September 28, 2008
There’s a Lesson to Be Learnt in the Green Hills of Laos
By Richard Waters
This country is enjoying a surge in eco-tourism. Richard Waters reveals whyThere's a lot to like about this country of faded Indochinese villas and temples; it repeatedly sucks me back into its forest- clad petals like a benign Venus flytrap. My excuse for returning to Laos this time is to take a trek in one of the country's many national protected areas (NPAs), home to some of the most pristine forests in South-east Asia, and its exotica of tigers, leopards and elephants.
Unlike Thailand, which allowed tourists in saturated numbers to roam through its villages in the Golden Triangle, Laos has been more careful. In 1993, some 18 NPAs were established to protect those vast tracts of original forest from marauding sneakers and cameras on the hunt for authenticity. Thanks to a home-grown ecological movement, this developing country is enjoying a surge of controlled eco-tourism which, thus far, has contributed to its economy in a sustainable fashion.
I head for the Boat Landing Guest House, an eco-lodge perched by the Nam Ha NPA, in the far north of the country. It's a bit of a trek but worth every minute in the back of a sawngthaew, the local pick-up truck, rattling into the mist-laced mountains. To arrive by night is a delight, a warm lantern glow thrown off the timbered long house (one of the north's best restaurants), the air touched with the scent of flowers. Not that there are many; I'm visiting in the dry season and, but for the lushness of the nearby forest, the land is parched.
My first night here and I'm looking up at a glowing crescent in the darkness. It is, in fact, a slash-and-burn mountain incandescing through the night; for a few months every year, forests are cut away by hill tribes to cultivate rice. Lying in my solar-powered cabana, I listen to the philharmonic orchestra of the jungle over the river; woodpecker, throaty hornbill, comical gecko and the ever-present wing section of cicadas.
The Boat Landing Guest House, founded in 1999, forged a relationship with Green Discovery, the country's ubiquitous adventure trek organisation, to create a synergy with local people and visiting tourists. The eco-lodge is built of natural materials by local labour, just as all of its food is bought from local markets. Visitors to the hotel are welcome to teach English for an hour or two at the local school. It's up to you, though; the place's altruism is low key. You could just as easily eat yourself stupid and sit on your veranda with a Bloody Mary.
This in mind, the next dawn I head into the jungle with my guide, a man with an elfin face seemingly carved from mahogany, going by the name of Khet. Our Rubicon is a wide river by an Akha tribe village; having waded across it we're very quickly in the skirts of the jungle, monkeys in the 100ft triple canopy whooping loudly as we step into a kind of feral glow; sunlight falling in isolated swatches among ferns and rubber plants.
I'm following every foothold of my pathfinder as he scales a mountain, when halfway up the side of a valley, nothing but green infinity all about us, I hear the deepest growl I ever wish to remember; an amped-up version of the lion at London Zoo. Only this pussy cat is hidden, nearby, its warning directed precisely at us.
"Tiger?" I hiss. Khet holds a hand up and turns round slowly, fixing his eyes on me. "Sshh." We play our little game of statues for another minute, me looking around for a tree to climb, him searching the surroundings for our predator. The noise retreats and we're off again, Khet insisting it was a bird taking flight. I appreciate the deceit. Two weeks later an NGO worker tells me villagers in this park have been visited in their beds by tigers.
Descending a sunlit slope, we hear voices. Tribespeople? No: a social worker from Westminster. We swap war stories about the travails of travelling in Laos while Khet unravels a feast of sticky rice, egg and mashed bamboo which is served on a giant palm frond. After a full day's trekking through this green world, I'm sad to be heading back to civilisation.
How to get there For travellers from Britain, the gateway to Laos is Bangkok. For connections to Laos, Lao Airlines (laoairlines.com) offers return flights to Vientiane from $328 (187).
Green Discovery (00 856 21 264 528; greendiscoverylaos.com), a specialist in adventure travel and eco-tourism, offers trekking packages in Laos. Rooms at the Boat Landing Guest House (00 856 8631 2398; theboatlanding.com) cost from $28 (16) per night.
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