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


Tim said...

Thanks for this, an important blog and I hope it's read widely.

How many rivers must be dammed, how many forests cut?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poem and nice story
Thank you for sharing.


Country Midwife said...

Hi Lao Bumpkin and thanks for your blog. I'll peruse and enjoy it lots. I am home now in the US for 5 years but spent several years in Lao. I'm about as green as you can get. But please try to remember than not ALL the hydro projects in Lao (disclosure: I have nothing to do with any of them) are bad. I worked in maternal-child heath during my years in Lao. Some of the displaced villages will have MUCH better lives because of the hydro projects. YES there is destruction of habitat, and resettlement of a lot of people. But they'll also get clean water, sanitation, irrigation. and access to such things as health aid (via better roads). We both know how desperate these remote villages can be - women and girls spending their whole days carting water from the river. There is a grief we all feel for the pristine nature, but don't be dumbly idealistic to the importance of some of these projects. Development truly isn't ALL bad, and the people who are affected (as would we) really do want better lives.

Somchai said...

Country Midwife thank you for your kind comments regarding my blog.

In reading the rest of your post I feel as if this dumbly idealistic tourist had visited a parrallel universe to the one you did, while in Laos.

Women don't lug water all day as the villages are sited specificaly for water, it is only a few meters away. They do not irrigate thier fields as they grow dry rice using swidden agricultural methods which give them much higher yeilds.

Since the time you left Laos it has been broadly recognised that relocation, especially forced relocation has been an unmitigated disaster for the idividuals involved. In many cases mortality rates exceed births.

I suggest you read my post The Disposessed and follow the links to The New Mandella an online forum for people working in the area concerned with development issues. Some suggest that by providing cover for these forced government relocations NGOs are complicit.

I'd suggest the villagers themselves know what is in thier best interests.