A sobering trip to southern laos

A disillusioning trip to south Laos

In February 2009 I decided to do a introductory trip to find the Green peafowl in South Laos.

I started my trip at the bus terminal in Chiang Mai. The bus trip with Nakonchai Air began here at 12:15 noon time, at the price of approx. 900 Bhat and ended at first after 1050 km in Ubon Ratchathani at 5.30 of the following morning. From there, I continued my trip to get to the border checkpoint, which took 1,5 hours for 88 km and costed 100 Bhat. The visa for Laos costed 1300 Bhat, and on I went on the songtel for 40 Bhat to Pakxe, a provincial town in Laos. A tuk tuk took me from there to the local tourist office, where I asked for information on the national parks and the appearance of green peafowls. I was supposed to go to Attapeu and ask for information there. The waiting tuk tuk driver took me to the southern bus terminal. In an old, rattly bus which was at first being loaded with 20 bags of cement and some other parts, at which everything was placed in the central corridor of the bus, we left to Attapeu, which is almost 200 km away from there. The price for a one-way ticket was at 5000 Kip which is approx. 2,50 €.

After 2 km we stopped for the first time, more passengers came on the bus, who were still able to find a good seat. With a loud noise we continued our ride and stopped again, this time on the hillside and more passengers found some space on top of the bags of cement. The continuation of our journey was stopped again by some other loud noise, the clutch had “given up” and that at the flank of a hill which was about 20 km long, since this was how long the way up to the Boleven plateau was supposed to be. The bus driver was as cool as a cucumber; he was familiar with this kind of situation. Some rocks were put behind the back wheels and from now on started in first or second gear, which worked out more or less. It became a ride uphill, which made you feel like you’re in a kangaroo pouch, since the bus would stop every few kilometers. People got on the bus and left and I was happy when I arrived at the plateau at the altitude of nearly 1000 m.

In the next bigger village called Pakxong we had a little break, since it was market day and many sellers ran towards the bus in order to offer us their “delicacies” such as roasted cicadas on a spit or chicken feet in a bag. But roasted quails, bread and a lot of fresh fruits were also available; there was something for everybody and all tastes. After 10 min. our bumpy ride –our clutch wasn’t working anymore – was continued. The plateau itself seemed to be humid and quite chilly. Oncoming timber transporters and burning woods minimized my hopes in still finding some peafowls here. Overexploitation was being done here in great proportions, in order to create coffee plantations. I myself haven’t been drinking any coffee, and now since I have seen this I won’t drink any coffee anymore either. The wood is being sold by the State or the mafia in order to improve their currency. This is more and more visible in the poorer countries of Asia. Many countries like Thailand and Indonesia have quit the deforestation and the poorer countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar sell even more, and therefore the flora and fauna in those areas will not have a chance to survive in the future.

But back to my trip to Attapeu. Meanwhile, naturally I had drawn the attention of some other passengers towards me, being the only white person on the bus. With a little Thai (Thai and Laotian are very similar) and using my hands and feet some conversation was possible. After I asked them if anyone knows or has seen those green peafowls I would always get to hear “ Soop Soop Alleu Alleu”, which means “cut small and roasted they are very delicious”. 10 Years ago the last remaining ones were seen on the plateau, but deep down in the jungle, close to Vietnam and Cambodia there are supposed to be some remaining. For a better understanding, I always carry some photos of what I’m looking for with me. This turned out to be very beneficial. They knew about the green peafowl here just as well as the Rheinartsargus, the Siamese Fireback and the Junglefowl, but, as mentioned before they are all “very very delicious”. From Thateng it went slowly downhill, along the plateau to Attapeu. At least the flanks of the hills were still intact and not deforested yet, such as broad parts of the lowlands which are also scenically very beautiful alongside of a river on the way to Attapeu. Since it was not possible to close any windows on the bus, and some of the bags of cement had holes in them which made them leak cement dust, we all looked like pigs, only our eyes still had a natural color.

On the verge of darkness we arrived in Attapeu. A songtel took me then to a guest house where I spent the night for about 6 €.  You could pay in Kip or Bhat, there was also an ATM, where you could get Laotian kip with your euro card.  Being a vegetarian, I also found a restaurant where I finally found my beloved Khao Pat Thai, which consists of rice, vegetables, and eggs.

After I almost solely got negative information about the green peafowl’s , the positive ones were 130 km away from here and I couldn’t rent a motorbike, so I took the bus the next morning back to Pakxe. This time in an intact bus and without the bags of cement, and the trip went smoothly. The next morning, I made my way down to the Mekong river, to explore the area, or even more, get some more information.

We departed from the southern bus terminal, and a bus took me down to Khong Island, a huge delta with approx. 1000 islands close to the border of Cambodia.  In a small boat we ferried over to the island. A Bavarian family also found their way there. Here I was supposed to find my beloved peafowls, surely Laotian ones, but also here his Indian cousin the blue peafowl had conquered the land and was sitting with some others of his kind in an aviary next to a school. New information which I had found on the internet earlier, that is to say a place in Chamsak, on the other side of the delta, not too far away from Thailand and Cambodia. Tired of all the seesaw, I decided to act like a regular tourist and booked a trip by bus and boat to see the river dolphins on the border to Cambodia at the price of 21 €. The bus and ferry took me to Veun Kham and from there by boat to the dolphins, exactly here, at the border to Cambodia they have a safe home.

On the way we visited some enormous waterfalls and within a three hour boat ride we returned to the point of origin, which is a really stunning landscape, which is also sought after by many young tourists. They bathe together with the pigs and the water buffalos in the Mekong River and live in stilt houses, which were built by the thousands for the increasing tourism. But even here I had my eyes on the fauna and I noticed very much that I didn’t get to see any animals in this river and woodland area. No quadrupeds, only some white –tailed eagles, five Grey Herons and nothing else. Wherever there are people living, really every single animal is being hunted down and eaten. For that purpose it came to my mind what a monk had said to me once: Humans are going to eat anything that has a heartbeat inside. An older inhabitant of the island confirmed to me that there is an appearance of the peafowls close by the border area. It is called the Emerald triangle, or just, triangle. I’m supposed to go back in the direction of Pakxe and at Lak 40 cross the Mekong River. In south Laos there is only one bridge at 200 km, to cross the river and only 2 stations as far as I know.

So I went back, crossed the Mekong at Lak 40 and took a songtel to Champasak, which happens to be the next bigger spot. Unfortunately, here I had to find out that in order to get to the Emerald triangle I had to pass some unhitched paths and that it would be more convenient if I took the ferry at Moen Mun, which meant that I had to go back and from there further to Dong Khanthung. Now this was too much for me and on the same day I made my way back to Pakxe, the largest city in the south. I already knew a decent hotel for the price of 7 € a night. I also rented a motorbike so I would not to be depending on public transportation and to be able to explore the south for the remaining days. For 7 € per day, more than twice as much as what you would pay in Chiang Mai in Thailand. At 6 in the morning I took off to the Phou Xiang national park, I only had some information from the internet on this one too. After 30 km my journey was stopped abruptly, I had a flat tire,  but luckily right in front of the entrance of a motorbike garage. Was he spreading nails on the floor for “new customers”? No,…the inner tube was old and blown and for about 150 € he changed the inner tube including the assembly. These are prices where you really cannot complain.

Over and over again I had to stop my trip and I would ask the people for green peafowls, but even here they were not present in mid May. After 80 km I received a positive response in an abbey. An old monk and a civilian just as old confirmed to me the appearance in the close by jungle and also gave me easy directions. After 1 km I bent off and took a narrow path into the jungle. I had planned to cross the jungle 20 km from here in direction of the Mekong River. Here nature was still in order. Huge trees everywhere, birds chirping everywhere along my way, the path, which would become bumpier and bumpier and therefore also more dangerous. At the thought of the thorn bamboo, which I knew very well from Thailand, I stopped my ride, since there was no other mechanic except for myself, and I was lacking tools. First of all I needed to quench my thirst and catch my breath. Because of the sound of the motor of my Honda I had allured some farmers and within 5 min. 4 of them joined my company. Nice, little, very dark-skinned people. Here I found what I was looking for for so long. There are peafowls, close by and on top of the peafowl hill; as well as elephants, Banteng cows and other inhabitants of the jungle, but you can only get there afoot within 2 days. They offered me to guide me there. I will take that offer in maybe one or two years, now I don’t have the time. I wanted a confirmation of those statements, so I went back to the road and further headed up north. After 4 km I found a little village on the left hand side and just turned off, past the first stilt houses, where it was very deserted, heading towards the jungle. There was a monk lying on a stretcher bed, his head was lying on a nice, soft pillow, surrounded by some of the elders of the village population. At first I thought somebody passed away, that’s how many people were around. A group of 20 to 30 women of all different ages and aside of them about 20 younger and older men were around. Some of them were working on one of the stilt houses which were just being built, and were supposed to serve as accommodation for the monks. They beckoned me over to them and let me know that they are building an abbey here for the monks, and if I could also donate something. I donated 1000 Bhat, which is a lot of money in Laos, with the request to put the peafowls under nature protection, and respect them as creatures since they are under the protection of Buddha in Thailand. The monks’ ears became bigger when they heard the word Buddha. During a more intense conversation on the flora and fauna in south Laos he let me know that the rural population and in particular in the mountainous regions eat everything that has a heartbeat. “They are all hungry” he told me as an excuse. But asking about the peafowl’s, I received a positive response here too. So I headed off up north and the end of the national park I finally found a forestry administration and one of the public servants explained to me how he goes to hunt peafowls. This says everything about how it works in a national park in south Laos. I drove 130 km back to Pakxe. The following day I headed to Attapeu again. Again I took off early in the morning at 5:30, up to Pakxong I went and from there across the plateau. 3 km after Pakxong the built road ended and an unpaved dirt road with red, Asian soil took me high up to the plateau. Oncoming cars forced me over and over again to stop, that’s how dusty it was, nearly impossible to see or breathe. Also here I hardly saw any forest, only coffee plantations and cutover areas alongside the road. Maybe it looks a little better off the tracks, but that’s to see in the future. At the end of the plateau the path goes smoothly across the jungle down to the main road to Attapeu. Here I could see an amazingly beautiful intact nature; I met a family who I would categorize as “hunters and gatherers” who couldn’t remember seeing any green peafowls around here. But I still say some jungle fowls, Galus Spadicesus, and on my way back from Attapeu I had almost knocked over a Siamese Fireback, which after all was a beautiful closure of my introductory trip to south Laos.

With a big sunburn on my arms and on the back of my hands I left Pakxe the next morning, and at the same time was leaving Laos. But I’m coming back with more time on my hands and hopefully also more luck. The total costs of my trip of 8 days were about 170 € from Chiang Mai, roundtrip in which I covered a distance of approx. 3800 km. Adding to that I want to say that Laos is almost twice as expensive as Thailand, and the people here are just as friendly and helpful. The border area to Vietnam should only be treaded all under caution.

During the Vietnam War more bombs were dropped here than during 2nd world war all over Germany. The initiators had forgotten to get them out of the way.

Friedrich Esser

Thanks Selly for translation