William Bleisch, PhD
Luang Namtha, Northern Lao PDR

Mountain Red-bellied Squirrels for sale with other forest products in the Luang Namtha Day Market.I am standing at a crossroads, quite literally. From here at the bus terminal, I could go southeast to Luang Prabang and the temples of the ancient capital of the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang. Or I could go north, to Muang Sing where the Lao, Thai, Myanmar/Burma and Chinese borders all come together in the Golden Triangle -where the drifters’ blogs report that Akha ladies from the mountains still hawk their “agricultural products” from the poppy fields on the streets. Or I could go east, across the border into Vietnam, to Dien Bien Phou, where, in 1954, General Giap and the Viet Minh army, supported by local Shan partisans, defeated the French colonial forces and their air force after a two month siege, a turning point for western colonialism in Asia. Or I could go southwest, back the way I have come, to the Mekong and on to Chiang Rai in Thailand, once the capital of Lana, a kingdom that stretched from Chiang Mai north to Jing Hong in China, and from Luang Prabang in Lao in the east nearly to Mandalay in Myanmar/Burma.

A rare Black Giant Squirrel has also wound up in the market for sale.I like this feeling of being at the point of maximum possibilities, like a chess player with a strong position covering the board. But now it is time to make a move.

I head into town, or rather, to the new town, which is 7 kilometers away from the bus station. The southern town was bombed into oblivion during the secret war between the U.S. and the communist Pathet Lao guerrilla fighters in northern Lao. There is not much there beside the bus station now. The new town, in contrast, is bustling. Sitting down to lunch in a backpacker café, I hear French, German, and English words mingling with Lao, Akha and Lanten. It seems the whole of Western Europe has donned a backpack and gone on Christmas holiday here. Tourist companies cheerily advertise 1, 2, 3 and 4 day options for trekking, bicycling, and kayaking. Sleep in a traditional Lanten village. Float the Nam Tha River and the Mekong all the way to Luang Prabang. Bicycle to the China border.

I stop and inquire at the Forest Retreat, a pizza restaurant run by New Zealanders, Dre and Karen, advertising camembert pizza made with real French cheese, wines from Australia, and treks with local Khmu minority English-speaking guides. Over a good cup of coffee, I ask Dre whether I can see any wildlife in the forests. He tells me the place to see wildlife is the local day market, where hunters bring their latest catch early each morning. I hurry there before the morning cool turns to hot noon.

A giant strangler fig dwarfs trekking birders Annette and Philippe on the jungle trail.In the market, behind the rows of dealers selling vegetables and fruits, back in the back, even behind the sellers of khao soi noodles with marinara–like tomato sauce with fermented beans, and the sweet bowls of multi-coloured nam van jellies in coconut soup, there is a row of women sitting on the ground selling dried fish and forest products. Several of them also sell wild meat. On my first visit, late in the day, I see the meat and reddish hide of a Common Muntjac and the dainty body of a Lesser Mouse Deer. There are also two female Silver Pheasant. In the back, hidden in a bag in the basket of a motorbike, the seller also has a brush-tailed porcupine. The next morning, another seller displays a pair of beautiful Mountain Red-bellied Squirrels, a string of small birds, and the smoked foreleg, chest and head of a Pig-tailed Macque. She sells a fresh mouse deer as I watch. She also has a live Hoary Bamboo Rat, scurrying around in a plastic basket, its front teeth pulled out to keep it from gnawing through its tether. Another seller displays the corpses of a Common Palm Civet and a Spotted Linsang, a small civet with a lovely patterned coat. There is also a Small-toothed Ferret Badger on offer. The next day, a Grey Peacock-Pheasant turns up, its feathers each dotted with an exquisite peacock eye. There is also a strikingly patterned black and white Giant Squirrel and a Giant Flying Squirrel, each as big as a large cat. The seller stops me from taking pictures, giving away the fact that she knows full well that these animals are protected by Lao law.

My widely-shared prejudice that most of the wildlife trade is fueled by rapacious Cantonese gourmands seems to be unfounded here. The buyers in the market all seem to be local. A Yunnan girl at the front desk of the big Chinese run Royal Hotel tells me that few Chinese travelers stop here, even during the big holidays. Most prefer to continue on to the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang.

Eager to see the animals alive, I join a couple from Belgium who are also interested in seeing nature. We plan a 3-day trek with two nights stay in the forest. Annette, a geographer, and Philippe, a retired civil servant, want to travel slowly and quietly through the forest, stopping often to watch birds. I could not imagine better trekking companions.

Zipping through the forest canopy on the Gibbon.I have already tried a trek with the Gibbon Experience on the other side of the ridge. Together with a group of 4 young travelers from the Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Alaska, we traveled through deep forest with enormous trees for two days. The Gibbon Experience is perhaps unique in Asia for its use of zip lines – steel cables stretched tight across valleys so that visitors can glide through and over the forest canopy, sometimes for up to 800 meters and 30 meters up. This allowed us to get deep into the forest very quickly. It was a treat for me to see deep forest birds, like the Asian Fairy Bluebird, and to see the scratch marks of a bear’s claws on a large tree, no doubt made as it descended the trunk after gorging itself on fruit or nuts above. It was also moving to know that a group of gibbons was out there in the forest near the luxury tree house where we stayed over-night, even though we were not lucky enough to hear their morning songs. The experience of the ziplines was exhilarating and the tall old forest was sublime. But the fast pace and the noisy chatter of my companions meant that we saw little other wildlife. I am eager to try again.

We leave the town about 9:15 AM and drive south back towards Thailand, climbing up into the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation Area. Villages and houses line the road. We turn off on a newly refurbished dirt road that travels down the Nam Tha River. Stopping at a village, we cross the river one at a time in a small wooden dugout canoe. We hike up steeply, through old fields at first, dense with Croton Bush and other weeds, then through bamboo forest, where the giant bamboo grows tall, blocking out the hot sun. We reach a ridge, then follow the ridge up steeply to a pass at 1,046 meters elevation. This forest is still recovering from past logging, crowded with the stems of giant bamboo, and the vines and stranglers that drape the trees are still young. But there is wildlife. The guide in the lead sees a Leopard Cat dash across the path and into the forest.

We descend to a small bamboo hut in the forest, the Forest Retreat. The forest here is good, and so, in the middle of the night, I take a walk through the forest with my headlamp, looking for wildlife. I spot nothing, perhaps because the half-moon still sheds too much light to calm the strictly nocturnal animals. I try again at 5:50 AM, after the moon has set and before the dim light of dawn. As soon as I step onto the path, a muntjac barks out in agitation nearby. Also known as the ‘barking deer,’ the call sounds almost exactly like a dog. Later, a large squirrel gives a loud alarm call from a tree loaded with fruit, but the dawn light is still too weak to see clearly.

An Akha woman sells spiny rattan palm shoots at the Luang Namtha bus station.After a breakfast of sticky rice, eggs and fiddleheads from young forest ferns, we continue our trek, now descending along a ridge through old-growth forest with massive trees. Some of these have dropped hefty black nuts onto the trail. These mag koo nuts are hard to open, denting Mr. Aer’s big local knife. Inside is a small delicious nut, tasting something like a Brazil nut. Other trees have dropped softer fruit. Some sport enormous buttresses that fan out from their trunks, sturdying their massive trunks like the flying buttresses of medieval cathedrals in France. Aer challenges us with a local puzzle, which he makes from bamboo on the spot. None of us can solve it until he shows us the trick. I remember reading that, in the Qin Dynasty, the region of southern China and Lao is thought to have hosted a civilization every bit as advanced as that of the Yellow River Emperor’s. Unfortunately, its elaborate palaces, forts, tools and weaponry were all made from bamboo, so nothing has survived for archeological study.

We reach a clear river and wade across over gravel and sand. On the other side stands a bamboo hut, and beyond, another river. This is the confluence of the Nam Ha and the Nam Tha, where we will spend the night. Our guides soon have a net out in the river, stretching it across the confluence from a bamboo raft. Their first catch only contains three fish, but one of them is remarkable – a freshwater puffer fish, looking exactly like a miniature of the better-known marine puffer fish that swim in the waters off our CERS Tai Tam Centre in Hong Kong. I ask if it isn’t poisonous, and Mr. Aer, obviously disgruntled, quickly skewers it and roasts it in the bamboo fire; too quickly for me to get my camera. He pops the hot meat into his mouth and smiles without saying a word. The 2nd and 3rd haul of the net yield more fish, but no more puffers. We enjoy a feast of sticky rice, very fresh river fish roasted on bamboo skewers, and a stew made of wild banana flowers, the hearts of palm from rattans, fiddleheads of young ferns, cilantro, cardamom and chili peppers. All of the ingredients are from the forest. Even the pot is a cylinder cut fresh from the giant bamboo.

Local guide Mr. Aer demonstrates a traditional bamboo puzzle that he made on the spot.At 3:30 AM, I rouse myself again and don a headlamp to walk the dark forest trails. Christmas Eve is turning to Christmas Day and, true to the poem, “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” This may be because, just a few hours ago, we were treated to rather unusual Christmas carols. A large party of rowdy local boys crossed the river with flashlights, dressed in heavy jackets, boxer shorts and flip-flops. Carrying home- made spear guns fashioned from wood and heavy elastic bands, with stiff cable cut for spears, they were out night fishing. They crossed the cold river singing jubilantly about the dragon boat races that are as popular here as in Hong Kong.

In truth, the confluence is no longer a very wild place. Looking down the Nam Tha River from the hut in the morning, we can see the newly widened road and hear the tractors and trucks travelling past young plantations of rubber and bananas. This is the confluence in more than one sense – it is the meeting of the past and the future, the wild and the tamed.

On my way back to China by bus, I chat with a young man from Fujian who just graduated from college in Kunming. He came to Lao PDR to see if he could make his fortune in the new rubber boom here. He is even preparing himself by studying the Lao language. He seems sincere and earnest, not the grubby carpet bagger that I imagined. I remember a few years ago flying into Jing Hong in Chinese Xishuangbanna, listening to the tourists from Shanghai and Beijing ‘oo’ and ‘aw’ at the dense carpet of green forest below. They did not know that the green was entirely rubber plantation… the natural forest had all been replaced by this exotic invader from Brazil. Soon, most of northern Lao PDR will look like Xishuangbanna. I find myself wondering if the rubber plantations will provide as much to the local people as the forests once did.

Lanten minority children still wear traditional clothing, or nothing at all.Perhaps trekking tourism offers an alternative. Trekking operations cater to a niche market of tourists, sometime called drifters. With no fixed itinerary, they plan their trips as they go. Generally traveling rough and light, they reach some of the most remote destinations, looking for areas still untouched by mass tourism. Although they do not shy away from discomfort, they do spend their money. A 3-day 2-night adventure on the ziplines and tree houses of the Gibbon Experience costs $300 USD, and even a simple trek to a minority village will cost over $100 per day for a couple, all inclusive. Much of the money goes to local guides, porters and villagers. Luang Namtha has been singled out by UNESCO as a pilot and a model of this kind of sustainable culture and nature tourism. The model depends on the tourism creating incentives for local people to protect the forests and preserve their cultures. So far, it seems to be working in Luang Namtha.

It seems a shame that the model has not caught on more in China. When I reach Mengla in Xishuangbanna, I look for a back packers café for information. Lost among the upscale boutiques, massage parlors and car parts stores, I finally find the tiny Forest Café, with a sign that promises encouragingly “English spoken here.” But the proprietor speaks no English, and shoos me away when I ask if I can buy a bottle of water instead of the liquor, beer and Red Bull she is peddling. No tour guides can provide any information about trekking possibilities in the area, although there are advertisements on the web about operations based further on in Jing Hong.

In general, China is not very friendly to the independent foreign traveler. Despite this, there is a growing movement of adventurous Chinese drifters who are eager to explore the most remote areas of China, by car, by bicycle and by foot. Call them drifters or call them explorers, either way, this could change the face of Chinese tourism forever. Perhaps we can help. CERS helped start this movement in China from its earliest beginnings, and has served as a model and a leader ever since.