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Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition

Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition

Come with nothing! Bring only what you can pack in a carry-on bag and buy additional supplies in local markets in-country. Travel to three remote villages where you will live with the locals and work with them on school and community improvement projects. Moving from northern Thailand and into Laos, you’ll take an awesome overnight boat ride down the Mekong River. Be prepared to rough it on this incredibly rewarding service experience!

Departure Dates

No-Stress Travel Guarantee!

With our No-Stress Travel Guarantee, you may cancel for any reason up until the day of travel, and escrow 100% of the program fees for up to two years from the cancellation date.
Program Profile

No-Stress Travel Guarantee!

With our No-Stress Travel Guarantee, you may cancel for any reason up until the day of travel, and escrow 100% of the program fees for up to two years from the cancellation date.
Program Profile

Welcome to one of our most intense service programs in Southeast Asia! The program name is not a joke. You can only pack one light bag, including just one change of clothes, a few pairs of underwear, your necessary hygiene items and medicines, and no more than five things you feel might be important during your program. These might include a camera, a notebook, a tape recorder, or a book – it’s up to you. Just leave everything else at home. When you get to Thailand, you’ll be given a locally made backpack and $50 to buy clothing for the next three weeks. You’ll be surprised how far this money goes at the local market. You may also be surprised that many families in villages around the world live on less than $50 per month.

Travel With Friends, Not Things

Rustic Pathways has friends in these villages, so you won’t be a stranger. We have long-standing partnerships with these communities, and you will be welcomed like family. They have opened their homes for you to stay and learn about their culture, and invited you to work together with other locals on meaningful service projects. They are all waiting for you to arrive.

Live Like a Villager

You will visit three villages, one in Thailand and two in Laos, for about five days each. You’ll meet with local NGOs, village leaders, and respected elders along the way to give you insight into the needs of the area. Build lifelong friendships in the villages where you work, and develop skills that will help you organize service projects back at home.

Discover what it is like to live in a small village far away from the influences of modern society. Your leaders will arrange clean food and water, but expect living conditions to be very rustic and humble. People here don’t have many things, and students find their sincere approach to life refreshing, and love to spend time with these close-knit families. After just a few days, you will find that you have left behind the world you know. You will soon begin to groove to an entirely different beat here in the mountains of Southeast Asia.

A Service Voyage down the Mekong River

The first village that you’ll visit is in the mountains of Chiang Rai Province, one of the least-developed areas of Thailand. This area is home to various tribes that traditionally hail from as far away as China’s Yunnan Province and the Tibetan Plateau. Rustic Pathways has many friends here, and you’ll be received with open arms by the local villagers.

After your first village, you’ll begin a memorable two-day boat trip up the Mekong River to Luang Prabang in Laos. Expect conditions to be challenging – this is a long, rugged trip that includes an overnight stay along the banks of the Mekong. For those who are up for the challenge, this introduction to life on the river in Laos may end up being one of the program highlights.

After your two-day trip on the river, you’ll be ready to head off to your final two villages in Laos in Luang Prabang province. Here you will work with the Hmong and Khmu ethnic tribes who inhabit this area of Laos. Compare and contrast the life of these villagers to the life of the villagers in Thailand.

Go Home Rich!

This trip has a way of leaving lasting impressions and positive memories with students and villagers alike. You will likely go home inspired, with a desire to continue service long after you have left this program. The villagers will also be left with wonderful memories, and they will be grateful for all of the hard work and dedication you have put into these projects.

You’ll return home much richer than you arrived – and if you’ve used your heart and your head well, you will have given something substantial to three villages. You will not only go home a richer person in friendships and experience, but by doing your small part you will have made this world a better place. You’ll never forget this experience.

Are You Up For the Challenge?

Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition is an intense experience that involves a lot of hard work. Generally, students who are not prepared for the rustic conditions on this program have some difficulty adjusting.

Despite being different from what you are used to, living standards in remote Thai and Lao villages are quite clean, and staff will make sure you are well informed in each village you visit. While the rustic conditions may require some adjustment, the vast majority of our students really enjoy the opportunity to live like local people in three different locations.

However, you can and should expect your comfort levels to be tested throughout the trip. We are not trying to scare you away, but the success of this program depends on having participants who are ready for this kind of experience. If you are expecting a comfortable, relaxing, five-star holiday, you will be in for quite a surprise when you arrive. Here is what you can expect:

  • Mornings come early in rural Thailand and Laos, and you must wake up with your host family. They will be up preparing breakfast and getting ready for the day as soon as the first roosters crow and often before the sun begins to rise.
  • Personal space is very limited in many of the hill tribe villages that we visit.
  • You will find yourself in places that do not have Western-style toilets or showers for extended periods of time. You will learn to use the same facilities the villagers use – you’ll be using a “squat” toilet and showering with a bucket.
  • You will always be well fed, but picky eaters will not always have a lot of options to choose from. Students who do not eat the local cuisine (which is generally pretty simple and tasty) can expect instant noodles, eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, rice, rice soup, and fruit.
  • You will be out of cell phone and internet range for the majority of this program, and electricity may even be limited, as generators shut off in most rural villages at about 9:00 PM.

If you are up for an adventure and seeking a dramatically different service experience that will fully immerse you in fascinating cultures and places, Come With Nothing: The Mekong Expedition is the program for you!

When packing for this program, remember the name: Come With Nothing!

Everything you need to bring on this program will be able to fit inside one carry-on sized backpack that you can carry on the plane. Basically all you need to pack for this program is what you will need to get you through the first night in Thailand, plus toiletries and travel necessities. This can include two changes of clothing, hygiene products, prescribed medications, and a maximum 5 personal items (camera, journal, book, etc.). The idea behind Come With Nothing is to live simply like the people we are visiting, and to think differently about the value of the things we have and/or will buy. The more you let go, the more adventurous your experience will be.

After reading this list you may be thinking; “How am I going to maintain for three weeks with just one carry-on sized backpack?” During your orientation, you will be given the equivalent of $50 US dollars, as well as a traditional Lao-style bag, and then taken to a market to purchase all other necessary items you will need for the duration of your program. You will quickly be surprised at how much $50 US dollars can get you. On the plane, we recommend wearing lightweight long pants, your Rustic Pathways t-shirt with a lightweight fleece/hoodie. (Southeast Asia is very hot and humid. You won’t want to be stuck carrying anything too heavy/warm after you arrive).

Throughout the program, you will be stopping at local markets for more supplies and doing laundry either in the villages, local style, or at laundry shops while in towns.

Carry-On

A smaller bag, fanny pack, or day backpack is ideal. Don’t worry – the items marked with a “*” below don’t count against your “5 things”!

  • Passport*
  • Photocopy of passport*
  • Wallet/money/ATM card*
  • Book
  • Pens and journal*
  • Phone (optional!)*
  • Camera
  • Chargers*
  • Ear buds*
  • Change of clothes*
  • Sunglasses*
  • Water bottle*
  • Medications*
  • Consent to Travel form*
  • Rustic Pathways emergency contacts*
  • Extra t-shirt and underwear in case your bags get lost!*
  • Flashlight or headlamp
Checked Luggage

If you choose to bring checked luggage, it should be no more than 30 Liters and a backpack is ideal. Duffle bags and rolling suitcases are not realistic for this program.

MUST HAVE ITEMS:

  • Insect repellent–we suggest bringing a natural option AND something with DEET (no more than 20-30%)
  • Sunscreen (good quality sunscreen is expensive in SE Asia!)
  • Feminine hygiene supplies – tampons are not widely available in SE Asia. We recommend you bring what you think you will need for the duration of the program.
  • Hand Sanitizer

DO NOT BRING BULKY HIKING/WORK BOOTS! These are not needed and will become a burden. You can buy cheap service shoes when you arrive.

VERSION 1 – BIG AND TALL:
Shopping in Southeast Asia can be quite challenging for big and tall people since people in Southeast Asia are smaller than most tourists. If you’d like to play it safe, here is a complete list of everything you’d need:

  • 2-3 pairs of lightweight pants or capris. Please leave yoga pants at home as they are too form-fitting.
  • 2-3 pairs of shorts/skirts, which should hit the knee or longer.
  • 5-7 tops (t-shirts and sports shirts) – They can be cotton, or quick-dry shirts like capilene or polypropylene. Tank tops, crop tops, or transparent shirts are not appropriate. Keep in mind you will find cool T-shirts and clothes at markets you will be visiting throughout the summer, which can supplement the tops you bring over.
  • 2-3 light, long sleeve t-shirt – breathable is best for the sun and certain areas of the region can get buggy or chilly (if you’re lucky!) at night.
  • 1 lightweight hoodie – most likely needed on flights, in movie theaters, and in airports. Most people will be fine without one.
  • 8 pairs of underwear – Quick-dry material is best.
  • 3-4 pairs of socks – lightweight quick dry athletic socks are best.
  • 2 swimsuits – modest two piece “sporty” suits are fine but no bikinis. You may notice that most people in the region swim in shirts and shorts.
  • 1 Sarong/shawl/lightweight towel (not white!) – you can buy this in country.

VERSION 2 – MINIMALIST!!
For those of you who would like to bring as little as possible, this is your invitation to do so! You can find everything you need once you arrive in country. Challenge yourself!

  • 4 pairs of underwear  – Quick-dry material is best
  • 1 lightweight hoodie –to keep your warm on the flight over.
  • 1 swimsuit – modest two piece “sporty” suits are fine but no bikinis please.
  • 1 T-shirt – After traveling across the world in your Rustic t-shirt, it will feel good to take a shower when you arrive and change into a clean shirt.

Most general toiletries are available throughout the region at a fraction of the cost. We suggest packing all items that could leak in a plastic or ziplock bag.

Important Luggage Weight Restrictions

Airlines in Southeast Asia have weight restrictions for checked and carry-on luggage. Many students store their backpacking backpack as a carry-on in the overhead, and a smaller day pack for under the seat in front of them, but you’re welcome to check that larger backpack if you wish. Please know airlines enforce that checked luggage should be no more than 33lbs (15kg) and your carry-on luggage to 15lbs (7kg). Make sure everything you pack in your carry-on complies with the carry on regulations of the TSA. Lastly, remember to leave your valuables or prized possessions at home. It’s easier for things to get lost, stolen, or damaged while traveling.

Our Dress Code Expectations in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian cultures are very conservative. Despite the hot climate, people in these parts of the world show less skin than in many Western cultures, and you’ll rarely see low-cut shirts or short shorts in rural communities. As we seek to respect and preserve the culture of the communities we work with, we ask that our students dress conservatively while in country. This is especially important because people of the region tend to keep quiet when they feel uncomfortable, so it’s our job to come prepared from the start. If you are not wearing proper attire, we will ask you to change your clothes or abstain from the service project of the day.

To dress respectfully in Southeast Asia, please bring loose-fitting pants or shorts that cover just above the knees (think basketball length). Bring basic t-shirts that cover your shoulders, and please leave all tank tops, cut off shirts, low-cut, see-through, or crop tops at home. As mentioned in our packing lists, yoga pants and leggings are not appropriate because they are too form-fitting. The key is to show less skin and to stay cool by wearing loose-fitted clothing. Check out these tips about how to pack for culturally-immersive travel and why Rustic cares about preserving a conservative dress code on our programs.