Mar 19, 2007

Slash and Burn Baby Burn


I keep reading in the Bangkok post and also on the net of all the smoke caused by slash and burn agriculture and how it is causing such widespread havoc across South East Asia. It’s the dry season. I even rode through burnt air on recent travels in Luang Prabang province as well as a long bus ride in Thailand. The whole country seemed to be lit up from Chang Rai all the way to Loei.

I never thought very much about it. Yes, terrible stuff, but necessary, people have to eat, and so on. Then I read the piece which I’ll cut and paste at the bottom with a link to the blog it comes from. The blog is written by a Canadian aid worker, Patrick, who just finished working in Oudomxai province northern Laos. Patrick questioned a few of the ways we look at swiden agriculture, and in doing so he lent credence to a few of the doubts I’d been harboring in my own mind.

Burning the Fields

I had a close look at true slash and burn agriculture on the walks I did over the past four months. Most of the villages I visited were still traditional in their agricultural practices. They hadn’t yet made the move down to the valley or road as they have many places. Of course I was seeing things as an untrained observer, and in only a few villages, and one must keep that in mind. Then again most foreign “experts” never even leave Vientiane and most definitely never see a village that isn’t on a road

One thing all the traditional villages I saw had in common was a lot of big trees. I understood why there are big trees in the immediate vicinity of an Akha village. They believe in all that spirit stuff and they have to have big trees close by. Even out where crops were growing there also seemed to be a lot of old growth close by. The fields themselves were of course rice, and old rice fields were grown over with bamboo, but mostly the hills are covered with old trees. The amount of land actually involved in the swiden agriculture seemed tiny.

Small patchwork fields some being farmed others lying fallow stretching along the ridge all the way to the horizon. Phongsali

I am aware that old rice fields look like jungle to the casual glance, that’s why I specify old growth forest to differentiate. A three foot thick tree is old.

In February I saw the slashing going on and the fires it created. Slashing in preparation to burning is a lot of work. It involves swinging a machete all day long. I only saw trees being slashed on previously farmed land. Typically the land would have lain fallow for along time then cut so it would dry, then lit up. It seemed as if the same land were being used over and over again but after many years. No old growth. The bamboo and other trees were over forty feet tall and when cut would lay in huge piles ten feet thick. The resembled a game of pickup sticks played by giants.

The tricky part was that for communities still living in old forests, without the slash, there is no burn. That’s why they slash. What’s missing from all the current complaints about all the burning is the slash. I try to imagine how many hill tribes are still using slash and burn cultivation, compared to how much mountain is burning. Something doesn’t add up.

Then I think about the hills I saw burning on my long bus rides. Not the raging big infernos of brush twenty feet thick, but the slow creeping fires of already burnt ground or even more often the leaves and small grasses that grow beneath the low thin forest that is all that remains in Thailand.

Furrows from a plough, then newly burnt land, and then rubber trees

Most fires I saw on my travels seemed not to be of the intentional controlled burn types. Not the huge fires lit amongst big trees by hill tribes, but more of the “got loose and who cares” variety. Of course they could never burn in old growth forests. Old growth might go dormant in the dry season but it doesn’t dry out enough to burn. That’s why the hill tribe people have to slash.

When I started to write this piece earlier this evening the neighbor on our south was burning a pile of leaves and brush in his back yard. Flames fifteen feet high. It’s no big deal, everyone burns the trash out of their yards this time of year. When we temporarily moved in here a couple of weeks ago the first thing my wife did was to sweep up all the leaves, and start a big fire. Directly behind us they cleared all the brush out from under some trees and burnt it. All across Asia people are burning the underbrush, it’s how people keep things neat and tidy. In a couple of years it all grows back. Of course the farmers burn too. Not the slash and burn farmers but regular wet rice folks. Often the fires get away from people and are allowed to burn. That’s what I saw all across Thailand, not slash and burn. I look for the environmental criminals and they are us.

Khamu man rip cutting with an up and down saw, notice the rice stalks behind him

In Luang Prabang province I saw fires covering tens of hectares of open hillside at once. At the time I thought it a funny way to grow rice. I had never seen hill tribe fields that large, more often patchwork with pieces of old fields in between. The fields along the road to Luang Prabang weren’t even brushy, it’s as if they had been burnt within a couple of years recently. I wonder if these were even fires to plant rice or just fires out of control.

I’ve heard there is a minimum number of years for a land to lie fallow. This allows for the soil and nutrients to renew themselves. Probably the hill tribes have some sort of taboo about planting on land that doesn’t contain certain species. My guide on my last trek could tell in an instant how many years it had been since an area had been used for rice. Partially by the size of the trees, also by the species. Certain plants grow on old fields after one year, others on the second and so forth. Some species even need the shade of preceding species to establish themselves.

Root Flare

Patrick’s writings made me aware of another type of burning for cultivation. The intensive burn and reburn that occurs when hill tribes are located to permanent settlements in the lowlands or along roads. I saw one of these new settlements recently and I also saw my first examples of new fields being planted where once there were old forests.

When I thought about it I realized these fields were the first I had seen alongside flowing water. Seemed like before they had always been either on the tops of ridges or along the slopes leading down from them. Was there some kind of reason that hill tribes don’t traditionally plant along stream beds?

Hand cut planks on burnt and planted land

A couple days later I am awake in the middle of the night because I heard the rain on the roof. The water comes down hard for a long time. It hasn’t rained like this for five months. The water puddles on the ground. The birds sing even though it’s the middle of the night. Soon the dry season will be over. The fires will be out, for this year, tourists will be happily taking the same landscape photos, residents will stop coughing, and the issue will be out of the papers for another year.

The forests of Laos will continue to be cut, if not for timber then to make way for rubber trees. Thailand will continue to industrialize oblivious to the green wet forested country it used to be.

New Rice

Patrick Lucas' Blog

Shifting Perspectives Part 1
Earlier in this blog I made two remarks that I would like to remention for the subsequent essays:

Shifting Perspectives on Shifting Cultivation 1.

I have come to believe the only time you really know you’re learning something is when you realize everything you thought you knew on a given topic turns out to be almost completely wrong. This point has become a major thread and theme to my entire experience here in Lao, and is even more poignant when put up against my evolving knowledge and understanding with regard to Shifting Cultivation.2. A few months back, when writing about resettlement of upland villages, I quoted the first of two “development riddles”. The first was: When is a solution not a solution? The second “development riddle” that I did not mention or examine the last time is: Riddle No. 2: When is a problem not a problem? The issues of shifting cultivation in Lao has made me realize how little I knew or understood about this complex issue, and has caused my views and opinions to change drastically. Also it has provided me with a new level of understanding of the answers to these two riddles. With this series of essays I would like to take anyone willing to read it, on a short journey explaining my experiences and shifting perspectives on shifting cultivation in Lao.Shifting Perspectives on Shifting CultivationWhen I first arrived in Lao I had never actually heard the term “shifting cultivation”. In fact, as I was learn during my tenure in Oudomxay, there are a number of different terms and references to this highly controversial form of agriculture, including: swidden agriculture, shifting cultivation, rotating cultivation, pioneering cultivation, and the most famous of all, SLASH AND BURN! Or “hai na” in Lao. I suspect, as was the case for me, this last term is the most common and well known reference, and is one that conjures the most drastic images of environmental destruction and un-sustainability. The phrase “slash and burn” is a highly politically charged term that is often intended to convey precisely this kind of image, portraying the people who are practicing it as environmental criminals, backward, unsustainable, and requiring development assistance and programs designed to halt the practice and move people into the development light of economic and environmental security. This has certainly been the case in Lao as the government and numerous aide agencies have embarked on a number of development and planning initiatives to eradicate the practice and introduce alternatives and to create seemingly more sustainable methods for upland communities. I remember when I first arrived traveling with my colleagues around Oudomxay province and seeing areas that matched the image in my head of slash and burn cultivation: steep slopes, denuded of all trees and vegetation that were then burned in giant fires that fill the air with dense clouds of smoke and ash that fall in huge black flakes like some form of Buponic snow, a third world nuclear holocaust. My colleagues would point out areas on the hillsides along roads and highways that were cleared of bush and burnt and would say things like, “Hai na, maen bo di ti singwaetlom—slash and burn, is very bad for the environment!” In my state of ignorance, I would simply nod my head in agreement, “yes, very bad.” As with so many things however, I would soon learn that the issue is far more subtle and complex than such a simple understanding could ever possibly capture. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is this simple image and understanding of a very complex and very old relationship the people have with the land that dominates government policy, international development initiatives, and the international mass media. I can remember reading in the most respectable of media outlets descriptions that profile upland ethnic minorities in a negative stereotype of environmental marauders, slashing and burning the forest, farming the land for a few years until it is denuded of nutrients and productivity, and then moving on, leaving a path of irreversible destruction in their wake. As I have learned over the past 22 months in Oudomxay, this image, and the activities undertaken by the government and the international aid community, are largely mislead, and fit perfectly within the two “development riddles” I have mentioned earlier.So what exactly is “Slash and burn agriculture” and all these other terms anyways? Simply stated, slash and burn refers to the practice of clearing an area of forest, typically in an upland area of steep slopes, and then burning the brush and vegetation for cultivation. Most often, in Lao, the people will plant a strain of rice suitable for dry conditions, but have also been known to plant various types of fruit trees and vegetables. Usually after one or two growing seasons, the field is then “abandoned”. Most upland ethnic groups, such as the Khmu people in Oudomxay Province, will farm an area for up to twenty years, shifting their fields from cultivation to fallow, until the soil fertility and productivity drops, and then move the entire village to a new area to begin the cycle over again. It is usually at this point that the understanding of these practices end and the claims of environmental destruction and un-sustainability begin. The argument against this form of agriculture revolves around the issues of soil erosion, sedimentation (the deposit of soil in local streams and rivers due to erosion), reductions in soil fertility due to over cultivation, and productivity losses. The fear is that once an area has been cleared on a steep slope, the likelihood of soil erosion and sedimentation in local streams is much greater, and in a time of quickly growing populations (Lao has the highest population growth rates in South East Asia), this form of agriculture is destructive and un-sustainable in the long term. And, on many levels, these claims are quite legitimate. That is if we were simply discussing a situation in which the images of slash and burn were accurate, however, as I have come to believe, this is a gross oversimplification and betrays a long term relationship and an in-depth and complex level of ecological knowledge the people have of the land. Shifting Cultivation obviously goes beyond this. Simply put, shifting cultivation, or swidden agriculture, refers to the practice of clearing and burning forests of land, using the land for a season or two, and then allowing to go fallow, letting the forest re-grow for up 7 to 12 years before being burnt and cultivated again. The field is hardly abandoned however. Fallow areas are continuously used by the ethnic upland people, such as the Khmu, as a source of resources, including wildlife for consumption, and a plethora of non-timber forest products such as traditional medicines, various plants for building products and food, as well as spiritual beliefs. (It should be noted that Lao is known for having the highest biodiversity values in south east asia along with the highest diversity and abundance of non-timber forest products, which are quickly growing in demand and market value—all due to 400 600 years of shifting cultivation!.) From my understanding, the Khmu people, like the Inuit of the north with regard to having over 26 words for snow, have numerous words for describing the forests in different stages of re-growth commensurate with the products and wildlife that can be found within them. In fact, I suspect that if the value taken from fallow areas and secondary forest were taken into consideration, the perceptions around shifting cultivation would change drastically. As such, many agronomists and environmental planners throughout the developing world are beginning to understand that shifting cultivation is not only one of the most efficient forms of agriculture (the amount of energy spent compared to calories derived ratio is quite high—translation, lots of work but lots of food), it can also be very environmentally beneficial. Many cultivators have highly sophisticated forms of soil conservation, and shifting cultivation provides fallow areas that are high in biodiversity and abundance that are crucial not only to farmers and communities, but with respect to wildlife habitat as well. With respect to ecology and environmental degradation, the only thing that really matters is the rate at which something occurs. The ecology of Lao, over the last 400 to 600 years has adapted well to this form of land use, and the changes that are being implemented are causes rapid changes the balance and environmental dynamics that rule this fragile environment. As I have learned, it is these changes that are proving to be the real cause of environmental degradation and social disruption in the country.Pioneering Cultivation is an entirely different story. This refers to what happens when people have restricted access to land, and are forced to move into areas that were previously untouched primary forest, usually in very fragile environments (head water areas for major rivers and tributaries with steep slopes and soils with already low nutrient levels and highly susceptible to erosion and sedimentation) and begin practicing slash and burn practices. Since these areas are typically protected against cultivation, the people engaging in the practice are understandably concerned about getting caught and unlikely to invest in soil conservation practices. Also, since they rarely own this land, and will be forced to move on, the fallow periods typically shorten between cropping years—from 7 to 12 years—to continuous intense cultivation for 3 to 5 subsequent years in a row. In short, the forest is not allowed to grow back and the farmers keep growing crops until the soil nutrients are almost completely denuded and then leave the land. The result is severe degradation and soil loss. This is the type of slash and burn that fits the actual environmental stereotypes and should be rightly addressed. Ironically, the very policies and programs aimed at all shifting cultivation is resulting in the very restrictions in access to land and is resulting in an alarming rate of growth of pioneering cultivation throughout Laos and the developing world generally.This brings us back to the first development riddle: Riddle No. 1—when is a solution not a solution? Answer No. 1: When it causes more problems than it solves. By attempting to eradicate shifting cultivation without understanding it, Lao has found itself in the uncomfortable position where the very practices and environmental problems they had hoped to address are in reality becoming in more exacerbated. Answer No. 2: when it is not adopted by the intended beneficiaries. Like so many development initiatives, based on misleading or misguided ideals and initiatives, without consideration for the needs and local realities of the people for whom they are intended to “develop”, the programs to eradicate shifting cultivation have not provided upland communities with viable alternatives, meaning that they have no choice but to continue cultivating upland areas, and with restricted access to land, they have begun to engage in land use patterns that are truly destructive and un-sustainable.

Shifting Perspectives Continued...
One night, while dining over “sin-daat” (a form of Lao BBQ) with a colleague, we were discussing this very situation when my friend asked me a simple, yet poignant question, “How is it that a form of agriculture such as the shifting cultivation, which has practiced by the Khmu people in this area for the last 400 to 600 years, was suddenly deemed un-sustainable?” Of course, as usual, I had no answer. I knew one thing for certain: I needed to find out. For me this was the starting point when my perspectives and understanding of upland agriculture began to shift.Shifting Cultivation in Laos-traditional and current circumstancesShifting cultivation, as it has been traditionally practiced by the Khmu, and other ethnic groups in the north of Lao, is far more complicated than the simple images portrayed by slash and burn. Firstly, it is important to understand why upland agriculture is necessary to begin with. Oudomxay, like the rest of the country, is a highly mountainous area, comprising around 80% of the total land area. The geography is characterized by steep sloops, rugged terrain, and very little lowlands and flood plains. The fact of the matter is that Oudomxay has very few options or viable alternatives to cultivating upland areas. Even if they cultivated every square inch of lowland areas for rice paddies (they would have to get rid of all the towns, roads, etc to do so) and managed to raise production levels by 20% or more, they would still be faced with rice shortages to meet the demands of a growing population. This means that upland cultivation, in one form or another, will remain apart of the agricultural landscape, and a crucial aspect of the people’s livelihood strategies for some time to come. The fact that shifting cultivation has been stigmatized and associated with poverty and “backwardness” is a classic example of what has come to be called environmental racism: the placement of blame for environmental degradation on often marginalized ethnic minorities. There is a danger of course of oversimplifying or romanticizing the lives of shifting cultivators. Upland agriculture, though an effective livelihood strategy, is a difficult one. I once asked the Phorban (village chief) in Ban Tangnuey if he felt the village was better off living in the valley bottom doing sedentary agriculture as opposed to their traditional lifestyle in the nearby hills. He answered that yes, he did feel the village was better off. Why? Because living on a hill is difficult he replied. The fact is that many of the villages I have visited and worked in usually expressed a willingness to move away from shifting cultivation if provided the opportunity. They would like to practice different forms of agriculture; they would like access to schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The question is how the programs are carried out and what their true intentions are. I have come to suspect that the efforts to eradicate shifting cultivation have less to do with “improving” the people’s lives than getting them out of areas that are rich in other resource values such as timber, mining, and cash crop plantations. This leads us to another key point, that even if shifting cultivation was recognized as a viable form of agriculture, the fact is the Khmu people live in a very different socio-economic environment than they did in the past. There is a much higher degree of competition over land uses. Shifting cultivation, as practiced in the past, meant that people had to move around every 20 years or so…this may not be possible with a growing population and demand for cash crops and resources. Seeking out the Environmental CulpritsSo, if shifting cultivation isn’t the cause of all the environmental degradation, what is?Well, let’s first clarify that there isn’t one single cause of environmental degradation. Secondly, it’s important also to clarify specifically what environmental degradation are we speaking of. My research with the Oudomxay Provincial Science Technology & Environment Office in the Ko River watershed, along with a growing body of secondary research being conducted by numerous domestic and international research institutes, has provided a fairly comprehensive picture of the state of the environment with respect to watershed functions and services. (Please see the inserted graph.)As I stated before the only thing that matters in ecology is the rate at which something occurs and the timeframe in which it occurs. Shifting cultivation, as practiced in the past, with long fallow periods, has been shown to be either environmentally benign, or even beneficial. Currently however, the state of shifting cultivation is rapidly changing due to changes in land use policy, as discussed earlier there are much shorter fallow periods and increasing intensity in the use of land in increasingly fragile environments. One could accurately describe this form of agriculture as “pioneering” cultivation and it is a major source and cause of soil erosion, sedimentation, deforestation, and storm water runoff; a major source of environmental degradation in the province. It is not the only culprit however. A growing consensus among agronomist, planners, and development workers and agencies, is that the most significant cause of environmental degradation in Oudomxay and Lao generally is the issue of land use change, the growing rate of conversion of forest and agricultural land to large monoculture cash crop plantations, particularly rubber. Throughout Oudomxay province we are seeing larger and larger areas of land being cleared and planted with massive plantations of rubber. The large majority of the investors come from China and they have very little interest in conserving the land for the long term. Quite often, the land is given away in concessions to investors, land that typically belonged to villagers—the land taken away and given to the investors without consultation or even the knowledge of the farmers. These plantations have incredibly high erosion and run off rates, and typically can leave the soil denuded and useless for many years afterwards. Other land uses that can prove damaging to watershed services include stripping the vegetation along rivers and streams to grow corn and other crops, and the destruction of and loss of wetlands and floodplains. Once you put all these issues together you are looking at a very severe degree of environmental degradation. Quite obviously the issue is very complicated and defies any simple explanation or solution.
Finally, this brings us to the second Development Riddle, which is: When is a problem not a problem? Answer: When it is part of the solution. Understanding a social system is not unlike looking at a computer drafted 3 dimensional picture. You may remember these were all the rage about ten years back. At first glance they appeared non-sensical, chaotic, a meaningless mess of objects and patterns. But, if you look long enough, and adjust your perception or perspective accordingly, an image will emerge. Understanding shifting cultivation within the contemporary context of Lao is a very similar process. Once you look past the smoke and the fires, the charred and burnt fields and trees left behind, you can begin to see it in a very different light. Rather than being backward and primitive, shifting cultivators have developed highly in-depth agro-ecological knowledge and management systems that have resulted in Lao having some of the highest biodiversity levels in south east Asia, an incredible genetic heritage of rice species perfectly suited to the local growing conditions and environments, not too mention a huge abundance and diversity of non-timber forest products, all of which make a substantial argument that shifting cultivation can be sustainable. The government of Lao, and all actors and stakeholders should appreciate this as highly valuable asset that is quickly being lost, not as a threat. For too long, shifting cultivators have been blamed for environmental degradation and have been resettled and made to alter their livelihood strategies regardless of whether there were adequate or viable alternatives or whether the promised services and infrastructure could be provided. The underlying assumptions have been that shifting cultivators are invariably poor and therefore any move to improve their lives will inevitably result in greater prosperity. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. These assumptions ignore the vast natural wealth that many indigenous communities possess within their traditional environs. Moved into new communities, cut off from traditional land use practices, provided inadequate land with little training or extension workers and credit, many families and whole communities are falling into new poverty cycles that are difficult to reverse or escape. All of which is leading to higher levels of environmental degradation. Obviously, this cycle must end and development and government agencies need to start looking at shifting cultivation in a new light.Back in the day, while fighting their “Secret War” in Lao, the CIA had a saying, “If you think you understand the situation, you simply don’t have all the facts!” The fact is that Lao, like any country or culture anywhere in the world I suppose, is far more complicated and dynamic than even a 3D picture. Anytime you think you are starting to figure things out, some little fact jumps out and shatters everything you built. I won’t presume to truly understanding the entire situation as there is no way that I could ever have all the facts. But I have identified a few important facts that can guide future action.1. Shifting cultivation, if done properly with traditional or effective contemporary soil erosion methods, and sufficiently long fallow periods, can be not only environmentally benign, but beneficial by encouraging new growth and higher biodiversity.2. Shifting Cultivators do not deserve the stigma or stereotype of being either backwards or poor if they are successfully practicing their traditional methods. (Successful in my opinion, for this circumstance, being that they are meeting the requirements of the first point, while supplying all the nutritional and material needs they require for sustainable economic and social security.) Shifting Cultivators possess in-depth agro-ecological knowledge that, while it should not replace solid scientific knowledge and research, it should be respected and viewed as an asset.3. Shifting Cultivation does not equal environmental degradation—so long as it meets the requirements of the first two points. There are other sources of degradation that must be addressed together, including: pioneering cultivation, deforestation, large rubber plantations, intensifying agriculture in the low lands, all of which result in soil erosion and sedimentation, and drastic changes in the hydrological regimes of watersheds (ie. Flooding, droughts, etc.)So where does all this leave us?It’s one thing to say that the government, NGOs, and development agencies should stop demonizing shifting cultivation and view it as an asset: a major barrier that must be crossed, but what are they supposed to do then? Seems to me to there are plenty of people around doing this first part, but I have yet to see any concrete actions plans, strategies or criteria for planners to work with to actually start integrating in a sound manner into the contemporary planning process and agricultural landscape. All of this assuming of course that shifting cultivators want to keep practicing shifting cultivation. As always, it’s easy to criticize and point out mistakes, it’s a completely different situation altogether to come up with feasible and practical solutions. This is the next step and the entry point for planners, such as myself, have to step up to the plate.Fortunately, there are some people and agencies who are working on this issue, and within my limited time and experience in Lao I have begun to gather some ideas to approach this issue. Firstly, there are a few preconditions that must be met. Some of these include:There must be a recognition and understanding by all stakeholders and agencies that:a. Shifting cultivation with the appropriate fallow periods and practices is not inherently environmentally destructive or unsustainableb. That without viable and feasible alternatives and means shifting cultivators cannot be expected to change their practices and that shifting cultivation can remain a reasonable and sustainable means of sustenancec. Adequate land and low population densities conditions must exist to allow for environmentally acceptable practices. (Some have suggested areas with less than 20 persons per 1 km2, may be an acceptable population density to allow for sufficient fallow periods…assuming there are no other practices or land uses in the area…not likely for most locations.)As I said before, there is a growing awareness and consensus among planners (both Lao and foreigners) that the eradication of shifting cultivation is not only undesirable under current economic and social condition, but highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. In fact, the government of Lao has begun to change its language from a program of “eradication” to “stabilization” wherein shifting cultivators are encouraged to change, but are allowed to practice in limited areas as long as it does not encroach on current forest covered areas. Regardless, I have compiled a short list of strategies and objectives I have been encouraging people to consider throughout my tenure as project coordinator for the Nam Ko Watershed Project, these include:1. Improve Land Tenure, Land use planning & allocation. Existing land entitlements in Lao are weak and routinely ignored by government officials. It is far more likely that farmers will engage in sustainable agricultural practices if they have a more secure knowledge that they will have access to the land over a set period of time. Also, by improving upon the land use planning and allocation process, the government will be able to alleviate conflicts and deal with environmental problems more effectively.2. Improve Fallow Periods & Recognize Fallow as a legitimate form of land use.Currently, the government of Lao has a regulation in place that if a farmer does not use his land for a period of three years (ie. Allows it to go fallow), than he or she will use their land use certificate. By recognizing fallow as a form of land use, they will provide more opportunities for the regeneration of soils and harvesting of non-timber forest products.3. Implement development programs that are people centered.Many development projects have been implemented in a top-down manner focusing on broad development goals that have little to do with the needs and realities of local communities. Local residents should define and establish needs and criteria for development as well as evaluating successes. 4. Ensure provision of viable alternatives to shifting agricultureShould upland communities choose to relocate and shift from traditional agricultural practices, this should only be done when there are viable and feasible alternatives. Obviously, this is a classic “Chicken and the egg situation”. The government, and development agencies need to recognize that this process will not happen overnight and that traditional methods should not be cut off or disallowed until alternatives are firmly in place and providing for all the needs and requirements of the people that were available from traditional practices and more.As I have said, this is an extremely complicated situation, and I’m sure that within a few years time, or even in a few months, my own understanding and perspective of the situation will change and continue to evolve…or at least I hope so. I can say with some confidence that I have been learning thus far, as when I look back on what I thought to be true in the past…it was, indeed, pretty much completely wrong.

Mar 14, 2007

The 22 hour bus to Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha Bus at Northern Bus Station Vientiane

The bus isn’t as bad as the name might suggest. For one thing it never takes 22 hours, they just say that in case. Maybe it used to, I don’t know. I think the whole trip could be done in eighteen or so hours if they eliminated all stops except to the short ones every four hours.

I missed getting seats up front near the driver, so I settled for what looked to be second best, close to the rear door. Good for quick exits for breaks. My wife dropped me off an hour early just to get the good seats but others had the same idea and got the jump on me. The bus did leave pretty much on time even though not full. Sometimes it’s beginning to seam as if Lao busses leave on some sort of schedule, like the one posted in the ticket office. Quite the surprise, I’d been prepared to wait another couple hours for people to show up, and here we were leaving.
The first thing we did after leaving was drive over to the fuel pumps, then we parked up past Dalat Sii Kai for forty minutes. The driver had important things to take care of. You’d think he could have said goodbye to his wife earlier

Bus Distances and Price
#2 Bokeo (Huay Xai?)
#3 Luang Namtha
#4 and #5 Oudomxia
#6 Hua Phan (Samnuea?)
#7+8 Xiengkuan,
#s 9,10,+11 Luang Prabang

I know you’re probably thinking, why not take the plane. I don’t like the plane. I mean I don’t mind the plane itself, or flying, but I don’t like having to plan my life out two weeks in advance while on vacation, or else fly stand by and have to spend all that time at the airport, and maybe not even go. The bus is simple. Go there, get a ticket, 21 hours later you are in Luang Namtha. I like meeting the Lao people on the busses too. I almost forgot, it’s way cheap. Twelve dollars to go seven hundred kilometres through the mountains.

The bus began to fill up after we got under way. All of those mid sized towns seemed to end up having a couple people. I think we collected five people at that Hmong town of Ha-sip-song. Didn’t even stop at Vang Vien, no English written across the front of the bus. By the time we left Kasi almost all the seats were full.

There were a couple of girls sitting across from me. Kind of chubby and falling out of their too short pants, but friendly, young and silly. For them this was some kind of exciting fun party. The excitement began to wear off by about the thirteen hundredth switch back on the way to Luang Prabang. Everyone was wishing that they could fall all the way to sleep but about the time you would dose off a sharp turn would bump you up against whatever you had been avoiding, to remind you that yes, you are on that bus to Luang Namtha.

I don’t have the route to Luang Prabang memorized yet. There is still a valley that you drive down into towards the latter part of the day only to realize that you still have another mountain to go over. Soon it was dark and the dry season fires on the sides of the mountains were pretty. It seemed like the swathes of open ground were huge, hundreds of acres, the whole sides of mountains. I think the timber industry gave the hill tribe folks a head start on the trees of Luang Prabang. I’ve never seen that kind of a burning pattern for regular slash and burn agriculture.

The southern bus station in Luang Prabang was another food stop, and we all piled out to eat at the bus station restaurants. I opted for a very common barbequed chicken with a side of steamed greens and sticky rice. (Ping Gai, Soup Pak, Kow Nee Ow, and jeao makpet to spice it up) A middle aged Hmong guy from the bus joined me. He was headed only to Pak Mong. A lot of the people weren’t headed to Luang Namtha but rather to points along the way.

Some Chinese people came in the cafĂ© also, I knew from the clothes but also the proprietress of the restaurant started using sign language and saying, “Shur Fan, Shur Fan”. (Eat rice, eat rice). A couple of the Chinese followed her back to the wok where she stir fried them some rice and they pointed to ingredients they wanted put in. I’d bet a million bucks they also went back to make sure she didn’t put in any plah dek or fish sauce. I had to laugh. Here the Chinese were getting the same food as western tourists. I guess the general rule of thumb at restaurants is, when in doubt, serve them fried rice.

I got back on the bus early, just in time to save my seat from being stolen. The Chinese have different rules of bus etiquette than the Lao. You snooze, you lose. They were well aware of the Lao rules too, they just had a hard time bringing themselves to comply. In China if you behaved like the Lao, you would end up without food, or a place to sleep. It’s the land of sharp elbows. I heard some Chinese guys discussing whether to take a seat, they didn’t want to because there were some half full water bottles left in the pocket behind the seats. It’s hard to not sit down just because someone might be sitting there. Generally the Lao will tell each other who is sitting where, but the Chinese don’t speak Lao, and the Lao didn’t speak Chinese.

I translated as best I could. I never was any good at Mandarin. Immediately I found my voice getting louder and my body language more expressive, as the R’s became richer and the G’s more guttural. I like Mandarin as it’s spoken in China. None of that hissing snake sound of Taiwan for me. The most fun part is calling everyone comrade. I’ve had Chinese people tell me they don’t use that word anymore, and that it’s a word from the old days. I think it’s funny as all get out. China and Laos are both comradely socialist societies moving towards capitalism with a Marxist Leninist approach. Right?

A Lao lady was trying to save the two chubby girls seats for them. Of course the Chinese lady who wanted the seats didn’t appreciate my explanation at all. Much better not to understand. When the people who had been at the restaurant got back on the bus, there were lots of loud voices and gestures, but no truly bad feelings. The Lao were familiar enough with the Chinese to realize that the loud voices are a cultural thing, and the Chinese for their part understood the unwritten bus rules in Laos, and did give up any previously occupied seats. I sized up the scene, and pulled the smallest Chinese guy of the bunch down into the empty seat beside me, he didn’t smoke either. Better him than that chain smoking, spitting fellow with the big shoulders.

Many of the Chinese had trooped into the restaurant as a group. I assumed somehow they were family. Now I began to understand that the two skinny pale young guys who spoke Lao had all the tickets and identity papers. They were the leaders. The others were being brought to various places in China, or at least across the border, probably for a set fee including transportation. Five or six of the Chinese ended up on the plastic chairs mid aisle. That’s how it goes, last on get the worst seats.

One of the young guys made the fellow sitting next to me move so he could sit there.

There was also an argument over the tickets. The price of tickets is set. Seems to be non negotiable and known by all. I’ve never been charged a “falang price” for a bus. The Chinese had paid through Oudomxai I think and they were headed almost to Luang Namtha. They were jumping off at the road to Boten and the border. The busses are privately owned, usually by the driver and his family. The extra fair for all of the Chinese added up to quite a bit of money, maybe ten dollars or more. First the bus kid came back on his usual rounds to check tickets and write tickets to those without. He got nowhere. After consulting with the driver he came back and told them they had to pay. Nothing Doing.

Ten o’clock turned into twelve and the Hmong guy got off. Sometime long after midnight another bus guy came back to talk about the fare with the Chinese. Discussing it were not only the two skinny kids who spoke Lao, but also an older fellow with a very thick neck, the muscle. The whole shouting match arms with arms a flinging was happening about three inches from my face. The bus guy didn’t seem too intimidated, all concerned knew that rural Laos is the wrong place to get in a punch up with a bus guy. You might end up with something bad happening. They paid.

Later still, around three I guess, all the Chinese woke up from their slumber seemingly refreshed and excited to be nearing the place to jump on a pick up truck and head for the border. People broke out snacks and started choking down cigarettes. You’ve got to hand it to the Chinese. Fun for them is taking all night bus rides and then standing around shivering at a remote mountain border waiting for sunrise.

The little guy who had first sat next to me was headed for Shanghai. He had days and days more of this to go. Third class all the way. There is some kind of Chinese expression about bitter soup. I don’t remember how it goes. Something about how you give the Chinese hard times and they manage to make soup out of the deal. Good travelers, I don’t think the tourist label quite fits.

The road to Zhongdien, and Tibet, Yunnan January 1994

The bus rolled into the Luang Namtha station just after five in the morning. Amazing how many people were asleep outside the market on the ground. Families, dogs, vegetables. I waited for someone to wake up at Zuela’s.

Mar 9, 2007

Eve in the Garden with Serpent (Snake Soup)

The fellow on the left is a neighbour who found the snake and is selling it. Aunt Suke had just finished giving Thipalada a bath and thought the snake might be fun to play with, Thipalada loved it. Photo by Sengthian.
I wasn’t around when this snake was bought and killed. I don’t think eating wild animals is a good thing right now in Laos. It does make a good story, and there are photos too, so here goes. I’ll leave the discussion of morality for the end.

The first thing I knew about the snake curry was when my wife said she had good pictures of our daughter with a snake, and my brother in law was making a fire in the charcoal pot. We were at our house a half hour from where the snake was found, bought, and killed. They came to our place to make the dinner, they also gathered ant eggs from the nest by our back door, and we bought maeng kang to make jeao which I’ve already blogged about a few postings ago. The jeao didn’t actually get eaten until the next morning for breakfast and the ant eggs were stored in the fridge. The snake itself was more than enough to feed all.

As you can see from the photo the snake was fairly big, a kilo and a half maybe. To prepare the snake first they singed the whole snake in the fire to loosen the scales, then they scraped them off with a knife. They of course cut off the head, and gutted it saving the liver which they cooked separately and also the tiny bitter gal bladder they saved to put in a bottle of moonshine. I asked my brother in law if the gal bladder gave him any extra male type energies. He replied in the affirmative, and I glanced quickly at his nine months pregnant wife to see what she thought. From her smile I’d say she thinks there is something to all that gall bladder stuff.

Singeing the scales in back of the house.

They were making two dishes out of the snake. Gaeng some ngoo, or sour snake curry, and also soo-ah ngoo. I should explain about curry. In Laos, any kind of soup is called curry, not only the kind of soup we are familiar which that is coconut milk based. As a matter of fact very few curies in Laos have coconut milk.

In the soup pot went a familiar list of ingredients. Chicken stock base in the powdered form, salt, bang nua, kha (I think the English word is galanga), bai kii hoot,(kafir leaf), lemon grass, and small amounts of two bitter herb to take away any fishy taste from the snake. The two wild herbs are pac pao and hom pay, no translation, sorry. After bringing the water to a boil, the chopped pieces of snake are added piece by piece so that the water isn’t cooled too much by adding all that meat. After the snake boils for a couple few minuets the pieces are taken out to cool.

When the meat is cooled enough to handle, it is removed from the bone, put in a mixing bowl and the ingredients of the soo-ah are added. Toasted crushed sticky rice, and fresh mint are the main flavours, and they are added generously. It’s good to have the meat cool enough so that the mint stays nice and fresh and uncooked. In smaller amounts are fresh lime juice, a little ginger, fish sauce, and tiny round pieces of hot peppers. This food is supposed to be mild, but a burst of hot pepper once in a while can’t help but keep things exciting. Finally soup stock is added enough to make it wet. This food should be slightly wet, not dried out from the crushed sticky rice. It’s eaten with the hands and sticky rice.

Meanwhile the snake bones have been tossed back into the soup pot, and the final ingredients added. Garlic leaves, shallot leaves, Also tamarind leaves which we didn’t have so they substituted tamarind itself, adds a touch of sweetness.

Gaeng some ngoo
The moral stuff

The person who killed this snake knew it wasn’t poisonous, and should have left it alone. Who knows, it’s pretty big, maybe this snake is one of those snakes that eat other snakes, and so actually offers some protection. It without doubt eats rats. I skipped the meal not because of any moral reasons, I just wasn’t in the mood to try boiled snake. I’d just eaten a half pound of pork back straps. They were two days old and I can’t stand to waste food.

A bunch a dead things
Above is a picture that was posted in the house I’m now staying at. I assume these public service type posters are from the owner of the house a Laotian MD. The house has been rented out to two visiting Japanese doctors since the owner moved out, but I can’t see any reason for them to put up posters in Laotian. On the right are a couple of fat porcupines. Everyone always says how good these are, lots of grease. In the centre is a market table covered with one assume wild meat, I think I see moo pa (pork from the jungle) for the life of me I can’t recognise anything else. Then on the left bottom are a bunch of rodent looking creatures with bushy bits on the end of their tails, I think these are also porcupines, then up top a pick up truck with coolers in the back filled with unidentifiable, but big, carcases.

The writing says across the top, “buying and selling wild animals causes them to be hunted, then all the animals will be gone”

Then below, “Hunting wild animals will make all the animals be gone and will make there be less food for the poor people who live in the countryside.”

And, “ Hunting animals until they are gone causes the extinction of species”

Lastly, “ If we stop buying wild animals they won’t be hunted to extinction”

When I stared out writing the ending to this blog entry, I thought it might be impossible to hunt the pig and porcupine to extinction. Then when looking in a book to see what other animals are potentially in the forests I came across a “warty pig” thought to be extinct in Vietnam, but to survive in Laos. I’d hate to eat the last one for dinner. That said, many places in the United States now have a pig problem, notably California, not enough predators or hunting.

I might think the carcases in the pickup would provide better examples of animals not to eat, the deer, and big cats. Everyone knows tigers and leopards are rare and in danger of extinction. I would assume various civets, otters, weasels, small cats, monkeys and so on are all easily endangered.

A safe bet would be to not buy any wild meat in Laos. If you want to eat game, hunt it in your own country where there is careful management of wildlife, and no danger of making a mistake.

Mar 8, 2007

Into the Nam Ha Protected Area

Above is the village swing at Ban Nammat Mai, or Nammat New town.

The following is about my trek into the Nam Ha Protected Area with Green Discovery in Luang Namtha.

The village swing is in an abandoned village. All the villages on the trek had been vacated by the Akha. The people had moved to the road, they came back only to hunt and gather forest products. Despite the hill tribes having moved out, I still learned a lot on this trek about the Akha, and the animals and plants that live and grow in the forests of the Namha Protected Area. I probably learned more overall on this short trek than I had on any other. I have many different reasons for wanting to go on treks.

I learned such simple things as that when the name of a village is followed by Gow it means old town, followed by Mai it means new town. Easy to know, but until someone tells you, you are missing out. All hill tribe towns seem to be either Mai, Gow, or if without the designation they have been in their present location for so long people have forgotten about the old town. Hill tribes move. If you know the name of the town it gives you some indication of how long it has been since a move.

I had a very patient and wise guide who would calmly teach me as much as I could absorb. At every break I would jot down things in my notebook. At night and in the morning I would write more. I lost my notebook but remembered many things. This blog entry is partly an attempt to write them down before I forget them. Any and all wrong facts I’m going to blame on the lost notebook, I get sick of prefacing every sentence with the qualifier, “as I remember”.

Ket, I learned from the other guides when I returned, is a hill tribe person himself. Half Lanten and half Thai Dam. His demeanour wasn’t the ever smiling face of the Lao lowlander. That was ok with me. I never felt the need to make small talk, if I had a question I was free to ask, if he saw or noticed something that he thought would interest me he would speak. His knowledge was thorough and he would give of it freely always qualifying how sure he was of something. When he knew something he would make no comment, when he only believed something to be so, he would mention it. When his knowledge of something wasn’t comprehensive he would mention that also.

The trek cost me a little under a hundred and fifty dollars for three days. I’m not sure of the cost but I am sure it was an insignificant amount. I thought the cost amazingly small for what I was getting, but then I value a walk in the woods with such a naturalist to be invaluable. I signed up for an open trek, meaning if other people signed up they were free to join and the price would also drop. To get an exclusive trek with no joiners would have cost me maybe double. I like having other westerners to talk with, and discuss what we see, and for company, but I always learn more with just a guide. There are many things that a guide doesn’t have to explain to me and I get to focus on things I don’t know.

Colouring the atmosphere of the pre trek arrangements and indeed the whole trek was the abduction eighteen days before of Pawn the manager of the Luang Namtha Green Discovery Branch office and the owner of the Boat Landing Eco Lodge. Someone initially tried to burn his house down while he was in it, and then four men abducted him on his way to an appointment with the police. No one seems to know anything and it is worse than useless for me, an outsider to make baseless speculation. He hasn’t returned to this day. He leaves a wife and as I remember two children. I’m sure all of the guides as well as the American co-founder of the boat landing were missing him very much. They seemed a close knit crew.


My trek was the first one since the closing of the office. While making the arrangements for the trek the people in the office were very friendly and informative. Trekking guides are by nature an optimistic and adaptable bunch. I admired their ability to keep a good attitude despite the mixed feelings they must all have been experiencing.

We left in a small pick up to be dropped off at the village of Donexay on the road to Muang Sing. Our local guides were Khamu though the village was mixed Akha and Khamu. The village had moved out of the mountains six years ago. Part of the arrangements with the local villages is that there will always be local guides as well as the senior guide on all treks. It provides some income to the village and hopefully provides an opportunity for locals to learn a trade. Being a trekking guide is a relatively lucrative job, and there is no training or education better than doing it. Another advantage to having two guides on every trek is for safety.

Besides the normal food provisions we also needed to re supply the special trekking huts that had been built for Green Discovery. When all the treks had stopped the villagers had removed everything from the huts. To re-supply two local guides were hired and they carried bedding, cooking utensils and food up to the hut. Ket has three boys about the same age as our two local guides and he seemed very familiar with ordering them around during the trek. I can only imagine how American teenagers would take to being told how to cook, fetch water, clean, gather firewood and so on.

Guy Ban (local guide) from Donexay

For the first part of the day I concentrated on learning some of the trees and putting one foot in front of the other. I kept hearing the same base name for different species of what I assumed to be the same genus. It took me a while but eventually I recognised oak. Ket called it Mai Goh. Oak is a common genus all around the world. I had a hard time identifying it because the leaves looked somewhat like the live oaks in the southern United States, and unlike the red, white, and scrub oaks that I am used to in the East and Intermountain West. Ket showed me which acorns were edible, and which ones need to be soaked for a few days and the acids leached out. Some acorns were the size of peas and others the size of plums.

Another tree that I was happy to learn about was the strangler fig. I’ve seen them all over and knew they must be something, but I never knew what. The fig grows up the tree as a vine eventually growing more and more trunks and engulfing the host tree, at which time it is strong and thick enough to be self supporting. You often see these seemingly hollow trees with many trunks interwoven to form a single tree.

Strangler Fig

Along the top of a ridge in the afternoon I came across some cat scat, in plain English cat poop. I’m not sure what kind of cat it was, larger than a house cat but not by much. Not much further on we saw another scat that looked like cat but wasn’t as digested. Ket said an animal like a cat, but not a cat. I assume civet. Seeing my interest Ket moved another scat over with a stick causing it to break apart. Finding so much in one place isn’t as unusual as it might seem. Animals use scat to mark territory. The latest poop was filled with hair, and much less processed, looked like coyote, I asked dog? And Ket smiled, “wild dog”.

Then Ket got interested and moved some old half falling apart hairs around with his foot, “tiger” he said. I was of course sceptical and said so. “Look” he said, “dog eat deer, tiger eat pig, look how long the hair.” He was right of course, bearing in mind that for Kep tiger also means leopard. I had noticed the deer hair in the dog scat, looking just like the deer hair that coyotes digest. Two species of deer in Laos are small and a small dog could easily pull one down. The wild pigs are another thing altogether. They are very tough and smart. Any dog that tried to eat one of them might well be dinner himself. The pig bristle was obvious after it was pointed out to me. Of course everything is easy if someone tells you.

Cat Scat

After that Kep started show me lots of things. When some hunters had gone down into the brush to get the civet they had shot from the tree with flashlights, Kep showed me the discarded batteries, and broken bushes where they had gone down the hill. Three guys at least.

I’ve followed people and animals in the woods before. More than a few times. It’s not so hard after a little bit. People have been tracking for ever, and it’s not as difficult as in the movies. It’s all there, just a matter of knowing what you are looking at. Scuffed leaves and ground don’t just happen. Someone or something makes them. I’d never before walked with someone like Ket.

He often would just point and say a word assuming I would get the rest. Wild pig rooting for bugs or roots or something. Feathers from when someone had gotten a bird. I had no idea on the bamboo rats. Never seen that before. The hill tribe people would find the hole and simply dig it out with those short tools that look kind of like a hoe. You could see the trench where they had followed the tunnel back to the rat. Ket said the rats are vicious when you get them unearthed like that. After that Kep would point out every rat hole, even the place the rat had dug down to, and eaten, the roots of the bamboo causing it to yellow out. The stalks came out of the ground looking like they had been cut.

On the second day we came across a fire where someone had cooked up a porcupine and bird. I asked the kid from the village if he’d ever eaten porcupine. When he answered yes I asked him if it was true they had a lot of fat. Big smiles and a yes. I have heard they are tasty all by themselves. When my grandfather was a kid people used to still eat that kind of food. Kep scraped the discarded needles off the trail with a stick. Didn’t want anyone getting one in the foot. Flip flops aren’t much protection against porcupine needles. The quills themselves were shorter, flatter and softer than in the US.

The trees and the forest were, as promised, old growth. I’ve mostly been walking in old uncut forests for a few months now and it seems like the normal way of things. Even where there are villages the amount of cut jungle for rice and farming seems so small. You walk all day through big trees and perhaps a half hour is through rice fields. That section of the Namha does have unusually large trees.

One of my biggest objectives in going trekking with Green Discovery was to see how they handled the tourist, hill tribe, interaction. An owner of a large tour company had given them a glowing recommendation. The trek I went on was more orientated towards forest, all hill tribes were gone. There was another trek I could have taken, that had a couple of trekkers signed up, and I could have saved some money by going. The other trek was only for two days and when pressed the guides in the office said that yes, my trek covered a lot more high ground, and especially old growth forest. Oh well, another day.

I did notice some practices that are built into every trek that I think are an effort to make the experience a good one for both parties. As I said before both villages received some income from our “guy ban” or local guide. Five dollars per guide, per day, actually. Very good money. Twice the wages for a labourer in Vientiane. Green Discovery has a local guide on every trek. I’d only seen them elsewhere when the guide didn’t know where he was going, Green Discovery had them all the time as a standard way of operating. The extra guide has another advantage of safety in case of accident, injury or any other unforeseen circumstances. The local guide is a skilled knowledgeable woodsman in his own right.


Besides the extra guide there is a handicraft from each tribe included with the trek. Bracelets or a sewn bag, or spoon made of bamboo, that kind of thing. The idea is that there is an exchange, we aren’t just giving money to the mountain people but receiving and being given a physical thing of value in return. I don’t wear bracelets or use wooden spoons, I kept the bag made of cloth scraps and use it to wrap some silver I have. Thanks Khamu kids. With the cost of the licence for entering the Nam Ha Protected Area are costs to maintain it’s upkeep. The cost of the trek includes money to maintain and build more houses like the ones I stayed in.

The hut I stayed in the first night wasn’t in a village. The hut on the second night used to be in a village but the town is now abandoned. First about staying in villages. Where you stay makes a difference. I’ve stayed at the headman’s house and I’ve stayed at another tribe members house and in Thailand and now Laos, I’ve stayed at special houses constructed just for the trekkers. Kep says these kinds of things follow a natural progression.

I thought about that and I got it. The first trekkers stay at the most honoured house. The village has seldom had visitors before from the outside world. By the third of fourth trek maybe some of the magic starts to fade. Foreigners in groups can only understand each other. They are loud and talk and laugh a lot. They get drunk. The chief has other important things to do.

The four or five dollars per tourist the family earns in food and lodging isn’t worth it to the chief. He passes the job off to someone else. They make the money for a while then they too tire. Or maybe they up the price and get sour. I look at it from my own perspective. If I brought a couple or eight foreigners in to sleep in our living room how would my wife like it. Even if there was a lot of money involved. I wouldn’t do it twice.

Foreigners eat first. It’s just the way it is. They eat meat and good food in large quantities. It’s true they give money, but at the end of the day there is one less chicken, or two less kilos of pork to feed the people of the village. The children are hungry. It creates tension in the house if the hungry children are waiting for the foreigners to finish eating. Better to have a separate house to stay in and prepare food without anyone having to wait.

All of the guides of Green Discovery went over to Thailand and took a trek with the tourism authority there, as a way to educate themselves. Thailand has had twenty five years to figure things out. The issues are the same, the hill tribes are the same, and the guides in Chang Mai often even speak Thai Neua. If hill tribes can realize a significant enough income from tourism, and if tourism can be done in such a way that tourists are looked upon with favour, then hill tribe trekking can continue indefinitely. Tourism could even help the inevitable transformation of hill tribe peoples by being a source of income.

Modern Akha Goh in Phongsali

Staying in a house built specifically for trekkers creates a comfortable space for trekkers and leaves a space for the hill tribes people also. If they want to meet and interact they can do so in the more neutral area of the village outside the house. If a tourist makes friends with a villager the villager is always free to invite them into their house. There is plenty of community and family life to observe in the public spaces of a village, without actually staying in a house. A separate house also gives guides a place to cook food. Cooking for a bunch of hungry people using only an open fire and a flashlight can be work. Also guides need to boil water enough for drinking the next day.

Both of the green discovery houses I stayed in had flush toilets of the squat and scoop water variety, a luxury I’ve never seen before but a lot more hygienic than pooping on the ground for the pigs to eat. They are also suitable for taking a scoop shower. They also serve as an example of hygiene for the village. Infant mortality is still high in the villages.

Besides all that, the distance to the first village was too great for a typical trek. Foreigners simply can’t walk that far in a day. We are used to driving around and typing on keyboards. Even people who exercise regularly don’t do it by walking in the mountains all day every day. Exercise is one of the reasons I go on treks, but a I don’t want the walk to preclude all the other activities I’m interested in.

Lunch was from the Boat Landing guest house. It was sticky rice, jeao macpet (hot chilie pepper jeao) and jeune kai, that Lao style egg omelette. The jeao was great, made from those large green chillies, I could eat huge gobs of it without burning, had a great flavour. The jeune kai I would have liked better with at least a little MSG.

We arrived at our hut for the night with plenty of daylight to spare. We had walked without long breaks but taking lots of time to talk about plants and animals. The hut was actually two huts with a picnic table between and two bathrooms out back.. I took a bath in the creek. Very cold, we were up high. Dinner that night was barbequed pork, sticky rice, green beans and of course gaeng jute, the thin soup with vegetables. I noticed the soup had plenty of my favourite flavour enhancer, actually quite a bit. I made sure to try to get our youngest guide to eat as much as he could. He was only ten or so years old. He was shy but after a little prodding he would dig in. We had much more food than the four of us could possibly finish.

Barbequed Pork, (Ping Moo)

Things were quiet around the fire, I went to sleep early. Lying in bed listening to the animal sounds I thought of how different it was from sleeping in the village. So many sounds it was almost loud. We all slept cold that night, not enough blankets. Towards morning I remembered my reflective ground cloth, I pulled it over me and slept through until sunrise.

The next morning Ket asked me if I had heard the barking deer, so that’s what that was. Ket also showed me all the scratch marks on the tree we were sitting under. The tree is called mai wan because of it’s sweet leaves. Some large squirrel or something had been regularly climbing it to eat the leaves. When I asked Ket about the bird traps in bushes baited with live grasshoppers, he asked me if I had ever seen that other trap, and through hand motions he made me understand he was talking about the deadfall trap. Also he showed me the red flowers of some tree that is a harbinger of the hot season. To spend ten minuets with Ket is to have ten things pointed out to you. Where I see a bunch of green trees he sees, scores of animals and plants.

Mai Wan

Before long, on the second day, we came to a slight trail leading to the top of the ridge. Old Town Nammat, or Nammat Gow. Both Ket and I walked up the hill to call our wives. Another thing these hill tribe people know, exactly where there is cell phone coverage.

Trail to Nammat Gow

I’m not sure if it was this day or the next but part of our trek followed what the locals call the French road. It’s the old road to Muang Sing. On my map it’s still marked as a minor road. I think probably it was never more than a trail. It goes to Muang Sing and the old market. For a period under French colonial rule, that market, was the major outlet for Laos to export opium to China.

Only parts of the old road are still in use as a trail.The Chinese built the current road in the 1970s. I found an old Chinese shrine along the current road and wondered if it came from that time.

Chinese Shrine on the road to Muang Sing

I asked Ket about the relocation of hill tribes and he said it’s often the younger people who want to move. More opportunity. Along the road there is always the possibility of starting a business. I had noticed at Ban Donexai that the village had seemed more prosperous than many I’d seen. I can’t argue with the obvious truth that there are many more opportunities close to the road. The kids go to school and the distance to a doctor or medicine is much smaller. If it were me I too would want to live on the road

It’s easy for me to look at the Akha and think they are better off staying far off in the hills removed from all the headaches of modern society as I know them. It’s undeniable that as a modern westerner, I find the villages far from the road where most people still dress in traditional cloths, fascinating. What is harder, is to try to look at it from the perspective of the people themselves. I like the way there is almost no plastic trash to be seen. Yet I too prefer to wrap things in plastic bags instead of banana leaves. I hope that I will like the modernization of the Akha peoples because it has improved their lot in this world.

Ket had worked in the early development of health care in Muang Long district. He said the reaction of people to very simple malaria drugs was a nice thing to see. Here before it was a killer disease, and in two or three days it was cured. He also said hill tribe peoples seem to be cured by the drugs better than lowlanders. He had required many days on a quinine drip to get over his case. Perhaps drug resistant malaria.

I realize that it’s hard to understand a controversial program as an outsider. So many other factors are involved, opium eradication, drawing the hill tribes into the larger Lao society, I just have to assume that with so many people seemingly intent on doing good that all is for the best. It’s not like the hill tribe people move away and then some army general starts logging or anything.

The Lao government also has a very long history of good relations with the hill tribes. During the years when the government occupied just a small portion of Laos, the hill tribes were their majority population, they were the soldiers and farmers of the communist movement in Laos. The concept of Laos and Laotians being all the people of the nation was enshrined in the ideals of the earliest communists. To call someone a Lao person simply indicates what country they come from, not ethnicity. Lowland ethnic Lao are only half the population. Laos is a country with a mix of languages and peoples.

When we took a break in the early afternoon I threw down my ground cloth and closed my eyes. The next thing I knew Ket was prodding me awake. I was tired from a cold night. Ket didn’t care, time enough to sleep when we get to where we were going.

Ban Nammat Mai or Nammat New Town, was abandoned. They had moved ten months before. The town looked like it had been left years ago. A lot of the roofs and floors had been used as convenient firewood when moving. No need to collect wood in this town. Abandoned or not Ket still used Nammat Mai as a teaching tool, showing me the different symbols on the gates and what they were for and why the gate in the first place.

I’ve heard people remark before on the small, toy like, AK replicas attached to Akha gates. Makes sense when you realize many of the symbols on the gate are to keep bad spirits out and to scare them away. Using guns from the time they are children the Akha certainly recognise what an extremely deadly weapon the AK is.

Bird on Gate Mongla

There is also a crude fertility symbol by the gates. Simple tree branches with forks in the right places so that one could be considered female, and the other with the extra branch sticking out, male. They are placed in such a way as to be copulating. Many children makes a village prosperous. On the other side of town Kep remarked on a tree with lots of chopped marks from machetes, Kep said returning hunters would leave an ear from the carcass in the tree and fire off a shot to let the village know they were returning with meat. I suspect they only do this for large animals. Not many ears on a bird.

That night the hunters were shooting down at the spring a hundred and fifty meters away. In the morning some shots also just after sunrise in the direction that we had come from. Just so no one misunderstands the hunters not only hunt for meat, they hunt for cash. The price of wild meat in town is much greater than pig or beef. A hunter can take a civet in to town and return with cash or a larger amount of pork.

When I returned to Luang Namtha I saw a friend stepping out his back door with an animal to clean in a pan. The animal had already had it’s hair removed. It had large teeth and a long tail. I’d never seen one before, and although my friends English is excellent, he didn’t know the English name. I carefully wrote down the name, tam yien, and went up the street to the Green Discovery office. As I suspected it was a civet. I’d seen this same animal around in markets dried before. Drying out an animal is a good way to keep it until sale. No refrigeration most places.

I don’t eat wild animals in Laos as a general rule. I’m afraid that with such good hunters there is the possibility of having an adverse affect on animal populations. Also where do you draw the line, what about the tiger and owls, or hawks and falcons. Insects and fish I eat. This animal was already bought, and I accepted the invitation.

My friends wife was nursing as was my friends sister in law, so they didn’t join us. Local tradition has it that the meat from the civet is inappropriate for nursing women, and women in general I think. There were only guys at dinner. Preparation was done by chopping the yien into small pieces, bones and all. Then quick frying it in the bottom of a soup pot, then adding the other ingredients, and simmering for a long time. The only thing I tasted was Bai Kee Hoot I think we call it kafir leaf. I didn’t notice afterwards that I felt much more macho.

Getting back to the trekking part of this story….

The third day was warmer, it was the first day I began to feel the advent of the hot season. We crossed and re crossed the same small river many times. One time as we were walking along the top of a bank waiting for the next crossing I joked and suggested we use a large log that was spanning the stream. Others had used it infrequently, branches along the top were broken or bent and there were slight scuff marks on the bark. Ket said that at one time he had considered using it but the danger of a fall was just too great for him to take trekkers across.

The forest through the trees

It was during the rainy season when most of the old part of Luang Namtha had been flooded out. The drainage above this particular river is close by. There had been one of those cloud bursts where a lot of rain comes down in a very short time, and all of the regular wet season crossings were washed out or covered over. This particular log lies a good twenty feet above the river. Much too far to fall. Easy enough for hill tribes people if they are careful, potentially catastrophic for eight tired wet trekkers.

Eventually Ket made a new crossing further downstream using a new piece of bamboo, then lashing a second to the first for stability, then a third above it for a handrail. A foreigner almost fell off anyway. Later there is another crossing that has to be made and can’t be avoided. By then it was dark. Kep got around it by making a new trail, he had to cut the thick underbrush with his machete and left the trekkers with his assistant. After cutting for a ways he would return to the group and help them to walk further, then repeat the whole process. Can you imagine in the almost pitch darkness of the jungle, rain clouds obscuring what light there is from moon or stars. Ket doesn’t tell stories using adjectives, it was very easy to imagine anyway.

When Ket called the office for assistance on his cell phone the tuk tuk, couldn’t get through because of the road being washed out. I’ve forgotten what time Ket said they got back to the office from that trek.

At one place while walking close to the river Ket pointed to a stick. I didn’t get it. Ket grabbed the wire attached to the stick. Still didn’t get it, “look” he said, “hair”, “trap”, the light went on upstairs. I’d made the same kinds of traps as a kid until my grandfather told me they were against the law. You bend over a sapling and tie a string to it with a looped slip knot at the end. You set the trap by barely securing the string to the ground with a peg or any other way. The animal wanders through, bumps the string and then is jerked in the air and dies. In this case the civet bit through the bit of electric cord that had been used as a string. He’d left some neck hair where the tight cord had been strangling him. Ket said that’s one civet that will never get caught in that kind of trap again. Good grief, I’d imagine.

Sapling that was almost all she wrote for some civet

That’s how the trek went, over and over again. Lots of birds. At one point when Ket pointed out a big bird and asked if it was an eagle. I don’t know. What’s an eagle? If I get close enough I can tell a golden, or an immature bald eagle, but in Asia? Big enough, and the feathers were splayed towards the back of the wing the way they do. Well I know it wasn’t a vulture. Looked to be the size of an osprey. You would need a video camera and a tape recorder just to get down half the stuff Ket comes up with. Then you would have to write it all down to make sure you had it figured out.

Bill the guy who helped found the Boat Landing, and handles advertising for Green Discovery, spent years with Ket doing health care and then the trekking development. Kind of makes you wonder how much Bill knows about all these things. People say not only does he speak Lao like a Khaysone monument come to life, but knows the regional dialects too. Talks to himself in Thai Lu when he spends too much time alone, and can speak a whole lot of Akha, must be a reincarnated witch doctor.

Soon on the last day we entered the area cut by the villagers of the new Nammat Mai. I don’t know the name of the new town they built, I suppose I could call it Nammat Mai Mai. New new Nammat.

We started walking through recently burnt trees from old growth. This was something I hadn’t seen much of before. Lots of work growing rice between the tree stumps. A lot of the trees were being cut for wood. The people cutting the trees were Khamu. Cutting beams and planks from trees using a hand powered rip saw is a lot of work and takes time to learn. The Akha were paying the Khamu to do it.

Rip cutting with an up and down saw

I was very curious as to costs, amount of time, and species of wood. At one point the Naiban of the new village came walking through the working men and complained about the pace of work. He needed this wood to build the new town. The wood cutting was contracted on a piece work basis.

Eventually we made our way into the new town to be surrounded by children and grannies begging with bracelets. Tourism had made it’s way here before us. I kept pointing at Ket when his back was turned but the kids were having none of it. They knew he wasn’t buying any. I looked around and this place was low on my pants scale of children. I size up poverty by seeing how many kids are wearing pants at what age. By the time kids are two and a half or three they too like to cover themselves. Here a lot of the boys of eight and nine only had underwear, and some kids not much younger had nothing. Putting the best face on things I said to Ket well at least there are no big bellies from malnutrition. At that Ket started to mention which kids had the tell tale bellies just the way he pointed out animal signs. The difference was he didn’t point or look directly so no one could tell that’s what he was doing. I wonder how many other times I just didn’t see malnutrition.
Kids high up on my pants scale of prosperity Mongla, Muang Long District

The temptation in these situations is to just give money. They are so poor and it is such a small amount. Well we know that doesn’t work. Just turns kids into beggars. I could have given money to the Naiban I suppose, but it would have been a drop in the bucket. I wonder what it costs to feed a village like that for a day, or a year? How much for health care? They were waiting for the depths of the dry season to decide on running the pipe from the spring that was a half a kilometre away. Wanted to see if the water still flowed when the year was at it’s driest. I asked Ket if he thought the people boiled the river water before drinking. Mostly he said. And the ones who don’t? They drink from the river.

I realize the first year after a village moves has to be the worst. Gardens not yet planted, rice fields to be cleared, houses only bamboo shacks built on the dirt. I know the old folks and kids die, it’s inevitable. Yet they move of their own free will, I guess like all they want a better life.

From the Akha village we walked down the road further, past the established villages of the lowlanders. Not ethnic Lowland Lao and not hill tribes of the high mountains, you have to look carefully to know that they are Thai Dam, Lanten or Thai Daeng, and further on and in town, Thai Lu. It was reassuring to see once again little children dressed and clean, the pride of their mother’s eyes. It was Sunday, lots of music and eating food.

When we came to the crossroads near the stupa Ket called for our ride. I suggested we stop in the small restaurant for a soda. Actually it was a board with some soft drinks on it so that you could tell here were drinks for sale. I had been here just before the trek when I came to look at the stupa. I even remembered the owners name, Bang. Ket was surprised that we already knew each other and Bang was surprised to see me come walking out of the mountains with a local guy.

They talked for a while and then Ket asked me if I’d been in the war. I laughed and told them that luckily I’d been too young. At fifty, for Lao people, I wasn’t too young. The Americans closed up shop quite a while before the war was over for the Lao. When I graduated from high school in 1974 the draft had ended, for the Lao who often joined the army at 15, and for whom the war lasted another two years after that, I was old enough.

When I’d met Bang before, I’d of course asked about the stupa and the old part of town. I just wanted to know if I should feel collective guilt or anything. Turns out the town was flattened by the Lao Air Force. I was off the hook. Through another tourist’s girlfriend, who was Thai Isaan, and therefore spoke Lao. I, and the couple, asked Bang lots of questions about the period. He said they had to move away because the bombing was so intense, and the Lao government had helped the whole town to rebuild after the war.

Toppled Tat The bombed stupa above Luang Namtha Old Town.

When Ket and I parted at the Green Discovery Office I hand shook him, and slipped him a big tip, I’ll bet he forgets me a lot sooner than I forget him.