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Mekong River Journey

Revenge of the White Christmas

Wren and Luca wake up Christmas morning to find their stockings and "Christmas tree" had traveled to Thailand with them. View a slideshow of their adventure so far >>

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By Jeff Opperman

"Daddy, you’re going to ruin my Christmas!" Wren sighed. That was my daughter’s initial reaction when she learned that Christmas morning would find us on the banks of a Mekong tributary in northern Thailand. She knew of the trip, but hadn’t quite done the calendar math.

Eight-year old Wren loves Christmas and fully embraces all the traditions. Her morning routine in December includes searching for Elf-on-Shelf, advancing the advent calendar, and then turning the tree lights on. She knows the Big Secret about where gifts really come from, but is young enough to still switch back to believing in magic. I am more than happy to play along.

She wants Christmas trees and snowflakes and I was offering palm trees and fish markets.

Wren’s wish for a White Christmas nearly trumped the Mekong trip.

Winter Storm Draco arrived on the day of our departure, dramatically ending the second-longest stretch without measurable snow in northeast Ohio recorded history (Ohio gets its share of winter storms, but I honestly can’t remember one that had a name…).

With the confidence of a storm that knows its identity, Draco struck with full force about four hours before we were to leave. The storm had canceled 500 flights from O’Hare the day before and I was wracked with anxiety that our initial flight would be canceled.

Because of how we’d paid for our flights—separate tickets for a flight to L.A. and then a roundtrip between L.A. and Bangkok—a cancellation or major delay of our initial leg would have caused a logistical nightmare, particularly on the weekend before Christmas and in the aftermath of hundreds of flights canceled from Draco.

And we had little room for error, with a tight timeline of subsequent flights, guides, and boats.

We drove to the airport in whiteout conditions and then watched to see if a plane would show up at our gate. It’s on its way…10 minutes out…relief! Then…wait, where’d it go? Our plane had been rerouted to Detroit. I sat looking out the window at the snow driving horizontally against the windows, contemplating the months of planning and commitments that had gone into this trip.

The plane eventually landed, we took off three and a half hours late and our journey began.

Three flights and forty hours after leaving home we arrived in Bangkok.

With 20 hours before our next flight, we spent the day exploring the city. My wife, Paola, lived in Thailand for three years while in the Peace Corps but hadn’t been back in the two decades since. We didn’t really eat meals that day but rather wandered the streets trying dish after dish from street vendors – the spicy and unique foods that she’d missed so much.

Before sunset we took a boat ride through the khlongs (canals) of Bangkok – a network of interconnecting channels off of the Chao Praya, the river that bisects the city. These canals, lined with homes and temples, had once earned Bangkok the nickname the "Venice of the East."

But by early evening we were dragging the exhausted kids back for yet one more flight.

We landed in Chiang Rai, now finally in the Mekong Basin. (Follow their journey on the map)

After dinner, the kids and Paola collapsed in the hotel room. It was Christmas Eve and I stood on our balcony and looked out over a dark ribbon of water that flowed past the hotel – the Kok, a major tributary to the Mekong. I was thankful that we’d made it and our trip could finally begin.

But first, I had to do what I could for Wren’s Christmas. I pulled Elf on the Shelf out of my computer bag and then searched through our backpacks for the stockings, small gifts and strand of lights that I’d squirreled away.

Thinking I’d go out into the garden and cut a small branch for a tree, I quietly slipped out the door. There, in the external corridor, was a diminutive potted plant.

In my exhausted state, the plant seemed to say, "I’ll do just fine. Merry Christmas."

I dragged it in, draped the lights over it and fell asleep.

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Return to Nature.org/MekongJourney for more photos, videos and updates from this epic journey.

More: Test your knowledge of the Mekong River Basin in our online quiz. And follow Jeff on Twitter for updates from his travels.

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