Despite most of us being aware enough to acknowledge that all human beings start out with the same potential, almost every single one of those reading this article comes from the planet's privileged one percent that had a massive head start in life through being born into the elite rich of the species, and receiving an education sufficient to give them a foothold in the cyclonic digital New World.
I recently underwent a life-changing experience where my quotients of humility, gratitude and entitlement were recalibrated by spending time in the Hill Tribe villages of Laos, and I'd like to share it.
A world away
It started out as a physical adventure. My friend Geoff Collins asked me if I'd like go on a kayak trip down the Mekong river through Laos, as he wanted to create an adventure tour business with some unique attributes at the same time as getting some money into the hill tribe villages, and this trip was to be the pilot. The adventure turned into something entirely unexpected and was profoundly moving.
Geoff has run big advertising agencies for many decades, with long stints at Wunderman and Young & Rubicam across several South-East Asian countries, and as an adventurous soul, he never failed to take the opportunities presented by his new locations to go exploring, usually by motorcycle, into the remotest areas of Thailand, Laos, China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
On one such trip 15 years ago, he and his brother Martin put their trail bikes on a Mekong "slow boat" with the intention of being dropped into a remote village by water and finding a way to ride out through the mountain paths cut by humans. Geoff's escapades varied from foolhardy to wonderfully adventurous – off-road motorcycles can't easily traverse paths meant for humans and in countries where medical help might be days away, deciding to find a way through mountainous terrain is fraught with peril.
The Captain of that Mekong slow boat had some deliveries to his home village of Ban Hatteu on the way, and asked Geoff and Marty if they would like to stay the night in the village before going on to his destination the next day. The intrepid explorers didn't need to be asked twice, and it was only the following day that they found they were the first outsiders ever to visit the village. The adventure they began that night has lasted 15 years and changed both their lives. Mine too!
Laotian communities treat their visitors extraordinarily well. Geoff and Martin were welcomed to the village in a Baci ceremony like the one pictured above, and the next morning the brothers were so taken with the people and spirit of the self-sufficient community that they sat down with the village elders and asked how they might be able to help.
The resounding response from the elders was that they needed a better school and money to be able to purchase textbooks. The community leadership realized that the welfare of their children was being greatly disadvantaged by the quality of its home-grown education. The picture above is of the primary school at Ban Hatteu when Geoff and Martin first visited and the pic below is of the secondary school at that time.
Ban Hatteu is only accessible by water. There are no roads or cars, and when Geoff and Martin first stayed the night, the village didn't even have electricity. There are still no phones or internet and cell coverage is non-existent. Indeed, you'll still be hard pressed to find the villages we stayed at on any map. Geoff and Martin subsequently found the money to build the school, stock it with official Laos textbooks, new desks and chairs and they subsequently established the Bridging the Gap Mekong Trust. That's Geoff and Marty below, delivering the first set of desks to the new school at Ban Hatteu in 2002.
The trust's prime purpose is to improve the education and employment prospects of underprivileged, isolated village children along the Mekong River between Pak Beng and Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Since then the trust has built five schools in the area, largely due to Geoff's ability to access benevolent companies and individuals wishing to make a difference, and its work continues to this day.
It is one of those rare charities where every cent gets traction on the ground, benefiting the villagers directly. Geoff has often traveled to schools being built to work alongside the villagers in the construction, and the cost of the schools has been kept to a minimum by using the Laos Government's standard school blueprints, buying the raw construction materials, then shipping them to the village and constructing it all using the free labor of the village.
Laos is one of those places that makes you realize how lucky you were to be born somewhere else. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is small, mountainous and landlocked between China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, so it is also the only country in South East Asia without direct access to the sea.
By almost any terms, Laos and its people are impoverished: 70 percent of the population lives on less than US$2 per day, and one in four lives on less than $1 per day.
Malnutrition is the norm in Laos, and the lack of a supporting road infrastructure in the mountainous terrain is partly due to the country's miniscule GDP, significantly exacerbated by the precipitous terrain that makes road access, electricity supply and the building of schools unviable in many communities. Laos' lifeblood is the Mekong River, which runs through its heart. The mighty Mekong is the twelfth longest river in the world and in the absence of access to the sea, it is the country's umbilical chord to the oceans that carry 97 percent of the world's international trade. It's name derives from "Mae Nam Khong" – aptly meaning "mother of water."
The adventure begins
My companions on the pilot journey were Geoff (seated in the below image), then from left to right, Geoff's son Nick (a London-based professional photographer with extensive adventure experience), Charlie Reay-Smith (a British investor), yours truly, and Josh Stache Smyth (a British Event Manager), all inveterate travelers and adventurers. At far right is riverboat captain Wandee, whom we decided to bring with us once we got a good look at the Mekong. At the time we went through, it was running 25 feet (7.6 m) higher than normal, and Wandee's knowledge of the river in all its states – it can rise and fall over 100 ft (30 m) – in avoiding hidden obstacles, and negotiating whirlpools and rapids proved indispensable more than a few times.
I wasn't sure how my 60 year old body would stand up to kayaking a few hundred kilometers along a jungle river, but in the end the physical aspects were inconsequential, and the only discomfort for me was to become the growing disquiet I felt towards the impending plight of the villagers as a clear picture of their circumstances unfolded.
The Mekong River was a place I associated primarily with the news broadcasts covering the Vietnam War during my childhood. I knew it paralleled the famous Ho Chi Minh trail (the jungle supply route for North Vietnamese fighting South Vietnam and it's ally America), and that it has also been the exit route of a substantial proportion of the world's illicit drugs, as it runs through the center of the Golden Triangle.
That was the extent of my knowledge when I landed in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to begin the trip, but as it unfolded, I became increasingly aware of my unfamiliarity of the complexities of the area, the injustice perpetrated in the name of international politics and multinational companies, and the rapid encroachment of "civilization" on a lifestyle that hasn't changed much in tens of thousands of years.
The first part of the journey involved flying to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, then taking the six-hour mini-bus trip to Chiang Khong on the Mekong River at Thailand's northern border, slap bang in the center of the Golden Triangle. We overnighted in Chiang Khong and hit the Mekong riverbank Thai immigration office early to avoid the crowds.
From there it was across the river by Long Tail boat to the Laotian city of Huay Xay on the opposite bank. A visa into Laos costs around $30 and the immigration station is pure chaos, but a few hours later we'd negotiated the disorderly queues and were on a boat (like the one above top right) for the seven-hour journey to Pak Beng.
Laos traces its history to the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants), founded in the 14th century. We only saw one elephant during the entire adventure, which is probably why Elephas maximus is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature endangered species list. Elephants were commonplace not long ago in Bangkok, but are now rare. Sadly, they fare very poorly in traffic accidents.
The day–long trip from Huay Xay to Pak Beng, and then on to the first village stay gave us an opportunity to see the river and surroundings in comfort. The slow boats are very comfortable for the meagre price and as the mountainous jungle crept past on both sides of the river, I had the chance to explore the entire "back story" to the whole Mekong Trust and Mekong Kayaks initiatives.
The "Observer Effect" and cultural insensitivity
One of the many problems faced by those seeking to further scientific knowledge is known as the "Observer Effect," which refers to the changes in behavior a particular phenomenon undergoes because it is being observed. In the real world, the corollary of this "observer effect" can have catastrophic consequences because in promoting tourism to these "time warp" villages, the influx of visitors corrupt the delicate culture irreparably.
Geoff explained that before taking tourists to the hill tribe villages, the trustees spent a long time discussing the wisdom of the exercise. Their final decision to go ahead was based on the specific request from the villages to help them develop an income stream, the fact that the culture is changing rapidly anyway due to the imminent damming of the river, and the availability of itinerant work in the bigger cities such as Luan Prebang and Vientiane, which is seeing people leave the villages for weeks at a time and then returning once they have saved some money. A month or two in a big city factory or building site living in dormitory conditions yields hard currency beyond the normal village barter system – something that's not easily available when there is no other contact with the outside world.
"We decided that the best way to proceed was to assist them with their request to build a tourist industry and to bring some revenue creation schemes to the villages, at the same time as managing that change as sensitively as possible," explained Geoff. "We decided to limit the number of people that we take there on village stays to one night in each village per week."
The "cultural management" doesn't end there, though, and a great deal of effort goes into explaining etiquette to prepare tourists for entering an environment that is steeped in tradition and has not been exposed to the cultural insensitivity of mass tourism.
In honor of our visit to the first village, the villagers and all the school children lined the path down to the Mekong. I'd at first thought it might have been in honor of Geoff, who has given so much to the village, but the same welcome is apparently extended to all visitors at Ban Lad Khommune.
The images of all the secondary school children lining the path at Ban Lad Han was indeed a one-off event, because we were there for the opening of another of the trust's schools.
The welcome was entirely unexpected, with flowers presented to each of us and villagers lining the long path to the village. It was also very moving because they meant it. There was no cheering, just sincere greetings from everyone.
The same scene played out at all three villages, but it was the first welcome and the first night in a hill tribe village that was the most moving. The village orchestra was assembled for one visit, playing traditional instruments and creating sounds that I am sure have been floating through these mountains for millennia.
It wasn't hard to feel myself transported back in time.
Everyone appears to pull their weight, and it seems that when you are strong enough to do a job, age is no barrier. I watched the girl at bottom right in the image below, carrying sacks of sand from the beach about a mile away, directly up a mountain. She was carrying a high percentage of her body weight, with a gentle smile and not a hint of the burden. This "no complaints" attitude is part of the culture in an incredibly hostile and mountainous environment.
All those jungle covered peaks may be picturesque in photos, but once you're actually in the jungle, you realize that those angled backgrounds translate to an almost impenetrable environment of near vertical everything. Going anywhere involves climbing up and climbing down through the jungle. Sometimes, for short periods, the pathway may be remotely level, but the jungle is dense and another leg-burning slope is never far away.
A touch of rain changes the clay environment into a slippery nightmare of lack of traction with a backbreaking fall just a footstep away ... unless you are a local.
One of the most startling things that hit me upon entering the village was how happy and content everyone seemed. From a world of epidemic-ADHD with its people attuned to devices with clock speeds that double every few years, you get the feeling that here everyone knows how things roll, and everyone is very chilled.
A slingshot is a common head-dress in this neck of the woods, and it didn't take long for a demonstration. Growing up in the jungle with a slingshot always at the ready makes for unerring accuracy. Other children are quite safe, because he hits what he aims at, but birds in flight are not.
The carbohydrates in the village diet are supplied by growing rice and other grains and local vegetables. The image above shows where the village crushes it's grain. That's basically a giant hammer operated by leveraging the weight of a human being, then dropped onto the grain. The bottom right image was taken further up river – it's a waterwheel that drives a rudimentary cam (a flat board) that operates a similar grain-crushing device. The protein in the Laotian diet is 90 percent supplied by fishing the river. This is mainly in the form of fish, but prawns and other water creatures I've never seen before can often be found at the bottom of a soup bowl. The village also farms pigs, buffalo and chickens on a very modest free-range scale within the community.
There is no access to the village other than by water. At the time I went there, there were no cars, or roads, just space between the houses for walking. Once you're on the edge of the village, you are in dense jungle. Everything goes straight up or down. Geoff tells me that road access has just been established, so the clock is ticking to see it as it has been for thousands of years.
Electricity has been produced from generators powered by sluice gates in nearby streams since 2008. Prior to that, the only electricity available was from gas-fueled portable generators and they were not in every village because they require money to buy and run, which is a problem when you don't have anything but an internal barter system. Whilst the villages remain entirely-self-sufficient with money playing little role, it's the transition to living in the modern world where money is a conduit for everything that will be problematic.
This is the village school headmaster. We watched as a hunter came into the village with a wild boar he'd shot, and how that boar became meat at the hands of the Principal doubling up as a butcher – from one end of the food chain to the other. People came around, took their share. In a village of a few hundred people, an education stands out.
We saw everything we ate produced from first principles. These are chillies drying, but as the feast was prepared each night, we watched it assembled from various parts of the village.
Food is all around you in the jungle, if you know how to get to it. This instrument, which looked just like a spear, is in fact a device for reaching and extracting the fruit of a very tall tree.
By reaching high into the trees that grow within the village, it extracts a fruit (above top right) and when you break it open, it yields seeds that Charlie was first to try. "Hey, these are exactly like garden peas", he said.
In every respect, we watched every meal assembled from first principles. Each family came with something much earlier in the day.
The village meals were great, though as Geoff repeatedly told me, "eat, just don't ask what it is." That's not to say it's unfit for consumption, because the more you travel, the more you realize that what you eat in some parts of the world is due to what's available. Takatan is common across Southern Asia when you get the munchies, and it's available on any street stall. It's dried grasshoppers (crickets) and if you can untangle your brain's cultural bias and just eat them by the handful, they're equally as morish as a bag of store-bought snacks. In a land where protein is hard to come by, it's standard fare.
This is a still that makes Lao-Lao – Laotian whisky. It produces a bottle every seven minutes and there were multiple stills in every village we went to and they all ran 24/7. Josh had just flown in after managing the catering for Salon Prive at Syon House in London – an exclusive event serving lobster and champagne to the world's most monied automotive enthusiasts, and he delighted in the contrast, regaling us with the history of spirits and explaining how it worked.
Geoff always took a present to the village headman and the most prized present was a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky. The headmen always broke out the Johnny Walker during the get-togethers, and we'd each get the occasional shot of Johnny between shots of Lao-Lao. By comparison, once you'd become annealed to the assault on the senses of the Lao-Lao, the Johnny soon tasted like water. I've had a soft spot for Johnny Red ever since.
This is the village store. There were two bags of crisps in the entire store, mainly due to the lack of currency to transact with the outside world making the purchase price unattainable, and the ready availability of local home-made treats, such as Takatan, dried frogs, fried maggots, ad infinitum. If you're not adventurous in your culinary exploration, be prepared to stay hungry or stay home.
The next nearest store is half a day's travel away.
Kids are the same everywhere, with the only difference I could see being a strong sense of contributing to the community and an iron-clad work ethic. Apart from this toy broom and the soccer balls we took to each village, I saw no toys in the smaller villages.
It's a village with dense jungle on all sides and the ninth biggest river in the world about a kilometer away. No children are lost to the jungle or to the river. Kids get looked after. People take responsibility. There were no disposable diapers, just running water diverted from a nearby stream, and there were none of the store-bought "necessities" of rearing a child. Just lots of love and respect and kindness for all members of the community. It was a privilege to witness that there is, or was, a better way to ensure healthy balanced humans.
Everyone plays their role. Without complaint. There is zero sense of entitlement.
Everyone carries their share. When it comes to hard work, there are no "shirkers" around here.
That's a dugout canoe above, one of many we saw in everyday usage. It was carved from the trunk of a tree – exactly the same methodology in use here for thousands of years.
It soon began to dawn on me that we had been transported back in time technologically. The clothes were largely acquired very cheaply from China and can be very misleading, because when you see a well worn t-shirt you assume modernity. Examine the tools in use though, and you realize that everything else is medieval.
When you say, "I just did a kayak trip down the Mekong," most people think the kayaking was the adventure. It was part of the journey, but inconsequential in the scheme of the entire trip because of the richness of our experience in the village stays. The river flows pretty quickly at different times and you'd be surprised how quickly the miles pass when you have found a sustainable rhythm with your partner.
Everyone enjoyed this bit because you got to feel part of an ancient landscape that has sustained life for millennia.
Between staying in the chilled-out villages and leisurely paddling our way along the "mother of water," you truly wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Without telecommunications, we all felt liberated from the tyranny of having our brains instantly available for a voice discussion about anything, and just lived in the moment – it was a worthwhile experience from that viewpoint alone. Since the pilot, the trust has added the option for participants to travel with the kayaks by a powered boat and enjoy the paddling vicariously. For partners, elderly or those not up to the rigors of 100 miles plus of kayaking, the journey can now be experienced without the kayaking.
The pilot kayak trip we went on has now turned into a commercial product, so readers can now partake in a near identical adventure to the one described above, with new kayaks, a seasoned guide that speaks all the local languages and a logistical infrastructure to make everything happen to plan.
Having all the other bits choreographed for you kind of takes away some of the serendipitous adventure of travel, but it meant we always had rooms waiting in really nice places with awesome views, mosquito nets, electricity and increasingly, internet. There's something reassuring going into a remote town where the scouting has already been done and the best available spot in each location is reserved for you. The cost was minuscule in comparison to capital city accommodation and food prices anywhere else anyway. It was the village stay experience that was at the heart of this whole adventure, though, and to get it authentically, there's no other way.
If you're wondering about where you fit into planet Earth and suspect there's a better way, this trip is highly recommended for recalibrating your entitlement, gratitude and humility.
The story ends here. Treat the remainder of this article is an addendum that I've researched since the trip.
The macro backstory - damming the Mekong
Earlier in this story, I mentioned "the growing disquiet I felt towards the impending plight of the villagers."
My first WTF moment was when I realized they had already begun damming the Mekong in numerous places. Rivers are living organisms: remarkably resilient self-balancing ecosystems. If you mess with one of the primary factors in a big way, though, the laws of unintended consequences come into play and you can unbalance the whole system with catastrophic results.
The Mekong rises from the "Three Rivers Area" of the Tibetan Plateau (along with the Yangtze and Yellow rivers), getting started from the melting ice of the "roof of the world" but gathering volume and power as it collects the waters of a vast area and channels them southwest through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally exits to the sea through Vietnam, running 4,350 km (2,703 mi) in total.
Two-and-a-half million tonnes of inland fish and other aquatic animals are consumed in the lower Mekong per year, making up the vast majority of animal protein for people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin. Any decline in the fishery is likely to significantly impact nutrition, and the following map explains where dams are either built or planned.
There are 11 major hydro-electricity dams planned for the Mekong, with several already completed in China, and many more planned. In all, there are over 100 dams planned, counting those in the Mekong's tributaries. On the surface, hydroelectricity seems like a good idea. It provides clean, sustainable power in a world where our carbon footprint may be the greatest legacy we leave our descendants.
Approximately 60 percent of all the water entering the Mekong River system originates in Laos, with more than half of the electrical power potential in the lower Mekong basin contained within Laos. In a country with almost no alternative income streams for supporting growth, failing to capture that potential seems remiss.
China's current urbanization issues are well documented. In one of the most momentous societal changes in history, its 1.3 billion citizens are rapidly migrating from the countryside to cities – from 75 percent rural in 1982, it's now less than 50 percent rural and will be 75 percent urban within a decade or two.
Currently, the number of people moving to the cities from the countryside in China is in the vicinity of 40,000 people a day. Those people need housing and a functional public transport system … and electricity. Moving people to the city is one of China's solutions for alleviating poverty – the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reports a 5.2-to-1 income ratio for urban residents compared to rural residents, and a 3.13-to-1 ratio for the disposable income of urban residents compared to those in rural areas. China has many challenges given its size and rapidly growing urban infrastructure and it's not surprising that it should be looking at hydro-electricity to power its cities.
China has eight Mekong dam projects in place or under construction in the upper reaches of the river within its borders, which it is quite entitled to do.
Once the Mekong flows into Laos, a further nine dams are currently under construction or proposed, and two more are proposed for Cambodia. Of the construction companies building these dams, four are Chinese, four are Thai, with one each from Vietnam, Russia and Malaysia. All are aimed at supplying electricity to the Thai and Vietnamese markets. The trend towards rapid urbanization is not confined to China, and the need for rapid infrastructure growth to accommodate the peoples of South East Asia in cities is already taxing the power supplies of all countries.
Southeast Asian economies are forecast to grow at an average of nearly 6 percent per year for the next decade and all countries are quickly moving to ensure that their current unreliable electricity infrastructure and the rising cost of energy do not dampen their overall economic growth potential. More affluent South East Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are rapidly adding peak electric generation capacity, but in many countries the existing transmission and distribution grids are insufficient to meet growing demand. Power outages are commonplace across Asia and are likely to increase if new power capacity isn't deployed.
Meanwhile, dependence on foreign sources of fuel introduces price risks to customers, not to mention the governments that subsidize their power. The benefits of urbanization are many. Cities enable the most cost-effective delivery of government services, education and infrastructure and Laos is urbanizing faster than most of its neighbors, and now has 39 percent of its people living in cities, having passed both Myanmar (38%), Thailand (37%) and Vietnam (35%) in recent years.
China passed the 50 percent (urban/rural) mark three years ago, and Indonesia (47%), the Philippines (53%), Japan (67%), Malaysia (75%) and South Korea (84%) are all increasingly becoming urbanized. Cambodia (24%) remains the least urbanized of any South East Asian country.
That the Mekong will be dammed is inevitable – Vietnam and Thailand need more power for the growth of their economies, and hence provide readymade markets for Laos' hydro-electricity that will not be ignored by commercial interests.
On the surface, it makes sense to harness the power of the Mekong to enable economies to grow, but when you see it from a villager perspective, it is a peril they will shortly face, which will possibly involve government-enforced relocation and perhaps a sharp decline in their food supply.
With so many major dam projects announced, the Mekong will be significantly reshaped. The Mekong basin is only surpassed by the Amazon as the richest biodiversity area in the world. It is home to 20,000 plant species, 430 mammals, 1,200 birds, 800 reptiles and amphibians and an estimated 850 freshwater fish species.
The river also sustains more than 65 million of the world's poorest people, who speak an estimated 100 languages and stand ready for exploitation simply because they cannot speak together and in most cases, do not have sufficient understanding of what is proposed to identify the existential threat it poses. Damming a river destroys fish migratory and reproduction patterns. When fish can't replenish, sustainability disappears. And when 60 million people rely on that fish ... there is a growing potential for a humanitarian disaster of biblical proportions.
The macro backstory - Unexploded Ordnance
Laos is one of those places that keeps reminding you how lucky you were to be born somewhere else. Life is hard, work is hard to get and wages are very low, and it's unfortunate location right next door to Vietnam with all that impenetrable jungle was exactly why Ho Chi Minh chose to attack South Vietnam via the jungle cover of Laos, establishing the Ho Chi Minh trail through the region and resulting in the country achieving several unfortunate world records.
Laos has had more bombs dropped on it per head of population than any country in history. Bombs are now part of the landscape in many parts of Laos as these images below from around Laos testify. That's a girl melting down bombs and casting spoons below.
Laos managed to achieve this feat not through being directly in the war, but by unwittingly becoming the unfortunate location of Ho Chi Minh's famous back door to South Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh trail. It's more a spiders web of trails than one trail, but many of those trails were through Laos. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through the mountains to our right as we paddled down the Mekong.
The magnitude of the ordnance dropped on Laos is hard to get your head around – two million tons of high explosive. When North Vietnamese targets were clouded over, American pilots would routinely open their bomb doors on the mountainous "uninhabited" jungles of nearby Laos so they didn't have to land with them again.
Indeed, Laos got more bombs dropped on it during the "war next door" than all the bombs dropped by both sides during WWII.
On average, an American B52 opened its bomb doors over Laos every eight minutes for nine years, costing the American taxpayer $7,000,000,000 in bombs alone. That's not counting the pilots, planes, fuel and infrastructure to drop those bombs.
The legacy of those war years unfortunately did not end for the people of Laos when the shooting and bombing stopped. 20,000 people have died due to unexploded ordnance (UXO) incidents since the war ended 40 years ago, mostly children just like those you see in these pictures. The unexploded bombs have become common construction materials across the country. That's a child's swing below.
The lethal loads of the B52s deposited between 1964 and 1973 included 260 million sub-munitions. Nicknamed "bombies", these are the smaller bombs that emanate from cluster bombs and these sub-munitions had a failure rate of 30 percent under ideal conditions, so there are at least 80 million unexploded sub-munitions out there in the fields and jungles of Laos, waiting to be discovered by an innocent.
UXO LAO does great work attempting to reduce this ongoing carnage, but defusing an unexploded munition is much harder than dropping one, and although 446,711 munitions have been rendered harmless by the organization, that's just 0.55 percent of the problem fixed in more than a decade.
The school bell at the first village we visited was made from an unexploded American bomb dropped on the village four decades ago. The village headman pictured still carries shrapnel in his shoulder.
If you're in the richest one percent of the species, it is a humbling experience to understand how the poorest one percent lives.
Want a cleaner, faster loading and ad free reading experience?
Try New Atlas Plus. Learn more