Dec 7, 2008

Nothing to do with Laos

Treeline above Caribou Flats.

I've been doing other stuff lately and not blogging about Laos. Obviously.

Tuesday Dec 9 I leave for a couple days in Bangkok then back to wandering around for a couple months. I'm going to try to blog using computers at internet cafes. I'm bringing no computer. We'll see how it goes.

No season on these guys in this GMU. I think they are a pain in the neck, big, and can be troublesome. They don't always move out of the way, they can even try to stomp you. A thousand pounds of useless meat.

Nice bear track

Big fresh bear pie. I was in the thick brush of a willow thicket, just the place to meat up with Mr. Bear.

Mount Meeker with Longs peeking out from behind. Probably in April, lots of spring snow, winter wheat is high.

Aug 14, 2008

Meat and Veggies

This fellow and his friends started to appear at the beginning of the hot season. His name is Maeng Sahn, elephant insect. Quite the name for such a little guy. Perhaps it's the tusks. To catch him spread a plastic under the tree and shake. In season there are a lot and it doesn't take much work, eaten like grasshoppers and the taste is similar. Maybe next time.

This jackfruit, (Mahk Mii) is more well known. They still weren't ripe by mid March.

Aug 9, 2008

Logging Lord

liana or woody vine wrapping around itself.

Great You Tube video.

Sorry, embedding disabled by request of the producer, Journeyman Pictures.

Logging Lord

Great professional quality video about a military strongman logging and relocating in central Laos. The producer definitely take a dim view of the general and his methods. A more nuanced view would be of the traditional benevolent emperor which is what General Chang is.

I would reject characterizing the general using our culture and background as a measure, but I do think there are much less destructive ways to bring development and save the forests at the same time. I know that it is possible to use selective cutting and preserve the forests as well as the habitat that supports the peoples and animals that currently live there.

Aug 6, 2008

Joe Cummings Ponders State of SEA Tourism

above, Vang Vien Before Tourism

Before I do a cut and paste from The New Statesman I'll give some background.

Joe Cummings had a lot to do with my initial view of Thailand and Asia. He was the author of the Thailand edition of the Lonely Planet book when I first went there and his attitude and outlook made a lot of sense to me then, still does now.

Joe encouraged readers to dig a little deaper, look a little closer. Learn some words, eats some local food, talk to some people. Eventualy I lived in other countries, but I always used his template of learning about the people of the country as a guide.

Joe's books were exaustive and also up to date. His insight into the language, the people and culture gave him a perspecive unmatched by todays writers. After all how many guidebook writers can speak in the language of the country they write about, how many live there? More likely they are young, paid for a brief few week mad dash around the place collecting prices and names of hotels, and then it might well be off to the next country half way around the world.

Without further ranting here it is.

Beauty at a price

Joe Cummings

Published 17 July 2008
Concrete hotels, go-go bars and drug tourism have scarred Thailand, Laos and Cambodia - yet it is not too late to develop a less destructive travel industry. Part of the New Stateman's special focus on
South East Asia

Tourism in mainland south-east Asia has entered a new era. Thailand, once something of an underground destination, has become hugely popular, attracting more than 12 million tourists every year. Its top resorts, such as Phuket and Koh Samui, are swamped by foreigners, particularly in the winter high season.

But political and social trends are reshaping the country's travel scene. The stereotype of Bangkok as a city that never sleeps was shattered by a "new social order", propagated by the conservative Thai Rak Thai political party (reformulated after an anti-TRT coup as the People's Power Party). Prompted by the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction that "dark influences" cause all manner of social ills after midnight, the Thai government began imposing early closing (between midnight and 2am) on bars, discos, massage parlours and every other entertainment venue.

Nowadays, tourists arriving in Bangkok expecting to party all night often say they feel cheated. "If I wanted to head home early when the pubs shut," I heard a young Englishman complain recently, "I'd have stayed in Brighton."

Although Thaksin himself turned out to be something of a dark influence (the state has filed or is considering more than 20 charges of corruption against the former premier, who was deposed in a military coup in September 2006), the new social order's strict closing times have remained in effect.

The city's notorious go-go bars along the neon-splashed lanes of Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza have been heavily affected by the policy. Their clientele was used to arriving around 11pm and staying until 3am or 4am, and even now the clubs remain relatively empty before 11pm. The owners and their female staff - many of whom depend on after-hours "dates" arranged while at work - now have to solicit business over the course of just three hours.
But in neighbouring Cambodia, Phnom Penh, once considered one of the region's more conservative capitals, is being touted as the "new Bangkok". Two of the city's most popular, long-established bars, Sharky's and Walkabout, now open 24 hours a day. Others won't close until the last customer leaves. Trendy bars and cafes, full of twenty- and thirtysomething businesspeople and tourists, have sprung up along Sisowath Quay, supplanting classic post-Khmer Rouge drinking holes such as the famous Foreign Correspondents Club.

Similarly, Siem Reap - not so long ago a dusty outpost humbly prostrated at the feet of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex - has recently been transformed into a city of art galleries, gelaterias and chic, architect-designed hotels such as the Hôtel de la Paix. The city has become such a destination in its own right that it's not unusual to meet a foreigner with no plans to visit the Angkor complex nearby.

The heady scent of marijuana, readily available for US$1 per neatly rolled, Bob Marley-sized spliff, wafts down the streets of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. No one in Bangkok - a target of Thaksin's deadly drug wars in 2004, during which more than 2,000 petty dealers were extrajudicially executed - would dare smoke cannabis in public. In tourist Cambodia, however, it is relatively commonplace.

The right kind of travel

Drug tourism also flourishes in neighbouring Laos, particularly in Vang Vieng, a small town wedged in a river valley lined by limestone cliffs. Dozens of limestone caves, many of them holy to the Lao people, are Vang Vieng's main daytime attraction, but when night falls, foreigners often drift towards the town's half-dozen opium dens. I asked one den owner about the intricate wood-and-bamboo pipes on display. "Those are for tourists," he replied. "The locals prefer these," - smaller glass pipes filled with ya baa, the crude, locally made amphetamine. "Much stronger."

But some tourism in other areas is more carefully managed. Si Phan Don is a cluster of impossibly scenic islands in the middle of the Mekong in southern Laos, close to the northern Cambodian border. Here, where the Mekong reaches its widest extent, a handful of islands are inhabited year-round. Peaceful and palm-fringed, they look like a mini-Polynesia.
Two of the islands - Don Det and Don Khon - are lined with guest-houses, constructed simply, in local styles. River breezes take the place of air-conditioning, and the islands' power generators are typically engaged from 6pm-10pm only. The main tourist activity is boating from island to island to observe Lao village life. Villagers also offer boat excursions to see one of the last surviving pods of Irrawaddy dolphins, found only in mainland south-east Asia. It is unknown how many are left in the area - perhaps as few as 20 - but the Lao provincial and district governments work hard to protect them from local fishermen, providing free dolphin-friendly nets in place of the deadly gill nets they used until recently.

Similarly, local people in the northern Lao province of Luang Namtha have, under their own initiative, created village-based eco-trekking programmes in and around the Nam Ha National Protected Area. Extending to the border with China and contiguous with Yunnan's Shiang Yong Protected Area, Nam Ha is one of the most important international wildlife corridors in the region. It is also home to minority hill-tribe groups, including the Lao Huay, the Akhas and the Khamus.

The hill-tribes supply and train leaders for the small group treks in tribal lands, which are scheduled so that no village or area is repeatedly inundated by tourists. The programme has been so successful that the United Nations Development Programme has recognised it as a "best practice" poverty alleviation intervention, and it earned a United Nations Development Award in 2001.

In many ways the late-blooming tourism industries in Laos and Cambodia, delayed by decades of war, have benefited from observing the mistakes Thailand made during its 1980s and 1990s economic boom. On Thailand's vast Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand coastlines, which still attract by far the majority of tourist visitors to the country, the negative impacts of overbuilding and congestion in parts of Koh Samui and Phuket have served as vivid lessons on how not to develop natural attractions.

The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated small portions of Thailand's Andaman coast and took more than 8,000 lives (roughly half of whom were foreign tourists), brought beach tourism to a virtual standstill for a full year afterwards. A few Thais argued that the tragedy offered the opportunity for lower-impact rehabilitation of the affected areas. However, most business owners simply created the same tourism landscape as before - which has, at least, helped Thais avoid the harmful aspects of extinct local practices such as tin mining and cyanide fishing.

Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are all increasingly struggling to identify and attract a market that lends itself to sustainable tourism. One of the latest buzz terms used by national tourism offices (NTOs) in the region is "high-yield traveller". On the face of it, the concept seems relatively clear: "We want visitors who leave behind a lot of money." But who are the real high-yield travellers? Unfortunately, most south-east Asian NTOs define them as the visitors with the highest expenditure per day. The NTOs believe their task is simple: target the richest and most spendthrift.

Yet per-day expenditures are not the whole story. Higher-spending tourists typically demand hotels packed with imported amenities and foods, and managed by foreigners or local people trained overseas. Tourism revenue leaves the country through the purchase of imported goods, through expatriated salaries and through overseas tuition. Most of the high-expenditure-per-day figures are eroded by such hidden costs to the host country.

Budget is better

Other hidden costs of the higher-spending tourist are environmental and cultural. The typical international hotel chain may offer a nod to local architecture, but neglects ways of cooling living spaces that do not involve using air-conditioning, for example. Local people, awed by the hotel monoliths, may gradually come to look down upon their own ways of building, thereby contributing to a loss of culture.

Meanwhile, the average backpacker or budget traveller - a sector of the market increasingly spurned by NTOs - stays at local-standard hotels and guest-houses, eats at local restaurants and buys local handicrafts direct from village crafts people. The income "leakage" is much less, and because the backpacker typically stays in the host destination longer, the net income is in fact usually greater than for the high-expenditure-per-day traveller.

For the moment, tourism in Cambodia and Laos seems aimed squarely - whether intentionally or not - at this high-yield, low-impact market. Thailand attracts a mix of mass-market, luxury and budget travellers; it cannot turn back the clock to a time when it was at the same level of development as Cambodia or Laos. However, it is not too late to adjust Thailand's tourism marketing policy and to work towards preserving the increasingly fragile cultures and environments in the country's less explored areas of the north and north-east.

The downturn in the global economy, and the resulting dip in south-east Asian tourism, provide another chance for the industry to reflect on its way of working, another opportunity to decide whether the region needs more multinational-dominated mega-resorts - or a more old-fashioned, local approach to welcoming visitors.

Joe Cummings, an author of Lonely Planet's Thailand guide for 25 years, has spent most of his adult life in south-east Asia

Jul 25, 2008

Burma - Hot History Lesson

I saw this video clip over on a blog called friscodude. The blog itself is worth a look. Written by a travel writer, Carl Parkes, based in Thailand, it is Asian themed but not necessarily restricted to travel. The writing is good and there's often new material.

Jul 12, 2008

Craig Schuler's Photos

Self Portrait by Craig Schuler at the Chinese border Phongsali Province Laos. Abandoned Casino in background

Craig studied Thai language formally, and then taught himself Lao language. He gets on well with people and that's obvious from his photographs. People enjoy having him take their picture.

Craig's latest series called sitting on top of a million elephants is kind of a play on words. Laos is called the land of a million elephants and the province where Craig took his most recent series of pictures is the northernmost province in Laos extending by itself way up into the space between Vietnam and China. Not only are the photos from this northernmost province, they are also from the most northern district within that province. Truly Sitting On Top Of A Million Elephants

The name of the district is Nyat Ou, and the Province is Phongsali. I visited that district briefly while in Phongsali at Craig's recommendation. It was everything he had described and more. Ou Tai was remote and seemingly influenced very little yet by the rest of the world.

I'm not sure how many photos are in this set. Many more than any I've ever seen before from Craig. Usually he's very stingy with the photos. Perhaps he had many more "keepers" with this batch.If the links don't show about 100 or more black and whites of rural Laos, email Craig and demand he make the images permanently available for view.

Since I originaly posted this, things have changed. There now seem to be 12 photos all looking kind of like old colour prints, I think this is, as as called on his link to as "treated colour". Interesting to see them first as black and white, and now as faded colours. Some of the images I remember from a year ago as having vibrant but natural seeming colours. I'll have to watch and see what's next.

Update on the update. It seems as if Craig didn't get much response on the original series of black and whites, so he opted for the fall back photos. Craig promises to make the black and whites available again soon. Send an email to Craig by clicking here and going to the portion of his web site that says "contact" tell him to bring back the black and whites

He has had two other sets of color photos on the same web site. I liked both of the other sets, they were tremendous in their own right, but these photos seem to build on his earlier work and go beyond them. The black and white adds to the feeling of timelessness. If you didn't know already when they were taken you might think they are from ten, twenty, fifty or more years ago.

Jul 4, 2008

Of Laos and Laotians

Some Lao people in Laos. Left to right, baby Namphone, her mom Aunt Kien, Sengthian, Aunt Hong, Creag.

A great post follows about a controversial subject from a Lao American young woman whom I just happen to agree with, or else why quote it, right?

The quote within a quote, is from her blog lao-ocean girl I think the quoted article within the quoted blog is by Grant Evans the preeminent Lao scholar. (correction it's by both Grant Evans and Nick Enfield published in the Vientiane Times in 1998)

This part by LA-ocean girl

I’m Laotian-American, but currently live in Korea. I’ve travelled around SE Asia and have met other backpackers who have travelled to Laos. There always seemed to be a discrepancy as to what the country was called. There was one group, including myself, who called it Laos. Then there was the other group, who thought they were "in" with the locals, and called it Lao. Sometimes I would correct people, but most of the time people mentioned the country in passing, so I let it slide. In addition, who was I, to correct foreigners that I didn’t even know. This may seem like a trivial point, but it’s always irritated me. Sure, the local people called their country Lao, but it was in the context of "Prathet Lao" or "Muang Lao". Literally translated, they both mean "Lao land" and "Lao country". Whenever I talked to my parents about Laos, I always refer to it as "Muang Lao," but that’s because I actually speak Lao. It just seemed pretentious of foreigners to call the country Lao. Aarrrgghh! But that’s just me… I don’t tell my friends that my trip to "Italia" was wonderful, I say "Italy."

Below is an article I found about this topic. It has some insightful linguistic information.

This part by Grant Evans and Nick Enfield. Grant Evans needs no introduction to those who read about Laos. Nick Enfield I hadn't heard of as I don't really speak Laotian, (I fake it and smile a lot) People who are into it would probably call him an ethno linguist or something.publications of Nick Enfield

There appears to be confusion among some foreigners in Laos about how to spell the name of the country known today by its official name, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. In particular there is confusion about whether to refer to the country as ‘Lao’ or ‘Laos’ when writing or speaking in English. Historically it has been common for English writers to refer to the country as Laos when not using the country’s official title, and this is the standard form outside of the LPDR today. So why confusion inside the country? One source of the confusion for some foreigners appears to be that when they come to the country they discover that in the Lao language, the country’s name has no final ’s’. Indeed, there are no words at all in Lao which have a final ’s’. Some people therefore seem to think that it is more correct to say, for example, that Vientiane is the capital of ‘Lao’ rather than ‘Laos’. But where does this logic come from? There are a great many country names that are pronounced quite differently in English, or indeed are completely different words in the home language. An outstanding example is the country name ‘China’ which actually does not exist in any variety of Chinese. In Mandarin, the official language of China, the country is referred to as ‘Zhong Guo’. In Lao, China is referred to as ‘Jiin’. Another example is India, whose name in Hindi is ‘Bharat’, a completely different word to the English. Further away from the Asian context, inhabitants of the country called ‘Finland’ call their homeland ‘Soumi’. A better known European example is Germany, which is known as ‘Allemagne’ in French, and ‘Deutschland’ in the native German. All these examples show that it is quite common not only for the name of a country to be pronounced quite differently in various languages, but indeed may be a completely different word. We have heard reports where foreign experts have been instructed by some Lao officials not to use the term ‘Laos’ in their reports, but to call the country ‘Lao’ instead. "Laos does not exist", they have been told by officials. So, for example, we can find the following sentences in a recent UN document: "Reduction of rural poverty is a main motivating factor for rural development in Lao. At its stage of development, rural poverty reduction in Lao will come by increasing rural employment possibilities…" The uses of ‘Lao’ in both cases could have been ‘Laos’, and we would suggest that it is more desirable to use ‘Laos’ in these contexts. Only if the document had used Lao PDR’ in both cases would it have been correct to use ‘Lao’. It is a puzzle to us why some officials would issue such instructions to foreign experts. Despite that fact that the Lao themselves have their own distinctive ways of pronouncing the names of other countries, we can only think that this instruction is some kind of zealous nationalism which insists that foreigners use the name ‘Lao’ in the same way the Lao do in their own language. Such officials may be unaware that the Lao also force the names of other countries to conform to their own pronunciation conventions.

Consider the ways in which the Lao language renders the names of various foreign countries. While in the cases of Vietnam and Cambodia, Lao pronounces the names of these countries quite like the natives do, there are others that are extremely different in terms of pronunciation. Two good examples from Europe are Austria and Belgium. These are pronounced in Lao as something like ‘Ottalik’ and ‘Bensik’ respectively (from French Autteriche and Belgique). It so happens that English has a huge range of possible sounds that can appear at the end of a word. In English, the rounding-off of the word ‘Laos’ with an ’s’ is a very typical thing to do, as any Lao who struggles with an ’s’ on the end of every second word will attest. In Lao, however, and many other languages of Southeast Asia, it is impossible to finish a word with sounds like ’s’,'f’,'th’, and so on. In Cantonese, for example, there is a tendency to add an ‘ee’ sound to the end of words that end with ’s’. ‘Price’, for example, is pronounced ‘pricey’, or ‘tips’ becomes ‘tipsy’, and so on. Cantonese does not have a word-final ’s’ sound, and so it has to add a vowel so that the ’s’ can be colloquially pronounced. This process of changing the pronunciation of a borrowed word to conform to the conventions of the borrowing language is called indigenisation. Laos with an ’s’ was one solution in English for the country’s name. It could have been ‘Lao’, but it may well have been ‘Lao-land’, by literal translation from the Lao. This of course happened with Thailand when ‘Prathet Thai’ was translated as ‘Thai-land’. But, for reasons which are obscure to us, ‘Pathet Lao’ is not ‘Lao-land’ and nor is it a country called ‘Lao’. Indeed, the latter usage is quite marked in English, and when used by foreigners seems almost pretentious. Of course ‘Lao’ is perfectly correct in English when used as an adjective. For example: a Lao person, the Lao language, a Lao poem, etc. One other possibility that has tended to fall into-use is ‘Laotian’. So one can say: a Laotian person, the Laotian language, Laotian poem. This, however, seems to be losing out to the more economical ‘Lao’.

The old saying (in English) goes: "When in Rome do as the Romans do", but only if you are speaking Italian should you say ‘Italia’. Similarly in Laos, only if you are speaking Lao do you need to say ‘Lao’ when referring to the country.

Apr 19, 2008

Antelope Laap

Recently Bryan, the guy who gives me meat, gave me some seal-a-mealed antelope, that somebody gave him. I don’t know the name of the guy who shot it or where. I’m assuming somewhere here in Colorado. I do know he used a 308, another one of those rounds that can knock something over way out yonder.

Having no idea what antelope tasted like I lightly fried some in canola oil. Gamey, kind of like venison. Perfect for a strong Laap.

Before I get into the laap some antelope explaining is in order. Pronghorn Antelope as found in the Americas aren’t really an antelope at all. The only surviving genus of the family Antilocapridae, it’s closest living relative is the giraffe. Yes, I looked it up.

Having worked on the prairies of eastern Wyoming I knew they were extremely fast, according to Wikipedia the only faster animal is the cheetah but the antelope can sustain high speeds for a longer period. Besides being fast they also have exceptional eyesight. If you just try to walk up to normal shooting range they will quickly become a small dot on the horizon.

Back to the laap. I pre-cut some of the ingredients, shallots, garlic, thin sliced lemon grass, regular Thai peppers, cilantro, and lime ready to add. My wife keeps a container of ground up toasted sticky rice in the spice drawer. I fried the ground up antelope, (that’s how it came. I am not too lazy to chop if that’s what you were thinking), turned off the heat and added the shallots and green onions, then a couple spoonfuls of fish sauce, a little bang nua and some pah dek water to taste.

I made the pah dek water by mixing a dab of factory made pah dek with some water in a sauce pan and simmering it until it dissolved. ( a couple of minutes) The pah dek water was key to add some juice to the whole thing and also the pah dek and gamey meat compliment each other. My Lao supervisor chastised me for over cooking the meat. I did not. Turned off the heat just as soon as it began to look like it might cook through. Antelope is just a little dry. I mean the prairie out here is technically a dessert.

Vietnamese Pah Dek in a Jar

Pahdek water yummy

Lastly I stirred in the cilantro, green onions, and hot peppers while squeezing six pieces of lime into it. I like lime juice.

And sticky rice.

Apr 12, 2008

Sabai Dii Pi Mai

This is the day before yesterday. It might be new years and the height of the hot season in Laos but it's still snowing here. This photo was at 9:30 AM. The snow is so thick the movement activated light over my garage/shop came on illuminating the rack I have mounted above the big rolling door.

Today is the day they celebrate here, Saturday, I think in Laos it's the next or following day.

Apr 11, 2008

For My Feet

Often I hear people discussing what’s the best thing to wear to go for a walk, specifically “trekking” in South East Asia.

Above my old hiking boots. My first pair I spent a two week pay check to buy, I think they were about $65 in 1974. Eventually I trashed them in the salt water on the back deck an anchor boat in the Gulf of Mexico. An ignominious end for a hand made boot by a master craftsman. This pair I bought later in my mid thirties when I had plenty of money to pay the then price tag of $250. They are called Limmers. A typical yearly production run was a thousand pair. They were made around a wooden last of your foot. Limmer Boots of Intervale NH

A common theme of footwear discussions is why bother carrying boots all the way to Asia, when a pair of sandals might do as well or better. I used to be of the same mind but of late have changed my tune. There are caveats, it all depends on where you are going and how far.

The first guest house I stayed at in Chang Mai was developed around the trekking business. The guides taught me to speak some Thai and explained many seemingly inexplicable parts of Thai culture. When I came back to Thailand to work at first for half a year and later on a one way ticket I always stayed at that guest house when in town, my home away from home.

Eventually one of my friends convinced me to go on a trek. It was the typical two night/three day /elephant ride/rafting thing. Being as I was a non paying guest I missed out on the rafting / elephant walk. I also was extremely sick due to being incautious when peeling the cover off some rambutans. The walking was so easy I was able to keep up without strain, even being sick. Leisurely wanders with convenient rests in closely spaced villages I considered to be the norm.

Laos was different...

Above I’m doing the powder mag traverse at an LZ in southern Idaho. Notice the skid marks from my feet where I’d edged on the bolts during previous post-work workouts. I was an obsessed climber.

During the 80s I did a kind of job that required lots of walking in the mountains of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. Half of our pay was by the mile so we covered a lot of ground very quickly often walking hundreds and hundreds of miles, with weight, over rough terrain. On my feet I’m wearing a lightweight pair of European hiking boots. I used to buy discounted pairs in Boulder or Jackson Wyoming. Pivettas, Fabianos, Lowas, and Galibiers. Returns, last years models, any brand, cheap and high quality were all I cared about. I found it was less expensive to buy them for fifty or a hundred dollars on sale and throw them away when they were worn out rather than resole. I also liked the light weight and close cut.

Many of my friends preferred Galibier Super Guides above. They were heavy and didn’t bend much but they could be resoled, and were indestructible. Good for kick stepping in the mornings when the snow was still frozen.

Thinking that walks in Laos would be similar to those in Thailand I took the footwear above on most of my treks. On my very first excursion I took Crocs, a rubber type clog thing. After the second day I switched to the sneakers that I’d carried as backup. Subsequently I wore the sneakers exclusively and the flip flops once I’d reached the villages.

Most of my walks were long drawn out affairs, often going as fast as possible just to make the next village by night. The relocation of many of the villages has caused trails to become obscure and sometimes even disappear. In the wetter seasons there’s lots of slippery mud. In a word footing is usually bad and often worse than that. I did go on one standard commercial trek rated fairly hard but in reality much easier than the more unravelled walks. I think a pair of Tevas or similar would have worked fine. Of course from a stylistic perspective I’d rather go barefoot.

If I ever make it back I swear I’m going to take a good pair of boots with me. Boot technology has changed.

A couple of years ago a neighbour who often works as a hunting guide urged me to hurry on down to Walmart and buy some Herman Survivors as they were on sale. I remember Survivors from when I used to hike as a young teen. High topped leather and heavy. Somewhere along the way the brand got sold and they are now made of cordura, gortex and thinsulate. They are made in China as are almost all boots.

I bought three different styles at that sale, all for around twenty five dollars marked down from fifty or sixty. They were extremely light, water proof in a way my old leather boots could only dream of, and the support was in all the right places without being stiff. A far superior boot for what now amounts to a fraction of an hour of my labour. I was sold.

They are “hunting” boots. Usually having some sort of fashionable camouflage on them somewhere just so you get the idea. They are also high tops and often with some insulation because hunters are often out in the cold. For some reason the big box sporting goods stores clear out their inventory with the seasons. I think it’s cheaper to sell at a steep reduction than to inventory it and sell it to some discounter.

This year I kept my eyes open and bought better brands at a lot larger markdown. My average price was $32, average new prices were $130. Thank you China and the Dominican Republic, just wish we still employed people in our own shoe factories.

Update, I should mention in all honesty that I've had problems with my "buy cheap stuff and just wear it" philosophy. I took two of my unused pair of shoes to Laos and had some uh. . . difficulties. Probably a good idea to take some long walks with any pair of shoes before bringing them with you on the airplane.

Mar 29, 2008

So Fa So Good

The Mekong just below Xienkok, the Nam Fa joins just out of the photo to the left

There is a steep sided valley tucked away in the mountains of Loas. It’s not on the way to anywhere. The river that flows through this valley crosses only one road far upstream and runs for 110 kilometres undisturbed until it empties into the Mekong unnoticed just below Xiengkok. Nature has also done her part to shield this valley from the covetous eyes of the modern world. Guarding both sides of the valley are steep mountains covered in thick forest, up and downstream powerful rapids make the river unavigatable by even the smallest open boat.

On the south bank of this valley on a sloped bench well above the reach of even the highest flood waters lies a tidy small village called Mongla.

Mongla..... I used the telephoto on my mini zoom to glass the town from 4km away, above Jakune. Large diptocarps rise above the canopy, tilled fields at higher elevations behind the village.

Mongla is not totally isolated. Fit and strong adults make a long one day walk to Muang Long or even Xienkok. They bring back manufactured items, such as lead for shot, fishhooks, gasoline for the generator, even tin for the roofs of the well off. But until recently the outside world had hardly made an impression on the remote valley and no one ventured in.

The Naiban of Mongla and a young boy who has been studying Laotian returning from Muang Long with fuel, a bucket, a woven mat, and some other manufactured goods. This is the ford below Jakune in the dry season. The flow is about ten cubic meters per second down by the Mekong, less than a tenth the volume of the wet season. Translation ; in August this river be rippin.

The people of this valley are Akha, the men can recite their lineage back to common ancestors with all the other Akha of Phongsali, Thailand, China, or wherever. They grow corn and rice above the river on the higher slopes of the mountains. For some reason they leave the trees and forests of the bottomlands uncut. Perhaps some sort of taboo reinforcing good conservation practices.

The trees are some of the tallest and oldest I’ve ever seen in Laos. Maybe it’s just the way they grow so close together amongst the large boulders. The trail is forced to climb up and over and around the roots of the trees in the perpetual twilight of the deep forest. Here the large predators and their prey survive in high numbers, not yet hunted for sale to the underground trade in tiger parts.

Tigers and leopards,
barking deer guar,
bears and civets,
slow loris sambar.

homemade muzzle loader it shoots a very small lead bullet with black powder

Fish eagle fly away,
Jakal can run.
What of the marten and badger,
For them it’s no fun.

Plants and vines growing on tree trunk

The other day bored and googling I came across this web site

Nam Fa Hydropower Project

I quickly scrolled through the article then slowly absorbed the map which is below.

When I enlarged the map all was fuzzy, still I remember enough of the river to recognise the basic lay of things. The Nam Fa trends west and joins a major tributary (Nam Kha) before joining the Mekong itself. I scrolled on back to the technical page. Max height 79 meters, ten kilometre access road. I could see the reservoir not quite reaching Vieng Phouka.

I already knew that many hydroelectric dams had been approved, on the Mekong, in Southern Laos, and a series of dams are planned to destroy almost all of the Nam Ou. I wasn’t surprised really but seing it in black and white really set me back on my heels. Knowing what the people looked like and having slept in their house and eaten their food didn’t help. They weren’t just any people.

Naiban Jakune

Naiban Mongla

Wife Naiban Mongla

Only in reading backwards to search for the start date and for particulars on where the access road would go did I realize the project had been discarded as not profitable enough. I hope it becomes less profitable as time goes by.

Nam Fa looking downstream from the ford below Jakune. After a short while the forest becomes very old and deep.

The following are the visits to the Valley that the Nam Fa runs through so far as I know.

At the beginning of the millennium Wildside Expeditions began to make an attempt to market the idea of a white water rafting trip to the area following their foray down the river on behalf of UNESCO and the Nam Ha Eco tourism folks. Writing in the advertising literature for a trip itinerary the writer, whom I assume must be Bill Tuffin of The Boat Landing Ecotourism Lodge, said, “ The Nam Fa offers one of the most pristine tropical river environments left on earth.”

The wildlife survey down the river by Wildside was the first known instance of outsiders entering the area. I don’t know if they were able to find any takers for their proposed 7 day raft trip. In 04 a mixed group of kayakers including Japanese and Lao nationals also paddled down the river. The rapids are rated at class IV, not too difficult for experienced kayakers, but not the kind of thing for the neophyte.

Beginning in the dry season of 06 Tui the manager of the tourism office in Muang Long started to take trekkers over the mountains on guided walks into the valley. He first took a pair of unknown hikers, then his friend Somjit took a very fast lone Scandinavian guy. Early in the dry season of 06/07 I hiked in with one of Tui’s students, Si Phan guiding me. Later in February 07 Tui hiked in for a second time with a trio of Italians. Even though the Italians were young fit twenty some things they didn’t reach Mongla on the second day until late in the evening. Just after that I too took my second hike, my guide this time was Somjit also his second walk into the valley.

I know that Sak the director of the agricultural department in Muang Long also hiked into Nambo and I assume Jakune as there were also public service health care type posters there. Probably he and Tui were assessing the viability of trekking in the area.

All in all six small groups of two or three people have headed into the valley of the Nam Fa, probably more by now.

I myself have entered or left by four different routes. The first time by cutting over to Nambo then down to Jakune. The river was still too high for crossing to Mongla and we hiked back up on the ridge to the north and tried to follow it down to Xiengkok. We got lost. Not lost lost, just couldn’t find a trail so we walked out to the road.

The first house we came to while headed for the road was perched on a steep side slope. The woman there seemed alone except for five or six dogs that were going wild barking and growling. At the time I thought that it must be a waste to feed so many dogs, now I realize why they kept so many, Asiatic Tiger.

The second time in we walked directly to Mongla due South of Muang Long by cutting over the crest of Phou Mon Lem and across the river below Jakune. We exited by crossing the Nam Fa a couple kilometres downstream of Mongla and regaing the ridge which we followed to Som Pan Yao and out to Xiengkok.

The bright wide blue lines are rivers, Nam Ma up top and Nam Fa below. The smaller darker blue lines are the various routes I walked in and out to the valley as best I remember and the red dots are also where I guess villages to be, from left to right, Som Pan Yao, Mongla, Jakune, and Nambo. Pink dots are abandoned villages one on ridge above Nam Ma valley and the other Jakune Gao.

A look at the map of the Nam Ha NBCA on the Boat Landing web site reveals lots of little animal profiles all over this area and many small house symbols indicating a village. You can easily see the tributary of the Nam Ma in Muang Long heading east and the proliferation of animal signs between it and the Nam Fa to the south. Someone went in there and spotted those animals or their tracks.

Map of the Nam Ha Protected Area on Boat Landing Web Site showing villages and animal locations

I know that Bill Tuffin worked in bringing health care to the area around Muang Long in the 90s, I would have to assume that he and others made perhaps quite a few trips in to the higher elevations and also down into the northern side of the river. Lots of animals are marked on his maps, and towns along both the tributary to the Nam Ma and the north side of the Nam Fa. I suspect many of the towns are now gone or moved. Nambo seems to be much closer to Vieng Phouka than I thought.. And I know one of the village symbols must be the recently abandoned Jakune Gao.

At least three large villages that I know of have moved either to another location or out to the road since this map was made. I covered a small portion of this area, there must be many more relocated ban nock.

The map from The Boat Landing has been invaluable in trying to make sense of where things are. I also cross reference between Google Earth and my old topos that date back to the war. It’s hard trying to remember the lay of the land from some walks I took a year ago. Especially as I was walking as fast as I could just to keep up. But then I am supposed to be able to keep my sense of direction while covering long distances off the trail, it‘s my background. It’s gratifying to see the three sources of information seeming to match my memory. The more I look at the maps and try to remember the shape of the hills, the more the maps and my memories seem to coalesce into a series of overlays in my minds eye with some points in common to all.

The distances between villages is prohibitively far. I don’t see how they can run treks in this area without some places to sleep halfway between the villages. One way or another more and more trips will be made into the valley that surrounds the Nam Fa. My only wish is that future walkers can also see those ancient trees with the wide buttressed trunks, and a wild river not yet dammed.

Ban Nambo

Mar 22, 2008

Lao Forests Plundered At Increasing Rate

Trucks with logs lined up at the border to Vietnam

In my wanderings across cyberspace I stumbled upon this photo a few weeks ago with the caption, "Trucks carrying logs from Khammouane Province in Laos to Ha Tinh Province in Vietnam".

At the time I assumed a fellow tourist had spotted the trucks and logs and taken a photo. The rest of the photos on the flikr account were also good and from out of the way places.

Then this week I ran across an article in Business Week .
Vietnam destroying Lao forests By DENIS D. GRAY BANGKOK, Thailand

Vietnam is acquiring huge quantities of illegally logged timber from neighboring Laos and turning it into furniture for consumers in the United States and Europe, an environmental group said Wednesday.

"Vietnam's booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation" in Laos, Julian Newman of the Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency said at a news conference.

The group showed a video of fleets of trucks laden with logs crossing the border into Vietnam from Laos, which has banned the export of logs and sawn timber.

Every year, an estimated 17.6 million cubic feet of logs are smuggled across the border after false documents are produced and bribes paid, the group said.

The video included Vietnamese businessmen admitting that logs at their factories came from Laos in violation of the country's laws and were processed into furniture for export.
A huge pile of logs from Laos was shown in the Vietnamese port of Vinh, ready for sale.

Newman said businesses in Thailand are also buying illegally cut timber from Laos, which has some of the last great forests in mainland Southeast Asia.

"The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods," Newman said.

Vietnamese and Thai officials were not immediately available for comment. The governments of both countries have in the past acknowledged the illegal trafficking of timber from Laos, although the scope of the trade has not previously been clear.

"The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets which import wood products made from stolen timber," Newman said.

Faith Doherty, another EIA staffer, said draft laws now before the U.S. Congress would curb such imports. She said the European Union was taking steps to certify furniture and other forest products as having come from legally procured timber.

An EIA report also released Wednesday noted that Vietnam has taken steps since the 1990s to conserve its own forests while at the same time expanding wooden furniture production, much of it with illegal timber.

Furniture exports from Vietnam totaled $2.4 billion last year, a tenfold increase since 2000. According to the Vietnamese government, 39 percent of the exports in 2006 went to the United States, 14 percent to Japan, 7 percent to Britain and 4 percent each to France and Germany.

"The plundering of Laos' forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbor.

Thai and Singapore traders are also cashing in," the report said. Posing as investors, EIA staffers met one Thai businessman who bragged of paying bribes to senior Lao military officials to secure timber potentially worth $500 million, the group said.

Press Release: 19 March 2008


EIA Web Site

Vietnam is operating as a centre for processing huge quantities of unlawfully-logged timber from across Indochina, threatening some of the last intact forests in the region, a major new report reveals.

Undercover investigations by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Indonesian NGO Telapak have revealed how Vietnam’s booming economy and demand for cheap furniture in the West is driving rapid deforestation throughout the Mekong river region.

Field investigations in Vietnam and neighbouring Laos, including secret filming and undercover visits to furniture factories, have demonstrated that although some countries like Indonesia have cracked down on the illegal timber trade, criminal networks have now shifted their attention to looting the vanishing forests of Laos.

Urgent Action

This illicit trade is in direct contraventionof laws in Laos banning the export of logs and sawn timber and EIA/Telapak are calling for urgent international action.

Investigators visited numerous Vietnamese furniture factories and found the majority to be using logs from Laos. In the Vietnamese port of Vinh, they witnessed piles of huge logs from Laos awaiting sale.

At one border crossing on one occasion alone, 45 trucks laden with logs were filmed lining up to cross the Laos border into Vietnam. The report estimates at least 500,000 cubic metres of logs are moved in this way every year.


Since the 1990s, Vietnam has taken steps to protect to conserve its remaining forests while at the same time, massively expanding its wooden furniture production.

Vietnam has an unenviable track record in using stolen timber. Past investigations have revealed it laundering illegal timber from both Cambodia and Indonesia

The plundering of Laos’ forests involves high-level corruption and bribery and it is not just Vietnam which is exploiting its neighbour; Thai and Singapore traders are also cashing in.

Posing as investors, EIA/Telapak investigators met one Thai businessman who bragged of paying bribes to senior Laos military officials to secure timber worth potentially half a billion dollars.

“The cost of such unfettered greed is borne by poor rural communities in Laos who are dependent on the forests for their traditional livelihoods,” said EIA's head of Forests Campaign, Julian Newman.

He said the local people gain virtually nothing from this trade, with corrupt Laos officials and businesses in Vietnam and Thailand, the profiteers.

The report concludes that to some extent the dynamic growth of Vietnam’s furniture industry is driven by the demand of end markets like Europe and the US.


“The ultimate responsibility for this dire state of affairs rests with the consumer markets with import wood products made from stolen timber,” said Julian.

“Until these states clean up their act and shut their markets to illegal wood products, the loss of precious tropical forests will continue unabated.”

EIA/Telapak are calling for: better enforcement by the timber-producing and processing countries and new laws banning the import of products and timber derived from illegal logging in the EU and US.

Feb 21, 2008

The Dispossessed

Slash and burn or swidden agriculture is a natural part of the ecosystem of Northern Laos. It has been going on for hundreds and probably thousands of years. Besides being the most efficient and highest yielding source of food it provides forest products and wildlife habitat during the years it lies fallow. Scientists have come to appreciate the idea that when practiced as it has always been, it is actually of benefit to the balanced environment of the uplands.

A while ago I started reading an online forum that is broadly concerned with agricultural development in the Lao PDR. This sounds like rather dry fare, mostly concentrating on rice yields or chicken diseases, and yes they do cover that stuff. When you realize though that most of the people in Laos are rural, and a fairly large proportion of the rural diet consists of things not cultivated but rather collected from the forest, the topics on the forum could potentially include a lot of Laos.

I read but don’t post. The contributors seem to be technical people working on development projects in Laos, and most of their posts seem to be links to reports generated by their respective agencies or comments on those same reports. Often there are links to newspaper stories and some commentary relating the stories to actual conditions. There are perhaps a score of regular contributors and a few hundred members of the group.

The good part is that some of the reports are uncut, meaning they are as written by the people doing the particular study, before editing for political or business interests. The downside is that readers are admonished not to quote or cite a specific report. I think the information might be of interest to a much wider segment of the public than is reached by the discussion forum.

Bear in mind when reading the following that I’m a tourist and not some sort of development worker. I speak travelers Lao not Hmong, Yao, Koh or whatever. No doubt people in Laos who have a background in the various specialties involved, have informed opinions, I on the other hand just have opinions.

One striking idea that recurs, is that the forced elimination of swidden agriculture (slash and burn) and the relocation of large numbers of upland villages is often not very good for the people involved. Most in the development community have now come to that realization as well as some key administrators of the Lao PDR in Vientiane.

Abandoned Namat Mai

There’s no doubt that in the near future most upland peoples will live with electricity, phone, schools, roads and so on. The question is how that change is going to come about and what affect it will have on the peoples involved.

Many of us tourists view “hill tribe” peoples as being one dimensional and primitive, whiling away their years in an idyllic circle of life, living some sort of noble savage existence amongst the thick trees of the dripping jungle. In reality they are advanced and multidimensional. They know what a cell phone, radio, and video player are. Most have seen cars and trucks and on the video they’ve seen Bangkok.

From other viewpoints relocation might be seen as having been a stunning success. Uprooting and relocating upland villages does help some. It makes it easier for NGOs to provide health aid and food. It also makes it easier to replace traditional crops with rubber and other cash crops. Concentrating a few villages in one place along the roads makes it very easy to track opium production and to punish those who plant it.

Abandoned Jakune

Domestic production of opium by any measure has been severely reduced when compared to the days when it was legal. Unfortunately rates of suicide and alcoholism are up. Also former opium addicts are now turning to heroin.

Adding to the problems is the fact that the folks who run the country and go to the Universities and own the wealth are what’s called “Low Lum” or lowland ethnic Lao. The upland Laotians and middle elevation Laotians are called Lao Sung or Lao Tung, and actually include many different ethnicities with their own languages, culture and beliefs.

The lowland Laotians often consider the other groups to be backwards and primitive, they are in earnest in wishing to “help” the uplanders. Of course they are using their own terms to define success, and poverty. Slash and burn takes lots of land. All of those years the land lies fallow the land is not growing rice. Fortunately one thing Laos has is a lot of is hilly land.

Lao Lum, the lowlanders who run the place figure everyone should live the way they do and have an abundance of rice every year, which would be great if there were enough low wet lands for all. Unfortunately there is no bottom land left. Similarly aid workers define success as a degree in one of the social sciences and working for a development organisation. I’m not sure how an upland farmer living a life very similar to the one he has been living for 300 years would define success. Perhaps to have lots of children and for each one to memorize their lineage back fifty generations as they are wont to do.

Where this leaves the regular Akha farmer I’ve no idea. Probably as usual if we just left his destiny up to him and went about our business he’d be fine. With or without the NGOers the uplanders are entering the 21st century.

Naiban (headman) Mongla. When I hiked from Muang Long with my guide the naiban and the teenage boy caught up to us an hour up the hill out of Muang Long despite leaving twenty minutes later. We shared lunch and the ten hour hike with them, when entering Mongla my guide asked the man, "which way to the naiban's house". So to ask permision to stay in the village for the evening. The man replied "follow me, I am the naiban".

Notice his hand woven and embroydered blue cotton pants and shirt, very trad. He is the headman of the village of Mongla. Mongla lies just above the river Fa on a slight rise of land to the east. There is a ford an hour above and an hour bellow the village. During the wet season you must swim making the village somewhat cut off from all routes to the west, Muang Long, Xiengkok, and so on. I'd assume there must be a way in from below Viengphuka.

The village appeared prosperous. Children well clothed and fed. The setting is breathtakingly beautiful. The timber along the river is taboo for cutting and contains many very large old trees. It is many miles to the nearest road, perhaps twelve or fifteen in both the closest directions, and besides Jakune they are the only village in this vast expanse of woods.

I would be happy to see health care, and for some people to become literate, I would also be happy to hear that they have retained ownership of this valley instead of some rubber company. What is this little Eden worth?

Since the time I began trying to write this blog entry the argument over relocation has spilled onto the pages of the New Mandela, an online site broadly interested in South East Asian issues. The site is out of an Australian University. I am delighted. Here at last is something online I can quote and link to.

The discussion began with a critique of a report by Baird and Shoemaker on whether or not aid agencies were having a negative affect on the well being of uplanders by helping to care for people who had been resettled. They further imply that it is impossible to decide which resettlements have truly been voluntary and which have been coerced to some extent. They aren’t prone to overstating things and yet they say the whole mess is having a “devastating impact”. For anyone with an interest I urge a read. The report is well written, made to be read.

The critique on New Mandela is here. New Mandela Some of the comments are interesting and provide greater understanding.

I especially urge you to read the response here by the writers of the report all the dust up is about.
response in New Mandela The first response refers to the PPA (Participatory Poverty Assessment) from 2000 and 2006, This exhaustive nationwide study, conducted on behalf of the Asian Development Bank unambiguously quantifies the impoverishment during the time between the two studies.

Glad to see so many bright informed people working on these problems, just wish they were more optimistic.

Feb 14, 2008

Thanks For Reading

Flower Pots Muang Xali

Once in a while I get a quick note via the comments section of a post or via email from a reader who likes my blog. A recent commentator said he’d read the whole blog, beginning to end in a couple of sittings.

I often check my site meter to find other people doing similar things. Maybe twice a week I’ll find someone has been on the blog for 3 hours twice in the last day and viewed 20 pages. Someone with an interest in Laos reading for background I‘d assume.

The site meter became invisible when Google made some changes in Blogger, and I never bothered to fix it. I’m not trying to sell ad space anyway. Lao Bumpkin gets about 50 hits a day, I’m assuming that will go up as I’m a frequent contributor to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum and they recently reinstalled the tag line feature where there is a link to this blog.
People looking on Lonely Planet tend to read more anyway.

Often I get people who enter the wrong search words on Google. Like the heart throb rock group from India, Moon Moon Sen, pulling up my post about that noodle salad Yam Moon Sen. Or people looking for images of Eve in the garden of Eden and they come up with that picture of my one year old daughter holding the snake in the post entitled, Eve In The Garden With Snake.

Besides how long people have viewed the blog, the site meter tells me if they have left the blog on one of my links or clicked on a photo to see it larger. I’m thrilled. If you wish to complement the blog simply click on a photo you like, I’ll see it.

The MSG post got a link from a Wall Street Journal article online, whose authors did a real nice job describing the current craze for “unami”, the naturally occurring free glutamate found in many foods. The funniest is the “Unami bomb” mixing up the heaviest combinations of naturally free glutamate such as parmesan cheese and tomatoes. Sounds like a cheese pizza to me.

Eleven months ago we got on a plane and left Laos. About time I went back.

Feb 9, 2008

Pawn Still Gone

Pawn a local advocate of environmental protection and sustainable tourism

I think some background is in order.

Just about a year ago the co owner of the Boat Landing Guest house in Luang Namtha disappeared while enroute to an appointment with the police to discuss the recent attempted arson of his eco lodge by unknown parties. Nothing was heard from him since.

I, like many other people who didn't know him, and weren't intimately familiar with the local situation in Luang Namtha, could imagine many scenarios where he might have had conflicting interests with rubber plantation developers, loggers, the government agencies carrying on relocation of upland peoples on a massive scale, or more mundane private matters, loss of face, jealously, who knows what.

Bertil Lintner the writer of this artical has a long and very good reputation for reporting on Burma, North Korea and other reclusive regimes of East Asia. One would have to assume he has good sources in this case. Mr. Lintner is the only public new news from a reputable source I've seen since the incident first occured.

Asia Times

Southeast Asia
Feb 2, 2008

Fear of foreigners in Laos
By Bertil Lintner

LUANG PRABANG, Laos - It is has been one year since Sompawn Khantisouk was abducted by men believed to be local police officers. The whereabouts of the entrepreneur, the owner and manager of a small eco-tourism lodge in northern Laos, are still unknown - indeed, no one other than his abductors even knows if he is still alive.

Many at the time assumed he was taken away as punishment for trying to mobilize local villagers in the area against Chinese-sponsored rubber plantation projects. Now it seems more likely that Sompawn was victim to a new and pressing dilemma facing one of the world's last remaining communist-ruled countries: how to balance rapid market-driven economic growth with the strict

social controls that the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has kept in place since it assumed power in 1975.

Sompawn ran the famous Boat-Landing resort, which is mentioned in most foreign guide books to Laos and had won several awards for its contribution to environmentally sound sustainable tourism. Eco-tourism promotion is even listed as one of the Lao government's five main development priorities, along with hydroelectric power, construction materials, agriculture and mining.

Last July, Laos hosted an Ecotourism Forum, which brought together tour operators, travel agents, hoteliers, development agencies and government authorities from throughout the Mekong river region. Those efforts have won significant international plaudits, including a New York Times survey that recently ranked Laos as the world’s top adventure tourism spot in 2008.

At the same time, there are entrenched official fears about growing foreign influence in the country, particularly in remote rural areas. Sompawn's partner was an American citizen and the country's security agencies were reportedly not pleased to see a foreigner help run the successful business. At about the time Sompawn disappeared, his American partner left the country and has not since returned.

Soon thereafter, at least two foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were ordered out of Luang Nam Tha, the province where the Boat-Landing is located. Other, lesser-known operators of small local businesses with foreign links were threatened with expulsion or stricter supervision of their activities, according to sources in northern Laos.

"On the one hand, the government welcomes the foreign revenue from tourism, while on the other it fears the security implications of allowing tourists to wonder at will around the country," wrote Song Kinh, an article published in the Irrawaddy news magazine. Officials overseeing the fast-growing tourism sector tend to be somewhat more accommodating to foreigners, while security personnel are less so.

The latter are particularly suspicious of foreign-run NGOs, many of which work to empower local communities by teaching them basic democratic principles and which security officials see as a challenge to the authority of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party, the country’s only political party. While Sompawn's local business was not an NGO, many of its tourism activities were done in close consultation with local communities.

Foreign devils
As a legacy of wars in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, first against the French and then against the US in what the Lao government refers to as "the 30-year struggle", the country's communist rulers remain wary of foreign influences. For instance, some of the NGOs that have been targeted for harassment are known to have had Christian connections.

While the vast majority of the country's lowlanders are Buddhist, Christianity has made inroads in the highlands, home of several ethnic minorities that have a long history of resistance to integration into mainstream Lao society. There are historical reasons for their squeamishness. During the Indochina conflict, thousands of Hmong tribesmen - although ostensibly part of the then Royal Lao Army - were armed and equipped by the American Central Intelligence Agency to fight the communist Pathet Lao, which, in the end, emerged victorious in the war.

Then American Christian missionaries worked more or less openly for the CIA, among them the legendary Edgar "Pop" Buell, an Indiana farmer who was assigned to the Xieng Khouang area in and around the Plain of Jars, where he came into contact with the Hmong. Later, he became the principal contact man between the CIA and the Hmong, working closely with the Hmong warlord Vang Pao, who escaped to the US before the communist takeover in 1975, and, despite his now advanced age, has continued to campaign against the country's communist rulers.

In June last year, the authorities in California arrested him on charges of masterminding a plot to overthrow the Lao government with arms and equipment that were ready to be shipped to Thailand. Eight others were also arrested and charged with violating the federal US Neutrality Act, among them a former California National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Ulrich Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War.

The other seven were all Hmong from Laos who had been resettled in the US after the end of the war. The criminal complaint said Vang Pao and the other defendants plotted an insurgent campaign, "by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials in Laos and the destruction of buildings and property". In July, he was released on bail.

However, the events in California had repercussions in Thailand, where in a bid to ease bilateral tensions the government announced that it would repatriate thousands of Hmong refugees back to Laos. Now totaling about 8,000, their numbers have swelled in recent years due to fresh arrivals, indicating that all is not well in the Lao mountains. Although the Hmong insurgency, which simmered on throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, is now more or less over, there are reports of occasional skirmishes and ambushes involving hill-tribe bands, mostly in the area around Phou Bia mountains south of the Plain of Jars, and near the town of Kasi on the main road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

With the revelations of a Vang Pao's latest plot, the already paranoid security authorities in Laos may have seen a broader US conspiracy in the eco-tourism joint venture they broke up with Sompawn's abduction and the US citizen fleeing the country. They may also have read with some suspicion the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Reports, which frequently mention "abuses of citizen's religious freedom" in Laos, especially arrests of Christians and actions taken against the independent Lao Evangelical Church (LEC). The 2007 report mentions closure of LEC-affiliated churches and the detention without charges of local Christian community leaders.

Costly xenophobia
With that bad publicity, the security authorities seem to believe that remote provinces such as Luang Nam Tha are better cleansed of foreign, especially Western, influences. Wealthy Chinese tourists to the newly opened casino on the Lao side of the frontier at Boten bring in only money, not new potentially destabilizing ideas about human rights and democracy, so they remain welcome. Aloon Dalaloy, vice governor of Luang Nam Tha, is reported to have told a public gathering in the province last year that "we are still fighting the revolution, not against the enemy's bombs and guns, but the Americans and the Christians are still our enemies."

Such rhetoric, of course, overlooks the more pressing national challenges the transition to a free-market economy represents. As the Lao economy continues is rapid expansion, with gross domestic product growth up over 7% in the past two years, there is an acute and growing shortage of skilled labor. And there is no remedy in sight, unless the government moves to employ more outside experts. In a paper dated December 14, 2007, the Asia Foundation pointed out that Laos has only one university, which opened only 11 years ago. Prior to that, students were sent to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries for higher education, but that training is often irrelevant to the country’s current human needs.

When the National University of Laos enrolled its first class in 1996, there were just over 8,000 students. Today there are nearly 27,000 at the university, but, the Asia Foundation says, the shortage of human and economic resources poses constant challenges and most faculty members have no degree beyond bachelor's level. With the country's few skilled professionals opting to work in better-paying foreign-led private enterprises, according to the Asia Foundation, it is hard "to imagine how departments like engineering, natural sciences and business will be able to keep their best and brightest teachers, all but eliminating the mechanism for building a future generation of capable Lao professionals".

That means the Lao government can either dramatically raise the salaries of professors and technocrats, or employ more foreigners to fill the gaps - and hope that foreign donors will pay for their much higher expatriate salaries. But that also means more foreign influences, not only in sectors like ecotourism and small-scale rural development schemes but in central government institutions as well. That arguably would pose an even graver threat to central control than foreign-managed eco-tourism resorts or NGO and missionary activities in politically sensitive highland areas.

The ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party has arrived at a crucial crossroads and the direction pursued will likely make or break its still tentative economic reform experiment. Clearly there are still elements in the party who are reluctant to change their repressive ways, accept new social and economic realities and move the country forward.

Sompawn’s arrest and disappearance is testament to that inertia. But with the country's greater integration into the global economy, party officials will sooner or later have to face the fact that even landlocked Laos cannot remain insulated from foreign influences.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review, for which he wrote frequently on Lao politics and economics. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

Feb 3, 2008

MSG in Lao Food (Bang Nuah)

Center right you can see the classic long crystaline structure of MSG

IFIC dot org

In the early 1900s a Japanese scientist was studying which parts of the tongue recognise different tastes. When testing his wife’s soup flavoured with seaweed, he identified a fifth basic taste. He called it uami, we would call it savoury. It’s what gives that extra good flavour to cooked tomatoes and aged cheeses. The other tastes are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Although MSG had been used for thousands of years. that Japanese scientist was the first to isolate the chemical compound that gave us that taste.

MSG doesn’t enhance the taste of all foods, only in those predisposed to a hearty taste. It is used much the way salt or sugar is. If you’ve ever baked a cake you know that the recipe often calls for a quarter teaspoon of salt, similarly homemade cookies. One wouldn’t want cookies or cake to taste salty, but a good cook knows that just that little bit brings out the flavour. Like salt MSG only takes a little bit. If you add salt to a soup until you taste it you’ve already added too much.

Sometimes I’ve heard good cooks who should know better claim that good food doesn’t require MSG. Well I guess not, neither does it require salt or fresh squeezed lime but it might well taste better if it had all three. I’ve never used it on fruit or ice cream but I have in salads containing meat or fish sauce. I use it to marinate meat, in soup stock, in laap, and in jeao, I even use it in those steamed vegetables with sesame called soup pak. I never add it to the foe I buy at a restaurant, I figure it’s already there in the correct proportions.

I first became aware that the MSG myth is simply that when reading an entry into one of the guide books to Thailand penned by the prolific Joe Cummings. I’ll just kind of lift parts from one of the old books.

“Many visitors try to avoid this natural substance, believing they are allergic to it, or that it’s dangerously high in sodium.

For the record, MSG is a simple compound of glutamate, water, and sodium (about two thirds less by weight than in table salt.). Glutamate, an amino acid that occurs naturally in virtually every food, is a major component of most natural protein sources. Like salt and sugar, MSG has been used in Asia for centuries, originally as a distillate of seaweed. Today it’s produced through a natural fermentation and evaporation process using molasses made from sugar cane or sugar beets. …..

Contrary to popular myth, the human body metabolises glutamate added to food the same way it metabolises glutamate already found in food. Although some people report physical reactions to MSG (the so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome) every placebo controlled food research study on humans thus far published has concluded that such reactions can almost always be traced not to MSG but rather to psychological syndromes or to food allergies other than MSG.”

Bang Nuah for sale at the Tesco Nong Khai

In the mid 1990s the American Food and Drug Administration published a politically influenced qualification to their finding that there were no safety issues linked to use of MSG in food. They went on to list symptoms which “may occur” even though they could find no instance of them and then went on to list all the anecdotal evidence. Kind of similar to the right wing’s attempts to deny global warming.

In my minds eye I can just imagine Bill woofing down huge take away dinners of Chinese food and Hillary looking on concerned and noticing the flushing and sweating from his clogged arteries and attributing it to an MSG attack. Rapid fluttering heartbeats, shortness of breath, dreaming of Monica.

If I had to identify a typical sufferer of MSG I’d say a female with a college degree in something not scientific, whose parents were in the upper fifth by income in the United States. Certainly not the 2 billion (billion with a B) Asians who have used it daily without any reaction their entire lives.

Scientifically there is little interest in more studies of MSG. There’s nothing there. Friends who are chemists find it laughable. All a scientist has to do is review studies already done and the conclusions are obvious. Yet the urban legend continues.

I attribute the belief to the same source that creates the beliefs in aroma therapy or grand conspiracies. Deep down I think we all need to find reasons for things we don’t understand. The older I get the more commonality I find between the Akha who live in a village where there is not one literate person who has ever attended a school, and our supposed sophisticated educated modern society.

Jan 13, 2008

Ouah Guang (deer sausage)

Uncooked Sausage, notice the white chunks of sticky rice visible through the casing

I recently read in that online Lao cooking site aptly named Lao Cook that he couldn't find any sausage casings locally. All that fresh seafood and organic cuts of meat but no sausage casings, well at least stranded here in the landlocked Rocky Mountains that's one thing we do have.

Served with cilantro and green onions on the side

My Lao consultant cooked some up last week so I took some snaps for photos and here I am. My apologies for the pics. My small sensor doesn't do so well hand held in low light, or maybe it's the taker behind the picture. I need to think ahead and bump up the ISO or else pull out the tripod.

Deep fried

We still had some deer burger left over from the venison my friend Bryan gave us. It's pretty gamey as deer tends to be. Because it's already ground up my wife refuses to use it for laap, claiming laap needs to be chopped fresh with a knife. I think it's a waste to use in spaghetti as she is prone to doing.

Of course with sticky rice

The sausage was a pleasant surprise. The gamey venison wasn't covered up but rather used to it's best advantage. Seasoned with lemon grass and bai kii hoot the venison was able to hold it's own and not get lost as much meat tends to do, especially with that bai kii hoot, (kafir lime leaf).

The other ingredients were the usual suspects, salt, bang nuah, green onions, sticky rice. In this instance a spoon was used to push the ingredients into the casing, it was a small batch. For larger batches we use a sausage stuffer we bought from a farm supply. My job is to push the handle.

Cooking was done by deep frying. Cooked some chicken wings at the same time. On the side fresh cilantro, green onions, and sticky rice.

Sun saap.