William Bleisch, PhD
Boten in Lao PDR and Xishuangbanna in China PRC

Camilla Mitchell and Mr Deang with elephant dung. The fashion models towered over the watching crowd as they walked the red carpets dressed in mini-dresses or denim short shorts and low cut shirts. A troupe of talent brought in from Thailand expressly for the re-opening of the newly positioned Boten Commercial Complex, their curvy figures and slinky moves seemed somehow manufactured and out of place. It seemed doubly odd, because this was all happening deep in the middle of a rainforest.

Boten was once a tiny Lao jungle village surrounded by vast forests. Its location on the main road between China and Thailand right next to the Lao-Chinese border, however, turned it briefly into one of the fastest developing communities in Asia. An enormous casino-hotel complex was built there a few years ago, and it was wildly successful. Too wild by many reports. High rates of crime, including kidnapping and murder, some of which involved Chinese nationals, reportedly led to a request by the Chinese government to the Lao government to shut it down.

And so it sat, an enormous white elephant, plopped down in the middle of the rain forest among the wild elephants; a silent anomaly on the windy road from China’s Xishuangbanna to Lao’s Luang Namtha whose only function was to confuse curious travelers and evoke philosophical musings among those who knew.

Elephant track on beach.Until yesterday, that is. On Valentine’s Day, 2014, the new Boten was officially opened. It was a jam-packed extravaganza, as Boten and its hotels are repositioned as a family destination. After the required speeches and fire-crackers, the pace stepped up, with a fashion show on the ground floor of the enormous International Duty Free Center. Disco music boomed out from the speakers as the Thai models put out their best moves on the catwalk. The audience, dwarfed by the towering models, crowded in among the exhibits of Ferro-Roca, Kit Kat, and SK-II. There were Han Chinese families from Mo Han dressed in the latest fashions, Dai women from Jing Hong in their long, tight silk sarongs, Lao women in traditional woven sein, and minority hill-tribe mothers with their babies in a sling on their hips. The models gave it their all – slinking down the red carpets, doing their sexiest turns and gestures, showing off the perfume, purses and clutch bags that were on sale in the aisles behind.

Lao elephant.When it broke up, curious shoppers filled their baskets with foreign products while our CERS Lao team went out in search of the promised troupe of captive elephants. Most shoppers bought a few exotic foreign food treats, but I saw one Lao man pay for an entire case of French wine. Soon everyone headed for the food stalls, where the aroma of fish, chicken and buffalo being barbequed was irresistible. I noticed that the papaya salad seemed to be selling a lot better than the Ferro Roca had been.

As we were having a traditional Lao lunch of barbecue, papaya salad, bamboo shoots and sticky rice, we saw some of our good friends from the Green Discovery Nature Tour Agency. They were dressed ready for action; in field clothes with climbing harnesses and helmets. They had been hired to set up a Jungle Zip Line Adventure Trek; a circuit of 7 zip lines that would whisk the more adventurous from hill-top to hill-top over the forest, and over the backs of real elephants. Our friends told us that 27 captive work elephants had been brought in from southern Lao, rented by the month together with their mahout drivers. There would be an elephant parade at 2:00, we learned, but I already had a date with the bus to Jing Hong. I left the others to find out more while I collected my luggage and walked up the road the short distance to the border station and into China beyond.

Ironically, our CERS team had just recently walked nearly to this same spot, but we had trekked through the forest on narrow jungle trails and in the middle of slippery riverbeds for two days. We started from the end of a new dirt road at Nam Khong Village, a modest Tai Dam Village. Last time I had visited Ban Nam Khong, we had to walk for one full day just to get to that point, but a new dirt road had been built just this year. Mien man with grandson.It was being improved as part of a deal with a Chinese agro-company that had rented all of the villages paddy fields for 9 months - to grow watermelons! agri-businesses They had brought in tractors, irrigation pumps and bags and bags of 15:15:15 NPK chemical fertilizer. Mr. Peng, our Tai Dam guide from the village, told us that the visitors from China were paying 3 million Kip per hectare in rent (about $USD375 at current exchange rates). Not everyone in the village was happy about the arrangement. Some said the price was too low, while others had heard that the land would be ruined for rice growing after the Chinese farmers were done, leaving behind residue of plastic sheeting and pesticides. However, with no paddy to cultivate now and time on their hands, it seemed that many of the villagers were using the time to go into the Nam Ha Protected Area to collect rattan and bamboo shoots, go fishing and, no doubt, to hunt.

Lao elephant.From Nam Khong village, we crossed the vast expanse of watermelon fields, stepping between the plastic sheeting and irrigation piping. A narrow trail took us east through the forest, deep into the Nam Ha National Protected Area. We headed down the Nam Khong River to its confluence with the Nam Tha, then upstream along the Nam Tha. Our trek took us very near the China-Lao border, where the Lao protected area abuts the Xishuangbanna Shan Yong Nature Reserve to the north. Here, the wildlife seemed to be more abundant. We saw many tracks and sign along the banks of the river – civets and mongoose and what may have been otter and Golden Cat. I found feathers of Grey Peacock Pheasant, Will Ruzek found a fresh skull of a Sambar Deer and Mr. Air found a shed antlers of a Sambar Deer.

We also found what we had really come for, sign of elephant. It was the track and dung of an enormous elephant that had passed through only 2 days before, moving along the Nam Tha River. Local hunters told us that they had heard it and approached with their guns, but seeing that it was an elephant, they fled. Camilla Mitchell, our CERS elephant expert, showed us how to measure the track and record data on the dung. Judging from the circumference of the fore-foot, she estimated that this was a bull over two meters tall at the shoulder.

Chinese family pose at border.We set a camera trap along a smaller stream nearby and continued on to Nam Khun Village, arriving after dark. It was eerie to come out of the forest and into fields of flowers, where the red flowers shown bright in the beams of our headlamps. Nam Khun is a Yao Mien Village, and our hostess showed us pictures of her and her family dressed in traditional Yao finery; embroidered trousers, elaborate turbans and red yarn fringe around the collar. It seemed far more beautiful to me than the modern sports-clothes the villagers now wear everyday.

On the long bus trip through Xishuangbanna, passing mountain after mountain covered in the grey leafless witches broom of rubber plantations, I also thought again about what the future would to northern Lao and its forests and wildlife. It seemed odd to think of that lone wild elephant moving through the dense vegetation of the forest just a few kilometers from the International Duty Free Shop at Boten. I wondered if he would find his way to meet the new captive elephants, and how they might interact.

I also wondered about how the Lao people would react to this new intrusion into their country. Would Luang Namtha become just an extension of Xishuangbanna, with its booming Chinese cities and abandoned rural countryside?

Akha womens costume front and back.By chance, a World Bank Investment Climate Report 2014 for Lao PDR came my way this morning. Subtitled “Policy Certainty in the Midst of a Natural Resources Boom,“ the authors conclusions include this; “Firms in Lao PDR stand out from those in neighboring countries in one important area: they are far more likely to complain that not enough workers are applying for jobs, even the low-skilled jobs. The key problem is that the jobs on offer are not sufficiently attractive, in terms of the wages and working conditions being offered, to attract migrants out of subsistence agriculture.”

What would happen, I wondered, if the Lao people choose to continue their traditional lifestyles and not to take those new jobs, no matter how high the pay? What if they decided that they did not want to work for consumer goods - that they did not need SK-II and perfume, and that they would rather have fresh river fish, forest rattan and bamboo shoots instead of Kit Kats and Ferro-Roca? Would the world order be shaken if Lao people decided to pursue gross national happiness instead of gross development?

Fashion models and audience.I knew that it was just pipe dream. Lao PDR is already locked onto a path of change, whether that leads to development or underdevelopment. Rather than raising wages, however, some might conclude that the current policy is to steal people’s land and forests in order to auction it off to foreign hydro-projects, mining operations, agri-businesses and golf courses. If there is any natural forest remaining, it can be locked up in strictly protected nature reserves. Rural people will be forced to join the urban poor and take those low-paying jobs, while investors, corrupt politicians and their cronies get rich.

The glitz and glamour of the Duty Free Shop and the high fashion models are carefully crafted to be enticing, but somehow seem false when set in the middle of this landscape for forests and villages, rich with biological diversity and deep cultural traditions. As the bus pulls in to Jing Hong, the brightly-lit capital of Xishaungbanna, I find myself hoping that glamour and glitz is not the destination of all of Luang Namtha.