Thursday, 19 March 2009

Villages and Forests of Northern Laos

My three day trek through the far North of Laos has been a depressing experience.

I came to this part of the country under the impression that I was going to find a pristine environment. The Lonely Planet talks about 96% forest cover. Sadly, I would say it's more like 9.6%. Forests are being chopped down at a mind blowing speed. I was expecting a level of some degradation after what I'd seen in other parts of the country, but I had also been told the National Protected Areas were exactly that, protected. I'm afraid however that the Nam Ha National Protected Area is scarred by logging and fire all over. We stood next to a sign for the NPA with a background of smoke and barren land.

The joint action of industrial scale logging and slash and burn agriculture by the locals has resulted in kilometers and kilometers of brown or blackened hills.

Were once stood biodiversed forest now rubber tree plantations dominate. I also came here to visit the villages that belong to some of the several different ethnic minorities that live here, to partly discover the real Laos. This was more rewarding. Although you always have the feeling that you are intrusive and almost in a circus the villagers seemed to be as interested in us as we were in them.

Particularly, I enjoyed the late night signing. The Akha, the ethnic minority we visited, have a long oral tradition that is passed down through songs and verses.

Late night singing from the villagers...we tried to follow them but could only come up with Happy Birthday!!!

Certain things shocked me, especially seeing a dog being slaughtered and then roasted as part of a ceremony of remembrance for a recently deceased. That was probably the most foreign, alien thing I have ever experienced. And I couldn't avoid feeling extremely sorry for these people.

I saw extreme poverty in India, but also an incredible potential. This country and its people are so poor, but once they've finished destroying their environment tourists will no longer come, and one of their main sources of income will disappear. Having said all of this I have to recognise that my first day of the trek was fairly enjoyable, as we walked through forest that had been kept untouched...for tourists.

The sad thing was that on parts of the path we could see through the trees other areas being logged and burnt. I'm waiting to hear what other people tell me about the South before I decide whether to give up on Laos or carry on.

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