Driving along Rte 13 about 25km north of Vang Vieng, I passed by this roadside market, bordered by a stream and shaded by tall limestone cliffs:
I learned later that the area is known as Pha Hom, ‘Fragrant Cliff’, but ironically there was a foul smell when I passed through and I continued without stopping.
On the way back, a fluffy silver tail caught my eye and I stopped to investigate.
A closer look revealed that Pha Hom was clearly the home of a market specialising in ahaan paa, ‘jungle food’.
There were at least 20 stalls, and in addition to the large mammals, most of which I couldn’t identify, and the organs and bones thereof, there were birds (both dead and alive), crabs, insects, frogs and snakes.
The vendors clearly didn’t want photos taken:
But I played stupid and continued to snap away until a middle-aged woman told me to stop. Our conversation (me speaking Thai, her Lao) went like this:
Some foreigners took a video, put it online and we got in trouble for selling jungle animals.
What’s wrong with selling jungle animals?
Well, if we sell them, they’ll all disappear.
Then why do you keep selling them?
We need to earn money.
This conversation took place less than 30km from one of Laos’s largest tourist destinations, which also happens to be both a fertile valley and a busy travel crossroads; I’m pretty sure there’s other work to be done, but maybe there’s not, and anyway, who am I to tell her what’s right and wrong?
But this wasn’t all. The very drive to Pha Hom had taken me through landscapes like this:
I’d been through this area in July 2008 and the contrast of the sharp gray limestone mountains, occasional stands of dark forest and emerald green fields made it one of the prettiest places I’d seen in Southeast Asia. Now, at the height of the dry season, the farmers were burning their fields to prepare them for planting, and the hillsides were either deforested or black, huge fires burned, seemingly uncontrolled, at the roadside, and one could barely see the mountains in the distance due to the smoke. I imagined that the countryside probably didn’t look much different than when it was carpet-bombed by the Americans in the ’60s and ’70s.
Obviously people in Laos need to eat, but it’s depressing to witness the direct and savage impact this need has. At about 5 million people, the population of Laos is relatively small, yet the Lao seem to have an inversely large impact on their environment. This is surely helped by the fact that Laos’s neighbours are virtually free to pluck what they need from the country, whether it be logs, animals or hydropower (at present more than 30 hydropower projects were either being built or were in the advanced stages of planning in Laos, eight of which would dam the Mekong mainstream). If things continue this way, the Lao will certainly get their meal, but stand perilously close to losing their country.