Monthly Archives: April 2016

Laos: Behind the Scenes

As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos has a special relationship with the Mekong. Over the course of our journey through the sparsely populated nation, we learned how this great river has given rise to great empires, fostered religion and culture, supported huge varieties of plant and animal life, and provided food and livelihood for millions of people.

Starting in the south at the Khone waterfalls, we travelled more than 1000 km north into the mountainous jungle near the Chinese border. Along the way we met hundreds of Laos people, from emigre coffee barons to young elephant handlers (known as mahouts), and everyone in between.

We explored the country’s complex and often precarious relationship with hydropower dams as it seeks to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia”, and learned about the human impacts of this rapid development.

Ultimately our experience in Laos left us with mixed sensations of happiness and dread. There are few other places on earth possessed of the pure kindness of the Laos people, and it’s natural beauty is spectacular. Yet we also witnessed a country plagued by poverty, and we can only hope that in its rush to develop economically that Laos will not damage itself ecologically beyond repair.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes look at some of our most memorable moments on this leg of A River’s Tail, and keep checking back for weekly multimedia stories from the Mekong.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Laos, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Tagged , , , , , |

The Laos Sea

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The first time we laid eyes on the Laos Sea, it was hard to process that the vast expanse of turquoise water we were looking at was man made. As the only landlocked country in southeast Asia, Laos was not supposed to have a sea.

We’d come to the town of Thalat via Vientiane by way of a torturous overnight sleeper bus. For budgetary reasons, Gareth and I had shared a bed that might have been reasonably comfortable for an average sized Laotian, but with both of us standing over 6 feet tall and being fairly broad in the shoulder we battled constantly for space. And each time the bus broke down – which it did 5 times during the night – the air-conditioning system would shut off, making that battle an especially sweaty one. By the time we pulled into the station, 18 hours later, we were both furious with each other in that strange way that happens when neither person has actually done anything wrong and both parties know they have no valid reason to be angry.

All was forgotten after a shower and a coffee, however, and an hour later we were already laughing at the ridiculousness of the journey. We had endured such a long drive in order to skip over roughly 700 km of southern Laos that was, while certainly beautiful, not what we had come to Laos to investigate.

Building a Sea

In the late 1950’s, Laos was in the midst of an energy crisis; they simply did not have enough electricity to meet their national needs. Less than a decade after achieving independence, and poverty stricken as it was with an unproductive economy the nation had few options at its disposal. In the words of a RAND Corporation report from the period, Laos was “hardly a nation except in the legal sense.” The answer, it seemed, was hydropower.

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the "battery of Southeast Asia"

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the “battery of Southeast Asia”

Seeking to turn Laos into a stopgap between the rising communist states of North Vietnam and China, a group of 10 nations, with the U.S. at the forefront, donated the nearly $100 million necessary to build the country’s first hydroelectric dam. Situated on the Nam Ngum river, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries and along which nearly 1 million people live today, the reservoir created by the dam when it was completed in 1984 became the largest body of water in all of Laos. With a surface area of 400 square kilometres it was substantially larger than any of the country’s natural lakes, earning it the colloquial nickname of the Laos Sea.

The dam itself, a squat wall of grey concrete, was nothing much to look at, but the surrounding area was more like a tourist attraction than a restricted power plant. Where we had expected security checkpoints and barbed wire fencing, grass-covered parks and paved walkways invited visitors to stand near the dam’s base and take photos.

But when we circled behind the dam to first set eyes on the reservoir, we were surprised by just how beautiful it was. It looked more like the Caribbean than an industrial side effect, and its surface was dotted with idyllic looking micro islands, complete with coconut palms and sandy beaches.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Floating party barges dot the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam's resevoir. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Floating party barges dot the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir.

The almost artificially blue surface was dotted with party barges that crisscrossed the calm water, dropping vacationers on uninhabited islands to enjoy a swim and a picnic. Even from high in the hills overlooking the reservoir we could hear their sound systems pumping out local rock ballads.

Expensive SUVs were parked throughout the village of Baan Thaxan, the small community that served as the main jump off point for the wealthy weekenders coming mainly from the capital, Vientiane. $100 per night boutique hotels with blinding white walls and sparkling glass facades jutted out from the mountainsides, no doubt providing lovely sunset views for its guests.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.  The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.

Despite the picture postcard surroundings, however, we knew that there was an underlying conflict of interest. As nice as the hotels must have been for those coming for a weekend of sun and relaxation, they stood in glaring contrast to the rest of Baan Thaxan which was made up mostly of tin-roofed shacks and wooden fishing boats. Whenever development of that nature took place, we knew, someone was usually on the wrong end of progress.

When the Water Rose

“My village used to be surrounded by rice fields,” 50-year-old Mai Boun Ya Vong told us, “but it was turned into an island by the dam.” We met Vong in the village of Baan Thaxan as he was unloading his day’s catch of fish and he took a short break from his work to talk with us. He didn’t seem angry or resentful, rather he spoke like someone explaining unchangeable universal truths.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

Despite the fact that his family had found itself unexpectedly living on an island, for a time they prospered. Many of the fish that had lived in the Nam Ngum river also flourished in the reservoir and their community was well placed to catch them. In fact the population expanded as more and more people moved to the island, which had become one of the most productive fisheries in the area – though at the expense of the river itself, which had been badly damaged ecologically. While some people still fished in the river, Vong told us, most shifted their activities to the reservoir.

This rapid growth turned out to be the village’s demise, as the government did not like the idea of a large population in a remote and relatively inaccessible area that they could not effectively monitor or control. Eventually officials visited to say they it was unsafe for people to live without electricity – somewhat ironically as the nation’s largest electricity generator was being built less than a kilometre away – and told them they must prepare to relocate.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir near Thalat, Laos. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir near Thalat, Laos.

The government resettlement area, however, was away from the water and so therefore badly placed for the needs of a fishing family, and Vong’s father rejected the deal. They had to abandon their home and buy a new plot of land in Baan Thaxan, which was far more developed in terms of infrastructure, but also made for more difficult fishing.

“Life here is different,” Vong told us. “There we had lots of fish and life was easy, but there was no electricity or roads. Now we have power and roads, but it’s much harder to make money [from fishing].”

When we asked Vong which he preferred, he had no decisive answer. “I don’t know which is better. They’re just different.” His wife, however, had no such indecision. For her, an island life of abundant fish was the better choice and she said she would immediately return if given the choice.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the resevoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Despite the government’s policy about living on the islands of the reservoir, Vong told us that a few people still had homes on some of them. Wanting to see for ourselves, we chartered a boat and headed out on the sea. After an hour of motoring we spotted a cluster of small wooden huts on one of the sea’s central islands, tucked into a small inlet hidden from view of the shore.

Si Phan, a 62-year-old fisherman who split his time between the island and a small house in Thalat, was the only person on the beach when we jumped off the boat. When we asked him the same question as we’d posed to Vong, he answered quickly: “If I had to choose between only living here or my house in Thalat, I would live here. There are no loud parties and I can fish easily. If you live in the city you always have to go markets and restaurants to get what you need, but here I have everything, like fish and vegetables. I even have enough power from solar panels to watch TV at night.”

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks.

For locals it seemed as though the Nam Ngum dam was neither entirely good or completely bad. Many of them had lost their homes, but in exchange they had gotten access to modern infrastructure. On one hand the Nam Ngum river had been badly affected and was no longer the productive fishery it once was, but on the other they had gained a sea.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat. While some of the catch comes from the Mekong, the majority of local fishermen have left the river to fish in the massive resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat.

As the sun began to set the driver of our boat urged us to head back to shore, and so we said farewell to Si Phan. As we left we asked why he had to buy his own solar panels when there was such an abundance of power nearby. “The government says the islands are too difficult to get the lines to,” he responded. To us this seemed odd as Nam Ngum’s electricity was sent hundreds of kilometres away to power the nation’s cities and we figured that “difficult” was a substitute word for low priority.

In parting we asked if he would be able to watch TV that night, and he looked skywards as if trying to remember how much the sun had shone that day.

“Maybe.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , |

Coffee, Kingdoms, and the Peace of Southern Laos

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

As soon as the heavy cargo truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway we were immediately swarmed by vendors. They shoved bananas, plastic bags of sticky rice, and barbecued skewers of chicken gizzard through the wooden slats of the truck walls, sometimes receiving a few thousand kip (the name of the Laos currency) in exchange from the hungry commuters.  5 minutes later the truck’s aging ancient engine roared back to life and we were off again, blasting the vendors with exhaust fumes and gravel dust as they turned to meet the next arriving vehicle.

We were on our way to the riverside city of Pakse, the third largest in the country and the capital of the former Kingdom of Champasak. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, it seemed like a logical destination after leaving the un-tameable rapids of the Khone waterfalls, but as had so often been the case during the making of this journey, we had no real idea of what we would find when we got there.

With a population nearly 100 000, it was a big city by Laos standards and it drew nearly half a million tourists per year; we figured there had to be something there. Yet every time we’d asked a local what we should see or do in Pakse they would think for a moment and then shrug: “It’s pretty, but a little bit boring.”

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

Boring, we figured, was an opinion based on circumstance; what might be boring for a local could be fascinating for us.

Caffeine Plateau

Eager to see what Pakse had to offer we arranged for a small truck to meet us at the unfortunate time of 4:30 a.m. to drive us the 100 kms from the city to the Bolaven plateau. A 1300 metre tall edifice of rock that dominated the surrounding landscape, the plateau was once a place of immense suffering as one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Vietnam War, but now was better known for coffee than explosives. Being seriously dedicated coffee drinkers, both Gareth and I were looking forward to pursuing anything that gave us an excuse to drink more of it.

As our vehicle ascended the long, gently graded road that lead to the plateau, our ears popped periodically and we rose further and further into the misty cloud layer that hung over the summit. For the first time that either of us could remember since starting this journey we were not within walking distance of the Mekong or one of its tributaries, and the distance felt strangely unsettling after so many days by the water.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Originally cultivated by French farmers during the colonial period from late in the 19th century and running into the middle of the 20th, coffee plantations began to appear on both sides of the road once we reached the plateau’s flat top. More or less at random we stopped at one, passing under tall gates made of an expensive looking hardwood before parking in the visitors area. Polished wood surfaces and metal appliances gleamed in the various reception facilities and it was clear that these plantations were not casual subsistence operations.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing coffee, and it has become the biggest industry in the area.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau.

As we walked slowly through the plantation grounds, surrounded by coffee trees and squat tea bushes, it seemed odd to find very few people physically working save for a scattering of labourers cleaning debris from between the crop rows. A little confused by the lack of activity, we continued further into the compound until we eventually arrived at a rest area, much smaller and more rustic looking than the modern structures we had seen earlier. A distinguished looking man was the sole patron, sitting alone at a wooden table sipping green tea and smoking a long black cigarette.

Bonjour,” he said in way of greeting as we approached and I scrambled to switch into French, which I hadn’t meaningfully used since leaving university. Pablo, a native French speaker, had returned to Phnom Penh before reaching the Cambodia-Laos border to sort through dozens of hours of video he’d recorded and Gareth, though fluent in multiple languages, spoke barely a word. My rusty language skills would have to suffice.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

“Welcome to my plantation, please join me.” His French was smooth and his accent non-existent. “Would you like a coffee?” He waived to a waiter when we accepted, and he gestured for us to sit down.

His name was Inpong Sananikone, a Laos native who had emigrated to France as a young man before returning to Laos in retirement to buy an existing plantation and reform it according to his own principles. “When I started this business I decided on three rules: It has to be welcoming, clean, and organic,” he said, using simple French vocabulary thankfully within my ability to understand.

As the drinks arrived, we asked about the absence of workers in the fields. “It’s not the season,” he said, “Come back in a few months and you can see the work.” Sliding the small cups of steaming coffee towards and after taking an appreciative sip of his own, he stared thoughtfully at his glass before musing “I had coffee with the French Prime Minister last year. It cost 15 euros and it was not as good as this.”

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Uncertain of how to respond to such an unusual statement, we said nothing and instead sat quietly sipping our drinks. Obviously he had accomplished a great deal during his decades in France if he was meeting with the Prime Minster, but my language skills had already been stretched to the breaking point and I didn’t have the words to question him much further.

It wasn’t until the glasses were nearly empty that we noticed something was off. First my hands began to shake, first only a little, but shortly afterwards degenerating into an uncontrollable vibration. Sweat formed on my forehead and I could feel my heart pumping at close to twice its normal speed. Fearing that I could be on the verge of a heart attack, I looked over at Gareth for reassurance. His face was drained of colour.

“Strong coffee is the secret to staying young,” Inpong said, possibly noticing our jitters. “I put 7 grams of coffee into every cup of water.” Even as habitually heavy coffee drinkers, we were both shocked by the power of the drink. As we stared at him in disbelief, he asked rhetorically “Well, did you want to drink water, or did you want to drink coffee?”

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

The Ghosts of Empire

After the extremely unpleasant caffeine high of the Bolaven plateau, we resolved to stay closer to the water for our remaining time in Pakse. After several days we saw what the locals had been talking about when they said that the city was “pretty, but a little bit boring,” – though for us boring was the wrong choice of word. There was nothing boring about the area; it was both beautiful and welcoming, but things around Pakse just moved at a slower pace.

Rather than fight against the area’s nature, trying to force interesting river-related stories to present themselves to us, we surrendered to the casual rhythm of life in southern Laos and spent several days taking in the area.

We visited the ancient temples of Wat Phu, constructed by the same Khmer Empire that  built the world-famous Angkor Wat complex in the jungles outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aesthetic similarities were striking, and compared to the constant crowds and inflated prices of the far more heavily touristed temples in Cambodia, we had Wat Phu entirely to ourselves for several hours.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Later we chartered a boat to the silk producing island of Don Kho, getting back on the the Mekong for the first time in several days. Again, rather than aggressively hunt for river-related social stories to tell we simply walked across the island, talking to people we met from small families digging for edible grubs to young men and women working silk looms under the shade of stilted houses.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

In many ways our time in Pakse was like a holiday within the larger journey. Initially we felt frustrated by the lack of activity, having placed a huge amount of pressure on ourselves thought the trip to find and visually document the Mekong’s stories. Yet once we accepted Pakse for what it was, we were able to step back and enjoy the beauty and history of Laos’ sparsely populated south.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

But all vacations must come to an end, and both Gareth and I were eager to get back to work. Most people we’d talked to in Pakse said that the rest of southern Laos would be much the same as what we’d seen in the last days, so we boarded a torturous 18 hour overnight bus and headed north to start investigating what is arguably the most controversial form development on the Mekong – Laos’ hydropower dams.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Fruits of the Falls

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A young boy runs along the bank of the Mekong river near the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

It was around 4.30 a.m. and still pitch black when Batman came for us. We had had given the motorcycle taxi driver his nickname after spotting the small superhero insignia that was welded to the front of his vehicle. Short and solidly built with a prominent belly that poked through the front of the loosely buttoned military jacket that he wore in lieu of a shirt, he hawked noisily in the gloom as he waited for us to pile into the rickety sidecar welded to the chassis of his Chinese motorbike.

We had hired him on the spot the previous day because of his unusual voice, which never spoke normally but rather shouted in a deep throaty rasp. Every query was met with an intense barrage of hoarse yelling, and we had immediately loved him for it.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman - the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

Speeding through Nakasang in the early morning with Batman – the self assigned nickname of a local moot-rickshaw driver.

We were heading to the early morning fish market on the banks of the town of Nakasang, and after a few failed attempts Batman was able to kickstart the bike into action. As it was the low-season for fishing, we’d had limited success in finding fishermen to talk with around the Khone falls, and so had decided that the market was the one place where they would all congregate,  regardless of the season.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Children swim in the Mekong river upstream from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

The Judas Duck

Even though the sun was barely above the horizon, the market was already starting to hum with activity. Families gathered on the river banks to sell everything from charcoal briquettes to deep fried bananas, and fishmongers prepared their stalls for the arrival of the fishermen coming with their morning’s catch from the Mekong.

Because the Si Phan Don (4000 islands) region where we were was a popular destination for tourists and well established as a stop on the “banana pancake” backpacker trail, we were not an especially rare or exciting sight for the locals as we had been in the far north of Cambodia, and so for the most part they ignored us. In fact the majority of marketeers seemed so reluctant to talk to us that we initially thought they didn’t like tourists, but we quickly realized that their suspicions were caused by the dubious legality of some of their wares rather than because of any negative attitudes towards foreigners.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Boats line the shores of the Mekong near the Nakasang morning market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Fish vendors sort a newly arrived catch at their stall in the Nakasang market.

At many of the stalls, between the piles of fish bedded in crushed ice, were barely moving mounds of huge monitor lizards, bound at the legs and mouths. Some looked so near death that the only signs of life they exhibited were their blinking eyes that fought against the encircling flies. In lesser numbers were turtles of varying sizes, stacked on top of each other inside styrofoam boxes. As the day progressed and more fishermen arrived to sell their catches, the piles grew steadily until the animals at the bottom were struggling to breathe under the weight.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A turtle is bound an awaiting sale in the Nakasang market. Though the trading of river turtles is illegal, police do not actively enforce the laws.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Hundreds of kilograms of fish are caught from the Mekong river and sold in the Nakasang market.

This was a major legal grey area in Laos, our translator explained to us. On paper, trading these animals was explicitly illegal and carried harsh penalties, but in reality police turned a blind eye in exchange for small cash payoffs. This was hardly a surprising fact for either Gareth or I, as we well knew that animal welfare always came second to feeding one’s family in poverty stricken areas, but it was nevertheless difficult to witness animals being crushed to death by members of their own species as they all waited for an end that I’m certain they could all sense was coming.

Though it was not particularly objective from a journalistic standpoint, we even went so far as to enquire about buying the turtles so we could throw them back into the river downriver from the market, but they were surprisingly expensive at $30 each and somehow choosing one to free while leaving the rest to their fates seemed morbid. It’s not fair to fault people living so near to, or often below the poverty line for doing whatever they can to earn the money they need to send their children to school or buy medicine for their elderly parents (particularly when carrying thousands of dollars worth of camera gear) but watching such overt suffering for hours on end was nevertheless difficult.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market, as well as birds, turtles, and lizzards.

A live duck is inspected by a potential buyer in the riverside market of Nakasang.

Navigating through the throng of the market, without apparent concern for its own safety, was a lone white duck. For some inexplicable reason the market had reached an unspoken and unanimous decision that this particular duck would be allowed freedom of movement, and it’s more or less constant attempts to steal small fish would be tolerated. Considering that there were hundreds of live ducks hanging by their feet, too delirious to move from the blood rushing to their heads, one would think the duck would have gotten as far from this place of death as possible, but it seemed quite unconcerned with the danger of its surroundings.

Though it was possible that they all just had a soft spot for this particular duck, a more rational conclusion might have been that it served as a Judas, creating an artificial sense of calm among the other animals which should have been collectively in a state of panic.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A single duck is permitted to scavenge among the stalls of the Nakasang market. Locals say the duck comes to the market everyday and it has become a mascott of sorts.

As midday approached and the market activity slowed and vendors prepared to pack up for the day, we managed to get a few words out of some of them before we too left. Compared to ten years ago, they estimated that they are getting up to 50% less fish out of the Mekong – a familiar story for us since starting this journey. One fisherman told us that his boat would have once been heaping with fish, where now there was only a small pile flopping around in the gunnels.

Starting in the South China Sea, and continuing through Vietnam, Cambodia and now into Laos, we had heard the same thing in different ways. Perhaps this was responsible for the increasing reliance on illegal wildlife trading, but it was impossible to know if this practice would have been stopped had the fish been more abundant.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fisherman offloads his catch at the riverside market in the town of Nakasang.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A fish vendor weighs a sale in the morning fish market in the town of Nakasang.

Spiritual Connections

After waiting for the hottest part of the day to pass, we reconnected with Batman and drove into the countryside outside Nakasang to get a sense of rural life along this part of the river. As we passed through outlying villages we stopped to talk with several families, most of whom confirmed what we’d heard earlier that morning – there were not enough fish.

Each family had developed its own coping mechanisms; one man, 50-year-old Kham Bone, had turned to planting fruit trees which he could sell to Chinese biodiesel firms, and when not in school his three children worked together to pot and plant the seedlings. Other villagers had taken a different approach and had constructed giant bamboo fishing traps across the breadth of some of the Mekong’s tributaries. These were technically illegal, but as with the trading of turtles and lizards, seemed to be ignored by the authorities.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

Children pot Tuamaan fruit tree seedlings to be planted on their family property in the village of Ban Thakao. The trees produce a nut which is used in the production of some biofuels, and the family sells them to a Chinese company to supplement their income which has dwindled due to reduced fish in the Mekong.

The most engaging and revealing conversation of the day came from Boun Yaang, a 67-year-old farmer and fisherman turned Buddhist monk who’d had 12 children and 2 wives before shaving his head and beginning his monastic life.

“The Mekong is very important for this community,” Yaang told us. “It is for fishing, for farming rice, for gardening, for washing, and in the past it was for drinking as well.” He confirmed that the biggest and most impactful change was in the demising fish population, something that as a former fisherman he was certainly qualified to speak about.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

Boun Yaang, 67, is a Buddhist monk in a small pagoda in the village of Ban Thakao. Before he became a monk he was a fisherman and he still lives along the banks of the Mekong near the Khone Falls.

“Before I could put a pot of water on the fire, walk down to the river and get a fish, and walk back before it was boiling. Now you need to have a boat and to go further away,” Yaang reminisced. “As a Buddhist, I am also connected to the river because we worship the Nagas (river spirits), and the rivers, and the trees,” he continued.

For all of this however, Yaang was no eco warrior. He blamed Cambodians for the Mekong’s poor productivity though he had no facts to back up this position, and had little to no awareness of any of the proposed hydro power dams in his own nation. When asked what would happen in his community if there were no more fish in the river, he responded stoically: “we would build fish farms.”

As we left Nakasang the next morning, we had to wonder if Yaang’s attitude of ambivalence towards the Mekong would continue as we headed further North, towards the city of Pakse.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

A man washes his feet along the banks of the Mekong river in the town of Nakasang.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning. Nakasang is directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls, and the majority of commercial fish caught in the area ends up in the Nakasang market.

Buddhist monks collect alms from the residents of Nakasang in the early morning.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

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