Northern Laos – Rivers & Dams
Rivers are valuable in Laos, particularly so because it is a developing country that lacks infrastructure. Rivers structure the way of life, which, like the water itself, meanders along slowly. Traveling through northern Laos, it’s easy to see how much people rely on the rivers. Villages line them, fishermen feed their family out of them, women wash clothes in them and children play on their banks. In a country without any railways, they are also an important means of transportation.
We recently completed a trip through northern Laos that I (Jacob) also did in 2005. I was eager to see a region I enjoyed before and wanted Jessica and Matt & Lisah (our friends we were traveling with for a few weeks) to experience this unique place. It was also a way to gauge how much I’ve grown, and how much Laos has changed. Back then, I was oblivious to so much about this country, and to issues of colonialism and cultural diversity in general. I didn’t even know it was, and remains today, a communist country with no free press, and I was oblivious to the fact that it had opened to foreign tourists as recently as the mid-90’s. Though I felt that it was a special place at the time (much more laid back than Thailand and very rural), I didn’t realize that I was there on the leading edge of greater Western economic influence.
The Mekong river is legendary. The world’s 12th longest river, it’s second only to the Amazon river basin in biodiversity and sustains the largest inland fishery. Starting in the Tibetan plateau, it flows through Laos more than any other country in the region before reaching its delta in southern Vietnam. The pictures here, however, are of the Nam Ou, another important river in Laos, and possibly the most scenic. In 2005, I took the Nam Ou from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang in a narrow uncovered wooden boat that sat about 4-5 people. I was looking forward to repeating this trip, something most tourists skip over when they take the crowded boat down the Mekong after crossing the border from Thailand. It does require a couple long and uncomfortable bus rides, though today there is a new smooth road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha, progress I celebrate compared to what I will be describing below. Yes, I’m full of contradictions. As is Laos:
I was checking online reports from travelers having recently gone this route, and they all claimed to be taking the same river trip I did 9 years ago. When we arrived in Nong Khiaw, however, we learned that it was no longer possible due to the new dam construction. This surprising news saddened me. As I wrote about in Kauai, the disappointments to my Romantic nature are a big theme of this trip. I mean Romantic in the philosophical sense – the part of me that is suspicious of the scientific rationalization of nature and values spontaneity and sublime experiences in untamed wild places. And thinks things were always better in the past. Before industry. Before electricity. I know it’s irrational, but that’s part of being a Romantic; feelings are most important. So, after discovering a scenic cruise down the Nam Ou was no longer possible, I suddenly regretted returning to Northern Laos. Here was another country trying to catch up to its neighbors by joining the path of progress and development and Western culture’s paradigm of never-ending growth that is by nature unsustainable.
Or maybe they’re just trying to get their citizens some power? 80% of the population in Laos practices subsistence agriculture, and 1/3 live off less than a dollar-fifty a day. But no, once the 3+million dollar mega-dam being built in the Mekong, funded by Thai banks, is completed, 95% of the power will go to Thailand (also considered a developing country but way ahead of Laos). Laos is going ahead with this dam at Vietnam’s disapproval and dire warnings from environmentalists. I’ve never known an environmentalist to support a dam, so that’s expected, but in this case it’s a major river which 60 million people depend on directly for livelihood.
The dam blocking my hoped-for route is one of 7 or so coming to the Nam Ou and built by the Chinese, who are providing both the money and the labor. For me it is only a minor disappointment on my travels, and just another example of environmental degradation for the sake of progress. For those displaced from the flood zone and moved to relocation villages, it’s a massive upheaval of their entire life. Due to the strictness of the Laos regime, public opposition is dangerous. Take this recent news: “On December 15 last year , Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified men in the nation’s capital, Vientiane. Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official explanation for his disappearance was a ”business dispute”, although the activist has no business interests.”
We decided to do the next best thing and take a boat half way and transfer to a minivan. But first, we decided to go up river an hour or so to a smaller village, Mong Noi. When I was there before, there was no electricity and no guesthouses. I read they got electricity this year, and now most buildings advertise as guesthouses – local villagers convert their houses in order to make money, and there’re many new bungalows along the river. Instead of the smaller uncovered boats, they use the larger covered wooden boats for tourists, and it seemed each day 15-20 boats went upriver to this tiny village (at least during high season). Another local village now oriented around tourism. Of course, I’m part of the development, having traveled there before and been impressed with the off-the-beaten-path, off-the-grid experience. What do I do now, go to the next village upriver and watch the process continue behind me?
Further down river, the next day on our way to Luang Prabang, here’s the dam where the boat had to stop:
And here we are transferring to the minivan. Somehow we weren’t even fazed by being dropped off on a sandy river beach near a fire pit with no one in sight but some fishermen and the Chinese dam workers. The boat driver assured us the van would arrive in 20 min, and by some miracle it actually did show up. I was thrilled to be so close to the construction site and have plenty of time to walk around.
We made it to Luang Prabang, and as of this writing late on January 7th we are wrapping up a week here and soon heading to Burma. Thanks for reading. Below is a video of the dam construction, a video of the river trip, and some more stills. Happy new year!