A Day in Laos

In 2009, I was invited by the World Bank to the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos to conduct a program evaluation on that country’s newly created environmental law enforcement department, the Department of Forest Inspection. That three-week contract with DOFI exposed me to the wonders of South-East Asian culture and the gentleness of the Lao people. In 2010, I was offered a seven-month contract in Laos, an offer that Terry and I could not refuse.  Over the next five years, my contract was extended. We lived in the capital, Vientiane, for two full years and three partial years. Professionally, I was energized to use my law enforcement skills and experience with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in support of law enforcement capacity building efforts. Personally, Terry and I were blessed to meet and befriend a social network of national residents and international travellers.  To this day, I still have my fingers in Laos; Laos still has its hand around my heart.

With a population of seven million inhabitants, Laos is landlocked by its neighbours China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Considered to be one of the last remaining prime forest and bio-diverse countries in southeast Asia, considerable foreign aid has been injected in an attempt to both preserve and sustain that distinction. Aggravating these efforts, Laos has opened its borders in the past decade to increased forest related business and industry. This has increased the risk of illegal cultivation, harvesting and transportation to feed a growing national and international market for timber and wildlife products. 

In this story, as part of a month long mission, I am travelling with my Lao colleagues in search of locations to build law enforcement checkpoints. These locations will be strategically placed to focus within high risk areas and at cross-road locations that could be used to transport illegally harvested timber or wildlife from one of the two National Protected Areas in northern provinces to buyers in high market areas.

It is February 2017. I’m travelling through the mountains of Bokeo Province in northeast Laos. The day is sunny and warm and the sky is bright blue. A bright blue sky is not always guaranteed in Laos. The humidity has cause to blur the sun on many days, exacerbated by the pollution of the city and the smouldering fires that farmers set to prepare their rice fields for the spring planting. But on this day, far from the city and high in the mountains, none of these aggravating factors cause me any less enjoyment of my ride, except for the road I am on. 

Outbound from Bokeo’s capital city of Houayxay we are soon off the asphalt highway and onto the narrow winding dirt roads that extend into the Namkan National Protected Area. While every effort has been made by the government to limit access to this bio-diverse area, access is required to support village livelihood, facilitate commerce on the boundaries and provide access to eco-tourism companies that permit public enjoyment of one of the few remaining unspoiled areas in the world. Our route through the north-west corner of the province is 115 kilometres long, a trip of normally 3 hours that is intermittently halted by our guide, the Director General of the provincial enforcement office, to survey potential checkpoint locations. We stop at one such site just outside the southern border of the Protected Area.

I am struck by the fact that we are literally in the middle of a banana plantation. Two intersecting dirt roads create a three-spoke “fork” that seems to serve more to separate the banana trees than give any roadworthy confidence of safe travels ahead.  Our driver parks on a recently cleared area adjacent to the apex of the spoke and we exit onto the dusty brown soil, dust clouds erupting around our shoes as we walk toward the bordering bush. Beyond the bush and down an embankment is a small river.  Our team is briefed on the potential for this road and river to be used as a possible transportation route for illegal goods and listen to the rationale for this area as a possible law enforcement checkpoint. Given that any type of plantation commonly eradicates natural forest and fauna in order to cultivate dense, high volume vegetation, I am not convinced that this would be suitable for a law enforcement check-point focused on environmental protection. 

Struggling for any reason to change my perspective, I am easily distracted by the activity down the road. A young male is carrying a stem of bananas over his shoulder. As he crosses the road and disappears into the bush I am intrigued. I leave my colleagues in search of his destination.

When I find the banana bearer, he is standing at the front end of a banana preparation and shipping area carved into the bush between the rows of banana trees. Standing just over five feet and weighing probably no more than 130 lbs, he still has the stem of green bananas over his left shoulder waiting for his turn to deliver his load. Under the bananas is a white protective cloth, and upon close inspection of his work clothing, I quickly surmise that the cloth is more to protect the bananas on top of the cloth than the shirt underneath it. His pants are worn and torn, inching up some 7 inches above his ankles. On his feet are worn-thin rubber thong sandals, yellow in colour. My mind wonders if that choice of colour is random or related in some way to his profession.  And a profession it is.  He is hard at work if the sweat on his brow and the stains on his clothes are any indicator of effort. He turns and smiles, and although he is missing a few teeth, the smile is genuine and heart-felt. Here I am, a stranger in his land and in his immediate world, and it is as if he has been waiting for me his whole life. He is glad to see me. Typical of all the Laotians I have met. I smile back and take a picture, of course.

When his turn comes he is helped to offload and hang his bananas by a narrow piece of rope onto a track. Once hung, his stem joins others being pushed down the track and into the bush. In the course of their travels, a few ripened bananas fall from the stem to the ground. A colleague picks up several of these discards and offers me one. I peel and eat it as I follow and find more of the first worker’s colleagues at the end of the track and adjacent to a 75 foot long stake-bed transport truck. The truck has a Chinese produce company’s markings. The production pace is fast and furious.

As the banana stems reach the end of the track, a worker, starting from the top of the stem, systematically cuts off bunches of 8-12 bananas into the hands of another worker who dumps them bunch-by-bunch into a large vat of liquid, which I assume to be water. This brings my first revelation; bananas float! Then two other workers remove the banana bunches from the vat and place them into a similar vat. Is this a second washing? I am not sure and my colleagues respond vaguely to my questions on this perplexing topic. One answer I receive is that the water rids the plants of insects and spiders; another that the baths wash off the chemicals and pesticides used daily as the fruit matures. Regardless, I come to a new theory about the white cloth used by the worker; likely more a protection against either spiders or chemicals. How naive of me to first think it was for cleanliness. This brings me to my second revelation; wash your bananas after purchase.  And my third revelation, I hadn’t washed my free banana, my hypochondria erupts! What had I eaten? Was it going to make me sick???

From the vats the bananas are weighed on a mechanical scale, wrapped in plastic and placed in sturdy boxes. Another worker tapes the boxes with plastic tape. Others load the truck. Field to market will be under 24 hours.

Leaving the Ban Phong area we set out on our route north-west up and around switchbacks through the mountains for Ban Shendou, a small village near the Myanmar border. The road is rough and narrow. Potholes impede our speed and comfort as we pound through most of them without any thought of diversion. Being the second vehicle in a convoy of two, dust stirs up from the vortex created by our colleagues blocking our vision and invading our nostrils.  Winding around the contours of the mountains our driver continually honks the horn; tap, tap, tap  to warn oncoming drivers of our approach.

Drivers in Laos take little note of space and will encroach whenever possible to give themselves advantage. With sheer mountain walls on one side and steep un-barricaded slopes on the other, there is little room for error when meeting oncoming traffic. Still, on many occasions, motorbikes and smaller vehicles typically pass three abreast on two lane roads. Everyone makes room; no one is unduly concerned.

The beauty of the landscape is breathtaking. High above valley floors one can see forever and the numerous shades of green are forever changing in the light and shadows as the sun progresses across the sky. Then plunging down into the valleys, sometimes along sheer cliffs, signs of habitation emerge.  Rice fields and water buffalo signal a village close by. Suddenly, sometimes shockingly, the village appears, at first glance resembling the patina of an ancient picture, unfamiliar to my concept of a community but possessing all the components of organization and sustainability.

The stilt raised frame houses are spartan, roughly built with natural materials, some boarded with rough-hewn planks, others with thatched walls. Wooden steps lead up to the single level homes.  Machinery, fire-wood and general storage occupies the area below.  The homes, the trees and every other visible thing is covered in thick dust, the consequence of building so close to the roadway.

Children, dogs, pigs, goats and cattle all vie for a place in and around the village. Motorbikes enter and exit the roadway, seemingly in random confusion, most often with three or more on their saddles, often with the oldest child standing in front of dad and mom holding the youngest in her arms in the rear.  Toddlers play on the side of the road, literally on the edge of the pavement while transport tractors, buses and vehicles pass with little caution. The children are happy, skipping and playing. They are also clean! How this is possible in an environment choked with dirt and dust is beyond my comprehension. Depending on the time of day, naked children can be seen playing in the river streams near the village.  Adolescents and adults shower modestly clothed at the village pump.

Arriving in Ban Shendou, we are met by a contingent of various law enforcement departments. Representatives from the military, forestry, environment and police are eager to demonstrate their resolve and commitment to our project goals. The meeting goes well and there is certainly rationale for Ban Shendou as a checkpoint location. It is at a crossroads for transit from high risk areas to markets nationally and internationally; thus becoming one of our favoured recommendations.

On the trip back to Houayxai, we take the Mekong route, heading south-west into the setting sun. Villages we pass copy those seen on our inbound journey but the terrain is flatter as it follows the low-land contours of the river. We stop along the way and my colleagues jump out to gather edible leaves and herbs, gifts no doubt for their wives at home to add to the evening meal. Further on, they stop again to buy fresh chicken eggs from a local village merchant. Further again we stop at a natural hot springs where the geyser bubbles up from the river bottom in several places and gushes from a shallow fissure nearest the shore. It is here that the eggs are lowered into the boiling water, cooked and passed around for all to sample. Wonderful taste and texture. The gathering only accentuated by the setting of the sun, the peacefulness of the river and the camaraderie of good friends. Our day complete, our mission successful, we finish the voyage home.

From my time in Laos I have come to certain observations. Never let it be said that any or either law enforcement departments come without baggage of some sort. Corruption is very real, work ethic is uneven and a true belief in the theory of our trust is superficial. But these weaknesses are universal to development in any country and stand at the foundation of change. As an agent of change, in the time I will have to influence progress and success, I cannot nor should I strive to change the culture. My efforts should be focused on modelling behaviour.  Opposing theories are often held by individuals or entities who want “big bang” short term development results that will contribute to personal career advancement or inflate weak resume experience. If modelling and mentoring are successful, cultural change will naturally result. This is what I believed when I started working in Laos, and this is what I more truly believe today. I have seen proof of this theory.

Often, as I have travelled through the remotest regions of this country, I am amazed to come around a mountain turn and behold a small village in its nook, seemingly of little consequence to the natural order of the universe, whose absence or eradication would be, on its face, negligible. People here exist in poverty and live a subsistence lifestyle of rice farming, collecting protein and produce from the forest. It’s at first amazing that these places exist. And then, as I look wider and think deeper, these small communities mirror my country’s earliest settlers, immigrant farmers, at the start of their cycle whose only wish and purpose was to provide food and safety for their families. To provide a better life for their children who would, hopefully, someday be able to do the same for theirs. And as they progressed, to be able to sell what they could not use, and buy a goat or a motorbike, or a television. And then perhaps open a market or a store. And I realized at that moment that these Lao people in these seemingly unimportant villages are exactly like me and mine, separated by time but not by wishes or dreams. And then and only then do I see clearly; an epiphany moment of settlement and growth that is mirrored and patterned around the world; whose natural development brings success and progress. That small village in Laos is just on one end of a chain of evolution that is universal to countries, communities and cultures around the world.

How is it, then,  that we can deny to anyone that which was given to us, either directly or by right of birth. For there, but for the grace of god, or fate, and circumstance, go I.  And I hope to god, and for my remaining days, that had I been denied that chance of a better life, I would have lived my destiny with the dignity that I have observed and the happiness that I have seen in the faces of those men, women and children that I pass along the dusty roads and through the rugged mountain beauty of Laos.

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