Nathon, Laos, Summer 2014
Sengkeo Frichittavong, otherwise known as ‘Bob’, was born in Vientiane but spent most of his childhood and youth in Vang Vieng. With the end in 1975 of yet another pointless military debacle which devastated Southeast Asia, many Lao families emigrated to the West, mostly to Canada. Bob left Vang Vieng for Ontario in 1990 at the age of sixteen.
The town at that time was still very much the cozy backwater it had always been. As Bob recalls in an email:
There were lots of huge trees standing more than fifty metres high, spread out everywhere. It was very dark at night because there was no electricity. All the rivers had crystal clear waters that kept a steady level at all times. There were few houses, no buildings taller than my house (which is two stories high), no cars, no banks, no couples on motorbikes, few bicycles. There were only dirt roads, two restaurants, and most of the kids walked to school.
Twelve years later he returned, and the town had undergone an ugly transformation:
When I returned there had been huge changes, and things continue to change rapidly. More and more buildings, hostels, restaurants, travel agencies… the saddest part is no more rainforest to be seen nearby, everything is gone, and the river is madly uncontrolled: when there is no rain, it dries very fast, and once it rains a bit hard, it floods in every direction, erosion occurs and the top soil is simply being washed away by the rain…
Vang Vieng is an old posting station on the road between the capital Vientiane and the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Luang Prabang. From the balcony of our riverside guesthouse it is by rights a Southeast Asian idyll, yet its luscious surroundings and arresting river-views of karst crags with their cat’s cradle of monsoon rainclouds belie a star-crossed reputation. Beyond the front door a sad story of exploitation, by turns mindless and ruthless, unfolds. The view of the street is no different in any other hotspot on the backpacker’s trail through Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent: a ramshackle semi-permanence on crumbling roadsides clashes with the material aspirations of established shop fronts. Ajinomoto, Knorr, Nestlé, Kikkoman, Britannia, Coca Cola speak the gaudy incorporated cant of the globalised world in mosquito-infested interiors where locals appear long-suffering and tourists ill-at-ease.
“Hello, sir, you wan’massage? Come in, sir, very cheap!”
A massage parlour run by ladyboys has separate entrances for men and women, but appears empty throughout the day. At night, ladyboys gather at a table across the street and drink, keeping a watchful eye on the young backpackers congregating in the bars. One lumbering Englishman regales his friends with an oafish account of the previous night’s adventures, a tale of alcohol, drunken exploits, and being seduced by a gorgeous girl who turned out to be a boy. He seems uncertain what he enjoyed, his oafish bravado like thin ice cracking under his feet. The ladyboys await their moment, and when the Toxic Water starts circulating, they move in, offering little packets of drugs. When morning comes, the street has a stupefied feel, and the hard-faced lady at the stall on the corner calls out her wares with brassy belligerence:
“Banana pancake, sir! SIR! Banana pancake!”
Only on the road down to the bridge, opposite the Luang Prabang Bakery, do we find a local restaurant run by a timeless woman with a sweet smile and a genuine eye. She takes a shine to Shelly, and for the month that we are there she brings light to an otherwise grey experience. She washes our clothes, serves us mango juice, and keeps Shelly supplied with fresh, unbleached coconuts. When we come to leave, she takes my hand and looks at me squarely.
“Good luck,” she says.
“We will return tomorrow morning to say goodbye,” I say, “before we take the bus.”
But she has seen enough of backpackers to know better, and her memory has accompanied us ever since. Everywhere we have been on the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia we have found more or less successful experiments in globalisation, but nowhere like Vang Vieng has the collision between local opportunism and a misplaced sense of freedom in Western youth produced such a lethal alchemy.
When in 1998 a local mulberry farmer bought in some tractor-wheel inner-tubes for his Western volunteers to relax on in the river, he thought he was providing them with a spot of innocent fun. It was a fateful moment. The idea caught on, the word spread; more young travellers turned up, and the locals saw an opportunity to make some hard cash fast. They set up a business cooperative to run the tubing industry, which, at its peak, came to comprise 1500 households. Alcohol and drugs soon followed, and with them prostitution. Drawn by the dramatic landscapes and the opportunities for dangerous thrills, young men and women started arriving in droves; bars, restaurants, and guesthouses sprang up in haphazard profusion. Along the banks of the Nam Song especially, land was cleared for development, forests were cut, erosion set in; the delicate traditional balance of hunting, fishing, and rice cultivation was undermined. And in the maelstrom of sex, drugs, alcohol, and reckless adventure that supplanted it, young people started dying. They died in such numbers that the local population began to shun the river where for countless generations they had bathed and fished. In their animist-Buddhist worldview, the river had filled with evil spirits and bad karma. The verified fatalities of young foreigners in 2011 alone reached, according to some estimates, 27. The actual number of deaths is higher if we include those killed by overdose or bad batches of drugs, but the figure is unknown. Drug-related deaths were referred directly to Vientiane, and then hushed.
In August 2013, concerned about the bad press Vang Vieng was receiving, the authorities stepped in. They closed many of the riverside bars where the foreigners congregated, and dismantled the jerrybuilt playground where so many of them met an untimely end. That the move has been bad for business is beyond doubt, but to what extent it constitutes a genuine attempt at making life safer and more enjoyable for visitors is debatable. Backpackers no longer flock to Vang Vieng, and the recent influx of Chinese and Korean tourists has generally created a demand for higher standards. But the town still caters primarily to the backpacker, the tubing still goes on, and the same old DVDs of ‘Friends’ and ‘A Family Guy’ on looped payback still fill dingy bars and restaurants with their inane noise.
Whether because of the crackdown or the rains, the town now has a deadened feel. A hand-written sign on one of the tubing establishments up the road from our guesthouse informs tourists that there will be no tubing because the river is too dangerous. One is tempted to read a newfound sense of responsibility and customer-care in the decision to suspend one of the town’s more lucrative operations out of concern for safety. But kayaking, the sign goes on to tell us, is available, please be safe and have fun. I wonder whether experience, training, helmets, lifejackets, and emergency back-up–especially now with the Nam Song in full spate–are still optional. A couple of weeks into our stay, news emerges of a Chinese tourist dying while kayaking on the river. He was a boy of seven.
Interviewed in 2012 by Abigail Haworth for the Guardian newspaper, Bob suggested that the many vested interests in the town’s river-bar scene made it difficult to imagine the drastic change that Vang Vieng so desperately needs happening any time soon. Two years on, Bob’s message remains unaltered. It is another dark twist in the town’s ongoing tale of woe, as we have occasion to witness when the local authorities pick up a friend with a bag of weed in his pocket. It is a well-rehearsed operation: the young westerner purchases a sachet of marijuana on the street; the dealer tips off a plainclothes policeman–they are everywhere—and within a matter of minutes the hapless traveller has his passport confiscated and is hauled off for ‘questioning’. The aim of the exercise is to extort anything between USD 600 and 2000 for the restitution of the passport. In Laos, it is sufficient to buy a plot of land.
We are driving in Bob’s truck to pick up an old fridge from Chris Perkins, the owner of one of Vang Vieng’s more popular guesthouses, Pan’s Place. Because it is sealed and insulated, an old fridge is a good place to store seeds, and it will be placed in the nursery we are making out of an enclosure where they used to incinerate rubbish.
Bob is an energetic man, naturally optimistic and full of ideas. But the story of his native town weighs heavily on him:
“They closed some of the places down here,” he tells me. “But nothing much has changed. Too much corruption.”
But change, as we know, occurs even when there is no hope left. A different breed of tourist has been sighted, not only from the wealthier Asian countries, but also from Europe. New restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops on the street leading down to the bridge have a clean, finished feel. The food is better, and the flat-screen cacophony of sitcoms and cartoons has been replaced by music. Adventure-tour operators are beginning to report that travellers no longer come just for the tubing and partying: they ask for rock-climbing, buggying, mountain-biking, caving; they hire cars and motorbikes just to see the area; they simply enjoy their stay, and leave with good memories, a healthy conscience, their reputations (and bodies) intact.
And then there is Bob himself.
Nathon is a small community of rice fields, orchards and jungle on the other side of the river from Vang Vieng. It is here that Bob launched his pioneering project to promote a culture of sustainability in a town seriously degraded by modern consumer economics.
To Bob it was clear from the outset that the educational, economic and social needs of the local people were as much a part of the problem as the environmental disaster brought about by a generation of unbridled misadventure capitalism. The two key ideas underpinning the project are, firstly, that sustainability must include sustainable technologies, education, job training, opportunities, and community involvement; secondly, that the best methods for creating lasting change are to lead through example and improve the lives of community members through sustainable development projects.
Today the farm serves as a community centre offering local people free daily English classes and courses in IT and accountancy skills aimed at equipping locals with the knowledge they need to set up their own businesses. Scholarships are offered to help the more ambitious into higher education and to support them through their studies. Employment is provided to local staff, and women in particular are recognised as key-players in engendering a cultural shift towards a more modern, sensitive, and affirming social model that will bring much needed wealth into the area and heal the damage of the past two decades. Revenue is generated by the farm-to-table organic restaurant, international courses, the sale of produce and donations.
The farm aims to become a close-looped project, meaning that it will achieve 100% self-reliance within a system that, once set in motion, will be entirely self-perpetuating. This is to be achieved with an organic vegetable garden run according to permaculture principles, drinking and waste-water systems designed to eliminate costs and waste, crop rotation in the paddy fields, with peanuts being planted when the rice-harvesting is over to ensure the replenishment of nitrogen in the soil and an ongoing income from the production of high-quality, 100% organic peanut butter to be sold in the restaurant and the local shops. There are also plans for a mushroom farm.
Then there is the biogas system. In the early stages of the project, the biogas system was Bob’s pride and joy. Built with the help of the Laos Biogas Pilot Project, a joint initiative of the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV), the Laos Department of Livestock and Fishery and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the biogas system was installed at Sae Lao to make full use of animal and human waste, eliminating the need to buy cooking fuel and producing a practically endless supply of high-grade fertiliser.
Bob’s aim is complete self-reliance, which also means involving more and more local people in the project and providing them with the training that will allow them to enhance their living standards without destroying their natural habitats.
“Do you think it’ll catch on here, Bob?”I ask finally, as we bump along the track towards the farm.
An irregular patchwork of fields on either side of the road rolls out to the feet of sharp, sudden hills. The monsoon turns the road to clay mud. Bob assures me that the locals regularly fill the potholes with wagon-loads of gravel, but driving remains treacherous. It is the planting season, and the flooded fields match the sky’s moods: the sombre clouds, the sequin glint of sunlight, the plash and dance of falling raindrops.
This is Indochina’s seasonal magic: the hard blank earth opens up like a window as if onto hidden heavens below, and we glide on a pellucid surface like water insects with nothing but the tensile strength of a meniscus between us and freefall. I feel the vertigo of something unfamiliar, lasting memories of early light or twilight hours behind the wide windows of a bus on the road from Cambodia, watching the light rise and fade over ancient scenes and landscapes. Lines of dark figures in conical hats strung out across the mirror’s surface, knee-deep, carefully placing the miraculous green shoots of rice in the mud. And still, even after they have passed, that magic merger of heaven and earth continues, until the day when the rice matures, the harvest is done, and the earth is restored once more to its dry dormant vigil. I watch the farmers now in their time-honoured routines, and guess their desire for more money, better work, drier homes, air-conditioning, a car, a new road, no more mud in the yard. Can Bob pull it off?
“They still think I’m crazy,” he replied. “But I don’t care. Once they see what we can do, things will change.”
For the moment his determination seems to be paying off.