If you've thought of visiting Laos and seeing the magnificent Khone Falls, the largest in Asia, or catching a glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin, one of the oldest creatures on the planet, move that trip to the top of your bucket list. The Falls, the dolphins, and some villages along the lower Mekong may be gone in a few years. That's because in March, the Lao Government confirmed its intention to proceed with the construction of the Don Sahong dam.
By December, the construction will begin despite the protests of environmental groups and the World Wildlife Fund, strong concerns voiced by neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam, and without a go-ahead from the Mekong River Commission (MRC). If that sounds like déjà vu, you're probably thinking of the Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos. Construction began on that Mekong River dam in 2012 with apparent disregard for much controversy and serious environmental and human rights questions.
What Laos and the world stand to lose if the largest tributary of the Mekong is dammed is incalculable. There is the impact on the environment and wildlife and damage to the local economy and the lives of those who live along the Mekong. Here are just a few predictions:
• Migratory fish must pass through the Hou Sahong channel year round, and experts doubt Mekong fish can be taught to swim up a "fish ladder" like salmon. Seriously that was a proposed solution by developers of the Xayaburi dam.
• If alternative routes for fish migration don't work--and many experts have serious doubts that they will --there will be serious impact on food and nutrition in Cambodia, according to a Cambodian member of the MRC.
• The end of fish also means the end of a livelihood for those who depend on fish catches above and below the Khone Falls. According to Time, the dam could decimate the world's largest inland fishery.
• Sound waves from explosives used to excavate rock for the dam will likely kill the 85 rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos. If any do manage to survive that bombardment, pollution and habitat degradation are likely to finish off the dolphins.
• The damage to wildlife will end of biodiversity so characteristic of this area. For example, the Mekong is home to more than 1,200 fish species.
• Damming the channel will have a serious impact on the sediment that fertilizes farmland. Plus, the accumulated sediment will eventually inhibit the power produced by the dam it self.
• The degradation will threaten the rice harvest of Vietnam's fertile delta. Currently it's the world's second largest rice exporter.
So why build it? Laos is one of the least developed countries in Asia and the poorest, yet its rivers, mountains, and plentiful rainforest have the potential to produce major natural hydraulic momentum--in other words hydropower to produce energy that could be sold to it's neighbors. The catch is the Don Sahong dam will produce only 260 megawatts. That's small "energy" change considering the damage that will be done.
The actions in Laos are the antithesis of how a country such as Bhutan thinks. Bhutan, not a rich country either, touts as a key pillar of Gross National Happiness the "conservation of the natural environment" and the promotion of "sustainable development." In Laos, also a Buddhist country, the philosophy seems to epitomize the kind of short-range thinking, dominated by greed, which is so much a part of human political thinking.
There is still hope…and time. The MRC summit begins soon and on its list of priorities is a moratorium on the Don Sahong dam construction. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been especially active in protesting the dam, and Cambodian conservation groups are not giving up. We’re hoping they will be heard.
Our intrepid operations coordinator, Jen K, arrived in Agra the other day. She took part in a "heritage walk", an intimate opportunity to walk in small neighborhoods to see how people live their every day lives. She was invited into a home where a woman offered to give Jen a temporary henna tattoo on her hands. While Jen was impressed with their long, thick lustrous black hair, the women admired Jen's radiant red locks and pale skin. As she continued walking, she met up with lots of neighbors, many of whom took the time to say hello, smile shyly, or wave to the camera. Because our groups are almost always private departures set up for small groups of just a handful of travelers, this kind of easy rapport is easy to achieve. Like our motto says, "Let the culture embrace you."
Our own Jen Kamen, operations coordinator for Asia and Southeast Asia, just arrived in New Delhi, India for the start of a month-long research and development trip to the Himalayas. Follow her on her journey as she heads off on her first-ever international trip!
Welcome to Delhi, home of the horns and where travel lanes are painted on the road just for decoration! There's a reason why people say Delhi is the green Capital of the World... it really is green, with trees and grass and tuk-tuks, too. It's 1:40 AM on 3/29/14 now. We just spent the day at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple (a true wonder, built by hand in five years, made out of red and pink sandstone), enjoyed our first authentic Indian lentil dish (and something else - not quite sure, but we're always up to try anything new), dodged traffic, sweated from the heat like it's going out of style, embraced the unexpected rainstorm and did site inspections for two hotels for work.
Our hotel in Delhi, the Taj Palace, is nicer than any hotel I've even been in. Seriously, it's amazing.
People stare at Mike and I like we're gods (or more like aliens who just invaded). We just smile back. So far, all is wonderful and we're happy to say we have no expectations, so all is a truly welcomed adventure! I've heard so many terrific things about India from working at Myths and Mountains from both Toni and Allie and our travelers who've been there and loved it, but I really think that everyone should visit India at least once in their life... I'm already thinking about when we're coming back, but can we please skip the 14 hour plane ride?
A few weeks ago, one of our travelers experienced a medical emergency just before he boarded his flight to South America. He called us at 5 A.M. the day he was supposed to be arriving in Argentina to let us know that he had missed his flight the night before.
We quickly revised the complicated travel logistics and had a new itinerary in place by sunrise. Flights were rescheduled, new airport transfers booked, hotels notified, and activities rearranged--all in a country several time zones away.
Our traveler was grateful for our quick and efficient help, and we were happy and relieved that he felt ready to fly after a few days of rest.
When we had time to catch our breath and review his paperwork, we noticed that he had waived our advice to see a doctor for a checkup months before his departure date. We couldn't help but wonder: Would things have turned out differently if he had received a medical all clear before his trip?
Ultimately, we want to make sure travelers are in good condition before beginning their journeys with us. Here our top 7 tips to make sure you're in the best shape you can be when traveling with Myths and Mountains:
1. Have a physical checkup at least six months prior to departure. Most experts say six weeks, but we advise an earlier doctor visit so that you'll have time to recover from a treatment, even surgery, if necessary. Remember, too, that if you have to cancel, the sooner the better will get you maximum return on your payment.
2. Have a dental check-up well in advance of departure. If repairs or treatment is needed, you'll have time to complete it before your departure.
3. See a specialist in travel medicine or visit a travel medicine clinic for immunizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends very specific vaccinations and medications, depending on your destination. Do this at least 6 weeks before your departure, since some vaccines take that long to be maximally protective.
4. Purchase the best travel insurance available. Myths and Mountains suggest Arch Insurance Solutions for comprehensive coverage. If you have a pre-existing health condition, such as diabetes, most policies require you to purchase the insurance within two weeks of paying your trip deposit.
5. Consider a medical alert bracelet. It could save your life if you have a chronic condition or are taking medication, such as a blood thinner or insulin. If you have an implanted device, such as a pacemaker, carry a card with information about the type of device and the model.
6. Have a backup plan. Have a copy of all your prescriptions, including your glasses prescription, an extra set of contact lenses or more disposable ones that you think you'll need.
7. Travel smart. It's a good idea to take your medication in their original containers. If you have a hearing aid, add extra batteries to your packing list.
You know the old adage, time is money. It’s also something you don't want to waste standing in a long, long customs line. You’re tired, you’re hungry, and after a 15-hour journey you have little patience for the turtle-slow pace at which that line tends to move. Now Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program, aims to help you avoid that wasted time and frustration. Use your Global Entry card, and you don’t just cut the line, you don’t need to stand in it at all.
"Taking to the air as much as I do, to just scan my passport instead of dealing with immigration and customs is an incredible time saver and stress reliever. I love my Global Entry card!" says Toni Neubauer, President, Myths and Mountains.
What It Is
Global Entry expedites your passage through customs. You simply put your passport or U.S. permanent resident card on a "reader” at a free-standing Global Entry kiosk, look at the camera, press four fingers on the fingerprint scanner (more about that below), make a customs declaration, and you're free to go to baggage claim after giving your receipt to the CBP person at the exit point. (Unfortunately there's still no way to hurrying that process.)
Who Can Join
U.S., Dutch and South Korean citizens, lawful U.S. permanent residents, and Mexican Nationals. Canadian citizens and residents can join the NEXUS program. If you pass as a “low risk” traveler and your residence and employment history can be confirmed, you’re in.
Who Can't Join
Anyone with a criminal history or a pending criminal charge is rejected. So is a person who has been convicted of any criminal offence--even those that seem minor, like a DUI. Being investigated by local, state or national law enforcement? You’re out of luck. And if you have violated customs or immigration rules in the past, forget joining.
How to Join
It’s a multi-step process. You fill out an online application and pay a $100 application fee, but you don’t pass go until your application is reviewed and you’re invited for an in-person interview at an enrollment center. (There may be a wait for an appointment, so plan ahead and get your card before you need it.) Most enrollment centers are at major airports, but a few cities, like Washington D.C. and Houston, have them in town as well. (By the way, you don’t get your $100 back if you fail the “low risk” criteria.)
Once enrolled you can apply for programs in other countries, such as SmartGate in Australia, Viajero Confiable in Mexico, the Dutch Privium program in Holland, and the SES program in Korea. Joining another program is worth the additional cost if you frequently travel to one of these countries.
You can also use TSA PreCheck on some airlines by entering your CBP ID on flight reservations information and frequent flyer accounts. Participating airlines include Alaska, American, Delta, United, US Air, and Southwest. Be sure to let your travel agent know you have a Global Entry card and tell him to enter your ID number in the “Known Traveler” field before finalizing your reservation.
Children—yep, even babies—and spouses must have their own Global Entry card.
With a Global Entry card, you’ll never have to fill out that customs form on the plane again.
Some credit cards—Amex Platinum, Citi Thank You Prestige, Mercedes-Benz Platinum—reimburse the registration fee. So does United Mileage Plus Premier 1K and Mileage Plus Premier Platinum.