What is A River’s Tail?

A farmer tends to his crops on Boeung Tumpun (Lake Tumpun), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A farmer tends to his crops on Boeung Tumpun (Lake Tumpun), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Five months ago I decided to take a break from assignment photography to travel up Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river in a past-its-prime wooden fishing boat. At the time the idea was to step back from the constant pressure to produce and publish news stories in order to enjoy travel for travel’s sake – something that, despite having been on the road for at least five months of 2014, I hadn’t done in many years.

Several months later, when an innovative non-profit organization approached us about the possibility of expanding the trip to cover the entirety of the Mekong River through five countries, no one was more surprised than me.

Since I’ve already written at length on my personal motivations for undertaking this project, I wanted to instead take a moment to explain the more practical aspects of the plan and to publicly answer some of the questions that have been a reoccurring theme in my inbox of late – what exactly is A River’s Tail?

First, the name itself (which took us longer to come up with than I’d like to admit) is a play on the ubiquitous A River’s Tale, which seems to be among the the most favoured of handles for riparian narratives. While most such accounts, for obvious logistical and navigational reasons, begin at the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau and follow its currents southeast towards the South China Sea, we will do the opposite. Since China’s industrial and economic decisions (in the form of investments and construction) have the most direct impact on the river’s future, and because they are the stewards of its source, we decided to leave the Chinese portion of the Mekong for last.

We hope that by first telling the stories of the 60-odd million people downstream, who have historically relied on the river’s giving floods for subsistence, the stories of those in the nation who seem to control the Mekong’s future will be all the more poignant. Hence, by starting at the river’s mouth in Vietnam where it is known as the River of Nine Dragons and backtracking, we will be following the Dragon/River’s tail. (We experimented with titles such as Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, but abandoned them early on as to avoid being confused with opium tourists.)

So What is this Project?

At its most basic level, A River’s Tail could be described as slow-paced multimedia travel journalism. Multimedia, for non-industry types, means we will be producing photography, videography, and writing – selecting and combining the different mediums in various ways to emphasize their respective strengths as storytelling devices.

Over the course of ten months, with time off between each country to make sense of the thousands of images and video footage, our team of three will travel more that four thousand kilometres through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and China. Though this project initially started with us self-driving ourselves in our own wooden fishing boat named Yolandi, this time the logistics and scope of the plan will force us to use a variety of transportation. We looked into the plausibility of bringing Yolandi along for the entirety of the trip, but quickly realized that international borders and their respective import regulations, our complete lack of anything resembling an official document of ownership, the presence of river rapids and waterfalls (and the fact that our team, including a translator, has doubled in size making seating and gear storage in such a small boat unrealistic for a long period), made self driving an unrealistic proposition. We will bring Yolandi out of retirement for portions of the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, but for the most part she will stay where she is, serving as a children’s bedroom for a river dwelling family in Phnom Penh.

Starting in less than a week on the coast of Vietnam and ending amongst the mountains of China in December, the project will produce a massive quantity of material – dozens of photo essays in both colour (me) and black and white (Gareth Bright), written articles, video features, and behind the scenes content to give a more personal view into our working process. For the sake of keeping our readership supplied with regular fresh content, we will be withholding all material for the first several months. This means that once we start publishing (mid-late June), we will be able to draw on a large cache of content to keep the narrative updating at much shorter intervals. Coming from news backgrounds, this will be the first time any of us have worked this way. We’ve already produced several video and photo based features and it has been a test of patience not to publish them publicly, but we’re confident that this approach will make for a more engaging audience experience in the long run.

This will be the most ambitious and likely difficult thing any of us have attempted to date, and we’re really looking foreword to making the content public in June. In the mean time, our brand new Instagram account will be actively updated with dispatches from the road, so you can follow @ariverstail to experience the journey as we do. Or head over to www.ariverstail.com and enter your email address to get updates from the project the moment they are live.

Until then, the river beckons.

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