Tag Archives: southeast asia

Entering the Year of the Monkey

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

An abandoned school in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

The bus passed through an endless series of bleak frontier towns, grey and featureless and devoid of all character. The dead-brown of winter rice fields filled the gaps between industrial yards and tenement apartment blocks, which were the only types of buildings we had seen in some time.

“This is where I would come if I wanted to write a book about loneliness,” I commented to Gareth.

In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year – also known as Spring Festival from the literal Chinese translation – making travel plans had become increasingly difficult. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were leaving the cities for their home provinces in the largest human migration on earth. Even in Yunnan, far from China’s urban super-metropolises, busses had been sold out and the prices for hiring private cars had risen to extortionate highs. We knew that mobility would become even harder once the holidays began, so we had held an emergency brainstorming session with our Mandarin-speaking travel companion, Yan.

We wanted to avoid getting stuck in a big city where the soaring cost of accommodation would wipe out our budget in short order, and likewise we feared getting trapped for a week or more in the tiny villages that lined the Lancang as we had been told that most local bus services would be suspended.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

People make offerings and burn incense at a temple on Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, on lunar new years day.

Ultimately we decided that it was best to veer away from the river for a short time and headed for Mt. Jizu, famed in Buddhism as a holy mountain and topped with richly decorated pagodas. But before we could see it for ourselves, we had to pass through some of the least inspiring scenery imaginable.

“Life would have been very different if you were born here,” Yan commented.

Offerings for the Gods

The rooster clucked nervously from inside a wooden crate that was piled in the van under the passenger’s luggage, and considering that animal sacrifices were a traditional part of Lunar New Year celebrations, his apprehension was justified.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A woman carries a chicken to temple on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

When we finally drove into Shazhi, an ancient market town at the base of Mt. Jizu, the cloud-topped mountain backdrop provided a welcome change from the sub-urban dreariness we had passed through for the best part of the day. With a population of just 700 people, Shazhi was the perfect place to get an intimate look at how the New Year was celebrated in Yunnan, but because of Mt. Jizu’s spiritual significance, it was a popular enough destination so as to stay connected to the outside world.

“This place is very popular for New Years celebrations because we have so many temples on the mountain,” Li Zhangqing said. An elderly incense vendor who had lived at the base of the mountain his entire life, the customers looking over the massive quantities of fireworks on display in his shop foreshadowed the nature of the festivities to come. “This was one of the first places Buddha’s disciple visited when he came to China from India, and [where] he founded the first temple.”

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China, to make offerings for the lunar New Year.

Families gather at a local temple in Mt. Jizu.

Though the most famous of Mt. Jizu’s temples were located high on the surrounding mountainsides, after the long trip we had just completed we didn’t have the energy to begin the trek. Luckily Shazhi had its own temples at a mercifully lower elevation, and the locals were putting them to use.

At the town’s central temple, families were arriving and departing steadily to make offerings, and nearly all of them came with a rooster or two tucked under their arm. The birds, heads on a constant twitching swivel, took in their surroundings with great suspicion – and for good reason. Feathers covered the walls of two small shrines near the temple’s main gate and the concrete beneath was splattered with blood.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, Tibet.

A child stands over a pool of chicken blood during preparations for lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

After stepping into the temple itself to offer prayers, the families returned to these shrines to light incense and offer envelopes stuffed with (mostly fake) cash to the gods.  The roosters, seeming to sense their mortal danger, shifted uneasily under the firm grip of the hands that held them.

With practiced surety, each rooster’s neck was twisted to the breaking point before their throats were slit with cleavers or long knives. As their blood drained and they convulsed in the throws of death, their sacrifice was acknowledged solemnly by the families, who knelt around the shrines in prayer. No one, not even the smallest children, looked away from the gore, which added a layer of respect to the ceremony and demonstrated an understanding of the connection between death and food that has been largely lost throughout the world’s most developed countries.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family prays before sacrificing chickens for lunar New Year.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A man sticks the feather of a sacrificed chicken to a temple wall as part of a lunar new year ceremony.

Though it is never pleasant to witness the killing of a living creature, the process was humane; far less cruel than the horrendous conditions endured by animals in the battery farms of the modern world as they make their way to supermarket shelves.

Explosions Under the Holy Mountain

When the fireworks started to go off along Shazhi’s main street the sun was still high in the sky and we knew it would be a long night. The children started first, beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of an entire evening dedicated to blowing things up. There were even special children’s edition fireworks on hand, bearing brightly coloured designs from DreamWorks’ animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and other Hollywood hits.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family gathers around a fire on lunar new year in Mt Jizu.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A family plays with sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As soon as evening fell, the momentum began to build. It seemed as though every child in Shazhi was on the streets, flinging m-80 crackers into drainage ditches and firing bottle rockets haphazardly in every direction over the roofs of the town. From time to time one would emerge with a chain of 1000 or so firecrackers joined by a single fuse which, once detonated, choked the streets with acrid smoke. But the adults had yet to join in the fracas and were gathered calmly around small fires in front of their homes. From the way they doled out huge quantities of fireworks to the children, we knew that they were sitting on massive stockpiles and were almost certainly saving the best for last.

Starting at 10 p.m., an odd calm settled over the town. We stopped for tea at a small restaurant owned by 26-year-old Yang Zhong and asked tentatively if the celebrations were over for the night. “No,” he laughed, “they are just watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV. At midnight it will start.”

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Boys toss firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Customers shop for firecrackers on lunar new years in Mt. Jizu.

 

Ostensibly a variety comedy program, the annual TV special was sprinkled with factual educational messages from the state. One particularly long skit featured a People’s Liberation Army officer being reprimanded repeatedly for not marching with his legs at regulation height, meant to reassure citizens that even generals were expected to work hard.

But as we checked some Chinese social media sites, it was clear that not everyone was sold on the show’s realism. “This is not a spring festival gala, this is an annual conference for the party!” commented one user on WeChat.

At a quarter to midnight we found the most dedicated celebrators gathered in Shazhi’s public square, and between them they had amassed a formidable arsenal of explosives. From five kilogram coils of crackers to one metre long cardboard tubes that spewed flaming balls high into the night sky, once they started lighting things our ears didn’t stop ringing until well after the new year had passed.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

Revelers light sparklers and firecrackers on lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu, Yunan, China.

A street is littered with the exploded remains of firecrackers after lunar new year in Mt. Jizu.

As we walked back towards our guest house, the red husks of thousands of explosives crunched under our feet.

Early the next morning the town had reverted to some semblance of normalcy. The streets were still littered with debris and there were black scorch marks burned into the pavement that would likely not disappear until the next rainfall, but in all other respects the place was calm.

With the year of the monkey having begun in style, we left Shazhi and headed back to the Lancang to push further north, towards the great river’s source.

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, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Power of Power

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine.

When the light turned on in Si Tach’s living room, the whole family paused what they were doing to watch the process. As he screwed in the bulb and the blueish light flickered and then lit the space, there was a general feeling of relief mixed with little bit of wonder at the magic of the technology. Over the four days that we spent in Khoc Kham village, each time this process was repeated the mood was the same.

It wasn’t that Si Tach and his family were members of some un-contacted hill tribe who were seeing electric lighting for the first time. They’d had power in the village for nearly a decade by the time we came to visit. But unlike Laotians living in cities who could simply flick a switch without much reason to think about where the current came from, the people in this remote mountain village had built their power grid from scratch and cared for it in the same way a farmer does his crops – constantly and attentively.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

With our time in Laos drawing to a close, we had travelled two hours up the Mekong by boat to reach Khoc Kham, hoping to gain some insight into the relationship between Laos’ remote communities and electricity. As the country works to transform itself into the battery of Southeast Asia, exporting power generated from the Mekong and its tributaries to its wealthier neighbours, we wanted to know what that meant for people like Si Tach who lived on the fringes of modernity.

These were people who hunted with slingshots and homemade muskets and hadn’t experienced electric light bulbs until well into the 21st century. Were they benefitting from the damming of the national waterways, either financially or in terms of infrastructure? How was the rush to develop natural resources affecting their traditional ways of life? What did the future hold for such communities?

Let There Be Light

“The first time I heard about this technology was from the people in the next village,” Si Tach told us in his living room after screwing in the single lightbulb. As there were still several hours of daylight left, the act seemed to serve more to prove to us that it worked than to provide needed light. “Before we used to use oil lamps, which were hard to see by. Now some of us can even watch TV.”

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river.

Considering there was not a single road or even a dirt path connecting Khoc Kham to Luang Prabang (the nearest city), the ability to read by electric light – let alone watch the news – was no small luxury.

Removing the bulb from its socket and wrapping it in a protective piece of cloth, Si Tach gestured for us to follow him. Only a few minutes had passed since we’d arrived in the village and sat down in his house, but already a sizeable group of villagers had gathered. With Si Tach in the lead and us trailing behind, the entire crowd set off along a jungle trail towards the sound of running water somewhere in the valley below. 20 minutes later we were standing on the banks of a small but swiftly flowing creek.

“I’m not sure where the idea came from,” Si Tach said by way of explanation, perhaps sensing that we didn’t fully understand what we were looking at. “The people in the next village said they heard it from the people in the village next to them, and those people said they learned it from the next village, and so on.”

Wherever the idea came from, it was a deceptively clever way of generating power with a minimum of technology. A single propeller spun in the current of the stream, which turned a long metal shaft that was connected to a small generator. In essence it was a boat engine working backwards.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

“At first there was only one of these in the village, and it was shared between two families,” Si Tach said. “People used to come to us and rent single lightbulbs for their houses and we would charge by the month. Now [ten years later] most families have their own.”

As night fell, the extent to which the generators had impacted life in Khoc Kham became apparent. A blue-tinted glow shone through the doorways and window cracks of nearly every home, and groups gathered under the bare bulbs. While the lights had made night time socializing a more pleasant experience, it was in the village’s cottage economy that the power of electricity was most felt.

“2-3 years ago I was using a lamp,” 57-year-old That Mee said, sitting cross legged on the floor of his one room home. “These lights have made a big difference. We make bamboo baskets to sell, and now it is possible to work at night.”

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

Xieng Pai, a 54-year-old shopkeeper who lived around the corner echoed what Mee had said. “Having lights makes it possible to count money at night, so I can keep my shop open,” he said, in a tone that let us know how obvious and silly he thought our line of questioning was. And he was right, it was obvious: life was easier with lights.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine  uses oil lamps to light their home in Khoc Kham, Laos. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine uses oil lamps to light their home.

The World Approaches

Waking on the floor of Si Tach’s living room under an expansive white mosquito net, the sounds and smells of cooking enticed us into movement. The breakfast spread, while an incredibly thoughtful gesture, was eclectic to say the least. Next to the usual fried meats and woven baskets of sticky rice we had come to love during our time in Laos was a selection of what must have represented all the imported foods available in the village. A tin of sardines in tomato sauce, bowls of Chinese instant noodles, a tube of Oreo cookies, packets of instant coffee mix, and several bottles of Mountain Dew.

Beyond making for a strange flavour combination, the meal reminded us that Khoc Kham did not have much interaction with the outside world. We were just the third group of non-Laotian outsiders to visit the village in living memory after a school-building missionary group and a team of Vietnamese engineers who had constructed their own concrete house in the village to use as a base of operations while they scouted the area for suitable dam-building locations. But we also knew that the outside world was coming to them weather they wanted it to or not. Once Mountain Dew appeared, the hydro-power survey teams could not be far behind.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Outside, another indicator of the approaching global economy greeted us in the form of a truly bizarre spectacle. Somehow during the previous night, a boatload of plastic animal masks had arrived in Khoc Kham and seemingly every child in the village had adopted the cartoon faces of rabbits and tigers.

“Before we were separated from the outside world and people just lived for themselves,” Si Tach said in explanation, sensing our confusion at the strange menagerie running through Khoc Kham’s dirt roads. “Now with the help of boat engines, we are connected to bigger villages that we can trade with.”

When we followed up by asking if he worried about the future of his community as it became more and more connected his answer took us off guard, though given what we’d seen already in Laos, perhaps it shouldn’t have. “Oh yes, we are very worried. When the dam is built we will have no choice, we will have to move,” he said. We had come to Khoc Kham to learn about electricity in remote communities; we hadn’t even known a dam was being built in the area.

“We’ve been living here so long, everything is here,” Si Tach continued. “When we move, we will have to start over.”

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 Also tagged , , , , , |

Land of a Million Elephants

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about elephants. I was a little afraid of them,” Son Phet admitted. A 24-year-old mahout, or elephant rider, Son Phet did not look afraid of the giant animal anymore as he stood fully upright on its head. Khoun, the 47-year-old female he was partnered with, hardly seemed to notice his weight.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

After the last week of investigating the impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams on the local populations, we had come to an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang to try and learn more about the relationships between people and animals along the Mekong. We had seen shockingly little wildlife during the the last months of travel.  Apart from a brief visit to a national park and bird conservancy in Vietnam, most the animal populations and habitats we’d encountered had been in bad shape. We needed to be reminded that the Mekong was a river that was not solely the domain of humanity.

Admittedly, visiting a man-made camp where elephants were closely tied to their human partners was not the purest means of learning about the lives of the animals. But as Laos had an estimated population of just 400-600 wild elephants remaining, with our limited resources we stood little chance of interacting with them in their natural environment. Even with this compromise in mind, we felt it was important to try and gain some understanding of the enormous mammals’ situation in 21st century Laos.

After all, the country’s historic nickname was Lane Xang – the Land of a Million Elephants.

Courting an Elephant

“I heard that one of the older mahouts had a motorbike accident,” Son Phet explained when we asked what prompted him to become a professional elephant handler. “I knew about this place because my village is quite nearby and I had played with elephants a little before, and so I decided to apply.”

The process of learning to control with an elephant, Son Phet told us, was an involved one. Captive elephants form a special bond to their handlers and will stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone they do not know. They are highly intelligent animals and can remember and understand a surprising variety of command words, but if they don’t trust a person they project an air of quiet indifference and simply will not move. And weighing at roughly 3 tonnes, there is little a person can do to compel them against their will, save extreme physical violence.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

For Mahouts like Son Phet, whose job security depended on being able to control his elephant while keeping it in good health. Abusing the extremely valuable animal (buying an adult female can cost far more than a luxury SUV) would be a sure way to get fired. On top of this, beating an elephant into submission could create short term acquiescence, but in the long run made sure the mahout would live in perpetual danger.

“Elephants hide their emotions,” Son Phet told us when we asked him about the risks involved with his job. “It can be very difficult to tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. If you treat them badly they will hide their feelings, but they will never forget. They will wait and let you think everything is ok, but they might wait until you are alone with them in the jungle and then kill you. They don’t forget.”

The thought of such a powerful creature biding its time behind a mask of calm until it could exact the ultimate revenge on an abusive human was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Of course Son Phet was taught this when he accepted the job, and so knew that the only way to gain real control required time and patience.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

The basic formula was simple: stay in nearly constant contact with them for roughly a month until sufficient trust was earned. That contact involved everything from feeding the elephants, playing with them, and bathing them in the Mekong to keep them cool and clean. Except for when the elephants were taken into the jungle where they slept for the night, the mahouts were seldom out of sight of their animals, even long after a trusting relationship was established. Yet like any relationship, complete control was always out of reach. “You can never really have 100% control,” Son Phet explained. “The best you can do is maybe 95%. They can always choose not to listen.”

When we asked Son Phet to describe how he felt about Khoun after spending more than a year together, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

Beasts of Burden

As much as we were moved by the close relationships between man and elephant we had witnessed over the last few days, we knew that Khoun and the other animals at the Luang Prabang camp were not free in the true sense of the word. They were treated with absolute compassion and kindness, but still they remained indentured to their owners and spent nearly every day carrying tourists on their backs. Yet from our research and pre-trip conversations with elephant experts, we knew that employment in the ecotourism industry was far preferable to the other jobs elephants were often forced into.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants employed by the logging industry in Laos than there are wild. Laos is rich in valuable hardwoods such as teak, and its mountainous terrain and the low budgets of many logging operations mean hiring industrial machinery is not always the most effective option for harvesting lumber. Elephants, with their enormous strength and ability to navigate both on land and in water, are often recruited into the labour force.

The owner of the camp where we’d been staying agreed to show us where we could see the use of elephants in the logging industry for ourselves, and so early on our final morning in Luang Prabang we were dropped off at a small crossing on a minor tributary of the Mekong.  As we sat in a leaky fishing boat that served as the only means of crossing we could hear the distant sound of something crashing through the water well before we saw it.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

When the elephant, a 35-year-old female names Seub, round the bend in the river, it was a truly awesome sight. Outfitted with a thick harness it dragged a massive section of a freshly felled tree at the end of lengths of heavy looking chains. It was the first time we had actually experienced the full extent of the animal’s power; with each determined heave forwards it was apparent just how strong it was as it heaved the log over a sandbar and into the flowing river beyond.

Its mahout sat cross-legged on Seub’s head just above the river’s current as the elephant swam steadily across to the opposite bank, the weight clearly much easier for her to manage with the aid of the water’s buoyancy. Once ashore, the mahout barked commands to the Seub, provoking the final burst of power needed to beach the log. Seub was then unhooked from her chains and let to a thicket of dense grass to graze for a while before heading back across the river to haul another section of teak.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

In all, Seub would be able to make roughly 10 of these trips in a day, earning around $150 for the loggers for every cubed metre of lumber she delivered. If she wasn’t sick or tired and worked at maximum speed, her mahout told us, Seub could pull more than $10 000 worth of wood across the river in an 8 hour work day. It was difficult and dangerous work for both the elephant and her mahout, and since many small scale logging operations were illegal the risks were substantial.

Back at the Luang Prabang camp, we talked with Son Phet about what we had seen. “I’m a bit worried,” he said about the future of elephants in Laos. “We used to be ‘the land of a million elephants’, but now we’re just a few thousand. They can be valuable, and people sometimes hurt them [while trying to earn money with them]. When I see this I wasn’t to tell people to stop so that we can keep elephants in Laos for future generations.”

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day's tourists have left.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day’s tourists have left.

—-

Note: We had not gone to Luang Prabang to pass judgements. In an ideal world elephants would be left alone to live without human interference, but reality is not ideal. As populations grow and forests are cut, the habits of humans and elephants are coming closer and closer together, and it is likely that the best hope for a thriving elephant population in Laos is through captive breeding. From what we had seen, the life of an ecotourism elephant was far preferable to that of a logging elephant. 

For anyone looking to get involved, the Elephant Conservation Center works to repurpose logging elephants into the ecotourism industry, expand the country’s elephant population through breeding programs, and protect the habitat of the wild elephants remaining.

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, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

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 Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.

I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.

But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?

Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.

Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.

The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.

More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.

One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.

As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.

There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.

Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.

Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.

For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures

Posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia, Poverty Also tagged , , , , , |

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 Also 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 Also 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 Also 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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , |

Blocking the Flow: The Sesan II Dam

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, fishes in the early morning on the Mekong River near the island of Koh Sralay. His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

We heard the phone ring in the darkness (Nokia’s ubiquitous descending cadence adapted from Francisco Tárrega’s 1902 classical guitar composition) well before we could see the boat driver who answered it.

Allo?” came the groggy voice. Though most Cambodians are notorious early risers, clearly 4 a.m. was not a time the man enjoyed.

We had met him the previous afternoon while walking along Steung Treng’s riverfront promenade and chartered his boat on the spot to take us to the nearby island of Koh Sralay, where we hoped to gain insight into how the human-river interactions in sparsely populated northern Cambodia differed from those further south along the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

After we were settled onto the boat’s wooden benches, the driver stood in the shallow water along the river’s edge and spun the bow towards open water, clucking his concern about the lack of visibility around the high powered flashlight clenched between his teeth.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. Residents of Koh Sralay are entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Residents of Koh Sralay island fish in the early morning on the Mekong river. 

An hour later, the sun still not yet risen, the tip of the island appeared out of the gloom. The outlines of numerous fishing boats visible only for being slightly blacker than the water they floated upon. We were searching for one fisherman in particular, whose wife we had spoken to the day before as she sold catfish in Steung Treng’s market, but in the grey darkness it was nearly impossible to distinguish individual faces – let alone identify a man we had been told to seek out based solely on a name and a loose physical description that could have applied to nearly every fisherman on the river.

“Thon Min?” As our translator called out the man’s name to each boat we passed, invariably they waved us further downriver while offering few specifics. When we eventually found him it was nearly 6 a.m. and his morning’s fishing was all but finished. Not long after, he headed for home.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. The Chinese owned Sesan II dam will heavily affect Thon's ability to fish from the Mekong.

Thon Min, 65, hangs his fishing nets from trees along the banks of the Mekong river. When he catches enough fish, the surplus will be sold at a nearby market, while the remainder are kept alive until they are eaten. 

“Only one fish today,” Thon told us as he tied his boat up to a thicket of mangrove trees. “People from upriver came last night and used electric fishing nets. Whenever they do this we catch nothing the next day. But this is still enough.”

The Last Bastions of Sustainability

“Here we can feed the whole family without buying anything, other than spices and oil.” Thon told us as we sat cross legged on the floor of his large stilted home. “When we catch more fish than we can eat, we sell them at the market, and we produce enough rice and vegetables to feed our family.” Considering that Thon’s family counted 10 members, this was no small feat.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay.  His family is entirely reliant on the river for survial and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese-owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt fish migrations and sediment flow.

Thon Min, 65, sits in his home on the island of Koh Sralay. 

From crop watering to protein intake to drinking water, virtually every aspect of Thon’s life was connected to the health of the Mekong and it’s nearby tributaries – and it was the first time in the 3 months since we began the project that we had talked to someone who didn’t report a drastic decrease in water quality. Compared to the dwindling resources and environmental degradation we had witnessed on the Tonle Sap Lake, or the extreme poverty we encountered in Phnom Penh’s Cham village, Koh Sralay seemed like a positive example of how the river had supported life in Southeast Asia for millennia.

“On the Tonle Sap there are too many people and too many fishermen,” Thon explained when we asked him why Koh Sralay was flourishing in comparison to the Tonle Sap. “This is bringing down the quality of the water and the numbers of fish. There they fish every day of the year, but here we follow the seasons.”

Kuch Hen, 45, recieves a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam, which will disrupt Mekong fish populations and sediment flow.

Thon Min’s wife Kuch Hen, 45, receives a morning prayer from her daughter on the island of Koh Sralay. Her family is completely self sustaining, and will be heavily impacted by the Chinese owned Sesan II dam.

Following the seasons, Thon explained, meant that they fished only when the river was in the process of rising or falling with the coming and going of the monsoon rains – the times when fish were moving to or from their spawning grounds. During the rest of the year, they hung up their nets and turned to inland farming instead, giving fish stocks a period of respite. By contrast, fishermen on the Tonle Sap often set their nets multiple times a day, every day of the year.

Though there were almost certainly examples of irresponsible river stewardship taking place (the clandestine raiding by upstream fishermen toting electrified nets Thon had mentioned, for example), in general this was a prosperous symbiotic relationship between civilization and the environment. But a threat loomed on the horizon, one with the potential to completely and irrevocably derail the lives of people like Thon.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. Thon and his family are self sustaining, supporting themselves entirely from river fishing and agriculture. The Sesan II dam, when completed, will heavily impact fish populations and river sediment, heavily affecting families like Thon's.

Thon Min, 65, drives his fishing boat along the Mekong river near the island of Koh Sralay. 

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

A woman washes clothes in the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia. The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Children jump from the pilings of a bridge over the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng. 

 

Stopping the Flow

“We worry about the dam,” Thon told us before we left Koh Sralay. “If it breaks, a big wave will come and destroy this island, and I don’t know how it will affect our fishing.”

The Sesan II hydropower dam is arguably Cambodia’s most controversial environmental issue. When completed, the Chinese-owned dam will block two of the nation’s most important Mekong tributaries – the Sesan and Sekong rivers. The ensuing damages would be varied and devastating. Migrating fish would be unable to reach their breeding grounds; reduced sediment flow would disrupt the fertility of downriver farmland as well as increase erosion; a vast reservoir would displace thousands and inundate huge swaths of forest. An entire way of life could be lost, very possibly forever.

“The river is for life, for Cambodia, and for community identity,” Meach Mean told us over a bowl of fish soup. An independent environmental activist and the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network (a grassroots organization that mobilizes disparate villages to rally against the project), Meach is one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam. “Rivers create a lot of our culture [in Cambodia], including our annual boat festivals, the ancient belief in water spirits, Buddhist water blessings, and the national diet. If the dam is built it will stop our culture, not just fish.”

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

Each Mean, the founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, indicates the approach of the Sesan II dam.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam appears on the horizon.

Wanting to see the physical manifestation of the controversy, we asked Meach to take us the to the dam. With security checkpoints stationed along the roads leading to the construction site, we had to hire two small wooden fishing boats to circumvent the road blocks. It was more than an hour’s journey against the river’s current, during which time we saw little evidence of development, save a few small fishing hamlets scattered amongst the tree lined banks. It was hard to imagine that something so destructive could be lurking in such an idyllic and remote place.

“There,” Meach said as we rounded a bend. At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, but gradually the shapes of industrial cranes emerged on the skyline, towering over a wall of concrete. Initially it seemed like the river was completely blocked, but as we drew nearer we could see that a small channel remained open. As our boats made for this gap, I asked Meach what would happen if we were confronted by security: “What do you think? We leave very quickly,” was his simple response.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. Mean is an environmental activist and founder of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an organization that works to mobilize affected communities against the construction of the Chinese-owned dam that will displace thousands, innundate 36 000 hectares of land, and heavily impact local fishing and farming practices.

Mean Meach points to a pipe discharging chemical byproducts of the dam building process into the Sesan river. 

The boats dropped us behind the dam in order to minimize the chances of being spotted by construction personnel before we had a chance to see the site. After a sweaty scramble up a loose stone slope, we found ourselves standing on a gravel road, the entire building site in front of us. The immensity of the project was hard to process, stretching beyond what our peripheral vision could take in. For a moment we just stood and stared, but Meach quietly urged us to get our pictures as quickly as possible as a security patrol could be along any minute. Not wanting a confrontation we heeded his advice, snapping pictures furiously. When a dump truck rumbled past a few minutes later and the driver immediately began speaking into his radio, we knew it was time to leave.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. The Chinese-financed dam will block two major tributaries of the Mekong, displacing thousands, disrupting fish migrations, and innundating roughly 36 000 hectares of land.

The construction site of the Sesan II dam. 

We skidded back down the rocky embankment and boarded our boats for the drive back. “How did that make you feel?” Meach asked. Overwhelmed, intimidated, and worried were all words that entered our minds. Having read a great deal about the ecological dangers of damming the Mekong and its tributaries had prepared us intellectually, but the reality of seeing such a massive structure nearly blocking an entire waterway was another matter.

We were mostly quiet and reflective on the hour long boat back towards Steung Treng. The following day we were headed to a village of indigenous Bunong people, whose homes sat directly in the path of the dam’s proposed reservoir and we wondered if we had just seen the future destroyer of people we hadn’t yet met.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng, Cambodia.  The Sekong is a major tributary of the Mekong and will be heavily affected by the Sesan II dam.

Monks walk along a pier extending into the Sekong river in the city of Steung Treng.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |