Chiang Mai Thailand, Nov. 18, 2010 — Sometimes things work, and other times even the best-laid plans go awry. We just got back from a failed venture into the remote corners of the Lao province of Bourikhamsay, along the border with Vietnam. In fact we had to cut short our trip, after spending far too much money shepherding an ill-prepared and disinterested team into the forest to get core samples from a few heavily disturbed Fokienia trees. We just weren’t able to convey our objectives properly at the outset, and we went into the forest with a troop of 7 government office workers who had no discernible interest, nor expertise, in anything related to our work. And more to the point, they failed to see the value of what we are doing and that is where I have failed, in making it clear why this work is relevant to them. We lacked control from the outset, costs were added at every turn, we were paying for a “phantom” participant that we only found out about on the last night, and the two four wheel drive vehicles we hired were completely unnecessary for the well maintained roads we followed. Only the last 2 km of the trip were on even slightly rutted roads, and the drivers nearly refused to proceed. I had to shame them into driving this last little bit, and after two days of agonizing delays it felt like an odd victory of sorts in an otherwise losing endeavor.
Things are never entirely negative, however, and on the plus side we got some really great exercise climbing up one of the steepest mountain trails I have ever been on, and the scenery was spectacular. The four of us, myself, Kevin, Andrew and Nam carried all of our field gear up the relentless slope, and my quadriceps hurt for the better part of 4 days after the descent. But it felt great to be out walking in the mountains, and to camp in the highlands on a crisp, star-filled night. As is typical for this region we exercised maximum impact camping, with at least 4 campfires blazing around us, some entirely unattended, and a pile of our garbage left in the forest that Andrew cleaned up and carried out. The Lao decided to forego sleeping bags, blankets or other camping gear, instead electing to sew together rice bags to make crude tube tents. Consequently they were so cold in the night that they wanted to depart as soon as first light, and one can hardly blame them. But after all we had invested in getting this far, we felt the need to at least attempt to core some trees for our work, so we had a bit of a standoff until we forced them to stay to help us work for the day. But it was a half-hearted effort we received, and we essentially wasted the day in the highly degraded forest.
We split into two groups with Mr. Nam and Kevin taking one team, and Andrew and I taking the other. After a difficult march through the jungle on treacherous footing across large sandstone blocks, and finding nothing but highly disturbed forest, we pulled the plug and decided to cut our losses. We had spent about 6 hours in the forest and cored only about 16 trees, most of which were young and very disturbed. There were cattle and buffalo all over this high plateau, and Hmong tribesmen hunting and foraging. It was clearly not an ideal site for our work, and we were faced with the prospect of having worked this hard and spent so dearly for essentially nothing. It was not a happy moment for us.
On the other hand, the moment we declared that we were heading back to town, the Lao were gone like they were shot from a cannon. While they were lethargic on the way up and in the forest, they just about ran back to the cars, clearly elated at the news of a night in the nearby town. However, after we met up at the trailhead we decided to drive all the way back to Vientiane that night, just to avoid having to spend one more night on this disastrous trip. We reached Vientiane at midnight, and since we hadn’t made reservations for a hotel, we drove around town for nearly an hour before we found a place to stay. We woke up the next morning and limped to the Thai and Vietnam Airlines offices to change our tickets, and we left 3 days earlier than we had planned, discouraged and defeated.
It seems that Laos is a country we may not be able to consistently work in, and that is a shame for many reasons. For one, I can actually speak enough of the language to get by. On this trip, however, we relied most heavily on the translation from English to Vietnamese to Lao back to Vietnamese and then English, owing to Mr. Nam and one of the Lao who had lived in Vietnam for several years. If it weren’t for this linkage, and Mr. Nam’s natural skill as a leader of men, we would have fared far worse on this trip. Second, there are reportedly still some old-growthFokienia trees growing in the mountains of Laos. And third, the tree sites we are targeting in this country are actually within the drainage of the Greater Mekong Basin and are therefore directly relevant to our desire to reconstruct stream flow for this important river. I am not entirely defeated, and I do hope I can someday get it right in Laos, but for now things are not looking too promising.
This was our sixth attempt to work in Lao PDR, and save for the 2006 trip to Phu Khao Kouay we have never fared particularly well. Being an eternal optimist, however, I still hold out hope that someday we will find the right colleagues with an interest in our work, who see the benefit in conducting primary research in their country, and having some of their fellow countrymen receive academic training in a novel field of relevant study. This is still a very poor country, and the things we see value in are often of no use in such a place. If it doesn’t put rice on the table it isn’t of much use to them. There are many things I love about Laos. The local people have always been friendly and helpful. The children are beautiful and flash those wonderful, sincere smiles at the sight of us, often carrying handfuls of sticky rice on their way to school. The hilltribes have a certain authentic quality about them that lends the exotic feel to travel here. I love the food and the culture, and the scenery is among the finest in Southeast Asia. But it is a maddening place to try to conduct our research, and I truly hope this changes in the future.
*Karst is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite.