, history, and beautiful scenery of the river and its banks. We spoke with locals, visited ancient ruins, and marveled at the magnificent lotus-filled wetlands. It was an unforgettable experience!

We are immensely grateful to all the wonderful river angels, hosts, guides, and teachers who blessed our journey. We are now honored to call you our friends!

The Mekong River is one of the most important rivers in Southeast Asia, and its importance is only growing. It’s a vital source of hydropower for the region, providing energy for millions of people and helping to fuel economic growth. It’s also a major source of food, providing fish and other aquatic resources to many of the region’s communities. Finally, the Mekong River is a key part of the region’s cultural identity, inspiring art, music, and literature. From its unique biodiversity to its vast size, the Mekong River is a source of wonder and beauty that should be experienced and appreciated.

My Mekong Adventure was originally planned for 2019, but was postponed due to the COVID pandemic. I was joined by three of my best friends, all of whom wanted to explore the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia along the iconic Mekong River. Our goal was to gain insight into the ancient wisdom of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, while also exploring how these countries are addressing the issues of the 21st century. With a sense of excitement and anticipation, we answered the Mekong’s call: “Let’s paddle!”

I first imagined the Mekong River Adventure and wondered who might join me on this epic journey. Tom Glasoe, whom I met when he was in high school and attended a video workshop I organized for gifted young communicators, was the first to accept my invitation. His moving story of being an orphan after the war, coming to America, and later becoming a pastor, intrigued me. I then called David “Gerk” Gehke, who had spent a good deal of time in Vietnam and loved the place and people. His Facebook pictures of food made me excited for the journey, too. Lastly, I invited Dr. Deby Cassill, an old high school friend and world-renowned scientist and expert in “fire ants,” to join us. 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 early adult years were incredibly influential in shaping my life. During the Vietnam War, I developed a greater sense of social awareness and began to protest the war. I was even arrested in defense of my right to free speech under the First Amendment. This Paddle Pilgrim pilgrimage is dedicated to honoring the lives lost and those wounded as a result of the conflict, on both sides. I am thankful for the hospitality we have experienced in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and am deeply moved by the progress I witness in the rebuilding of their lands, people, and livelihoods. I pray for continued healing and peace.

 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: Unlocking a World of Possibilities

Are you looking for an exciting and thrilling experience? Do you want to explore the world around you and discover something new? If so, then you should look no further than an adventure! Adventures can take you to exotic places, expand your horizons, and allow you to experience something totally different. From mountain climbing to kayaking, there are countless possibilities for adventure, and the possibilities are virtually endless.

No matter what type of adventure you seek, you can find it. Whether you are looking for a relaxing outdoor experience, a heart-pumping extreme sport, or something in between, there are plenty of options. You can explore the great outdoors with a camping trip, trek through the jungle, or take a dip in the ocean. You can also take part in extreme sports such as skydiving, bungee jumping, or even white water rafting. With a bit of research and planning, you can find the perfect adventure for you.

Adventures can also open up a world of possibilities. For example, you may find yourself in a place you never thought you would have the chance to go, or you may find yourself trying something you never thought you would be brave enough to do. You may even make new friends and connections that you would never have made without your adventure. No matter what, an adventure can be a life-changing experience.

So, if you are looking for a way to get out of your comfort zone and experience something new, an adventure is the perfect way to do it. Take the plunge today and unlock a world of possibilities!

Spiritual Pilgrimage: I soon realized that I was not a mere tourist, but a pilgrim on a spiritual quest. The great faiths of the world have all their own pilgrimages – the Muslims have their Hajj to Mecca, Jews have their travel to Jerusalem, Christians their visit to Rome, and Buddhists and Hindus their pilgrimage to Angkor Wat. During my own journey, I saw many wats and bots. Pilgrims embark on such a journey for many reasons – to discover themselves, to see the divine in the mundane, to view the world with fresh eyes, to reinvigorate their sense of awe and wonder. It is a journey that can renew the soul. My time on the Mekong River Adventure made me conscious of my own ephemeral existence, and of the infinite potential for growth and enlightenment. The river taught me much.

I have encountered River Angels on each of my adventures. From Pon in Laos, to Dr. Phil in Cambodia, Saquon in Phnom Penh, and Dr. Phu and Mr. Hieu at the Vietnam border, these people have provided me with hospitality, care, and incredible experiences. They guided me through the magnificent Khone Falls, the Killing Fields, and the Dignity Project. Dr. Quang and the student “citizen scientists” of the Mekong Environment Forum have taught me about climate change solutions through sustainable programs. Everywhere I went, I met these incredible River Angels who showed me the utmost kindness and generosity.

The Mekong Environment Forum (MEF): One of the highlights of our journey was our experience with the MEF. I had read about the work of the MEF in Brian Eyler’s insightful book “The Demise of the Mighty Mekong”. When I contacted Dr. Quang, he set up a week-long journey along and on the Mekong River, highlighting the research and programs he and his students had created to support sustainable farming and fisheries, empower women, and promote economic development through ecotourism. Our week was a non-stop exploration of the various projects taking place in the region, such as shrimp and crab farming, silk production, beekeeping, local crafts, and creating job opportunities for women. Having young people as our guides and teachers gave us a sense of optimism for the future of Vietnam.

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

Paddle Pilgrim
Embark on a journey with Paddle Pilgrim! This exciting adventure allows you to explore the great outdoors from the comfort of your kayak. Enjoy the sights and sounds of nature as you paddle through secluded waterways and discover hidden gems of nature. With Paddle Pilgrim, you can immerse yourself in the beauty of nature and gain a newfound appreciation for the natural world. So grab your paddle and join us for an unforgettable experience!

My fifth Paddle Pilgrim adventure is a descent of the Mekong River, and the answer to the “Why” question is simple: because I want to explore it. For me, paddling a river is a way to immerse myself in the landscape, to discover the stories of the people who live along its banks, and to seek out the unknown.

I have many reasons for exploring the Mekong. The Mekong is the twelfth longest river in the world and is the lifeblood of many cultures throughout Southeast Asia. It is also one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, with over 1,200 species of fish and other aquatic life. I am eager to experience the rich history and culture of the countries the river passes through, and to witness the beauty of the river as it flows through the various landscapes.

Most importantly, I want to understand how the Mekong River has shaped the lives and cultures of the people who live near it. I am hoping to gain a deeper appreciation of the river and its importance to the region. I am also seeking to gain a better understanding of the environmental and social issues facing the river and its people.

My fifth Paddle Pilgrim adventure is an exploration of the Mekong River, and I am excited to embark on this journey and to discover the stories and secrets that lie along its banks.

Huck Finn: Taking a paddle down a river or on a fjord is an opportunity for all of us to escape the everyday grind and experience a thrilling adventure, just like Huck and Jim did. Mark Twain has crafted a timeless classic with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which captures the essence of the mid-19th century American life in a captivating story. As Huck and Jim venture along the river, exploring the unknown, they form a special bond, one that transcends their differences and transcends social boundaries. Even now, I am reminded of the freedom and joy of setting out on an adventure whenever I hear the call of the river.

Different Cultures: My past canoe trips have taken me through a variety of American waters. I have paddled down the Mississippi River, the Erie Canal, and the Hudson River – all leading me to the Statue of Liberty. Each destination was both a comforting reminder of home and a new, refreshing experience. As I traveled the Erie Canal, I heard the call of my Nordic ancestors who had immigrated to the Midwest in the 19th century. They said, “Come back to Norway, paddle the fjords, come home!” I heeded their call and wrote a book and created a film about my journey, complete with captivating images and music.

In the summer of 2022, I returned to the Mississippi with some of my closest friends, hoping for a tranquil and reflective experience. Instead, we were met with oppressive heat, decreasing water levels, and the daunting reality of climate change.

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

Adventure: When I was young, my mom used to tell me I had “ants in my pants,” meaning I was always on the move. She never felt the need to have me medicated, though; instead, she simply said, “Go outside and play!” That has become my motto, and I live by the Norse proverb, “There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” The outdoors is my happy place, and I make sure to get outside every day, rain or shine. I’ve even prescribed this activity to those who are dealing with depression or anxiety, and they’ve reported back to me that it really works! Paddling on the Mekong is what keeps me feeling young, healthy, confident, and happy.

The Bigger Why? My paddle pilgrimage books and films have drawn a lot of attention. As we were planning this trip, we decided to choose three organizations for people who were following us to donate to as worthy causes. This is our 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 in the Seattle area and he 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 has achieved global acclaim for his Paddle Pilgrim books, films, and podcasts. To find out more about his work, you can visit his website at www.paddle-pilgrim.com.

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