Magazine article Geographical

Underneath Laos: As Laos Continues to Forge an Identity That Balances Tourism with the Needs of Its People, Ethnographer Jennifer Meszaros Goes Underground to Explore How Sustainability Can Be Ingrained from the Start

Magazine article Geographical

Underneath Laos: As Laos Continues to Forge an Identity That Balances Tourism with the Needs of Its People, Ethnographer Jennifer Meszaros Goes Underground to Explore How Sustainability Can Be Ingrained from the Start

Article excerpt

If it bites you, expect to be dead in an hour!' My guide whispers beside me, his headlamp illuminating the jutted, slimy walls that enclose us. 'But don't worry,' he adds, 'we have a medicine man. We just need to find him.' I am hot, drenched in sweat, lugging camera gear and 12 inches away from one of the most deadly snakes in Laos. I am also ten feet down a boulder choke--a dangerous and difficult-to-navigate, body-crushing passage obstructed with unstable chunks of stones. I am literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

My guide, Mon--a real-life Mowgali who works for the Khammouane Information, Culture and Tourism Authority--gathers up a few stones that lay at his flip-flop clad feet. I am not entirely convinced that throwing rocks at a snake is a good idea given that my husband, Gabry and I are wedged in a four-foot tall, three-foot wide crawl space. I still have to navigate our LED camera light and the tripod, which lies somewhere above.

We elect to go with Plan B--abandon the gear, climb the corner and then throw the rocks. I am ready to break an ankle squeezing through the passage if the snake takes chase. I know there is a subterranean lake at the bottom of this contorted path that I can always throw myself into, but it doesn't come to that. Mon throws the rocks and the snake slithers into retreat. I scramble back up the boulder choke, grab the equipment and pass it off to Gabry. Now there are only scorpions and spiders to contend with, but I am used to those.

We are on day one of a caving expedition in Khammouane province--a biodiversity hotspot in central Laos where caves are a common geological phenomenon. Staring at the scenery, it's not difficult to understand why. The region, like much of Laos, is dominated by large tracts of rugged krast massifs and isolated limestone mountains that are honeycombed with countless caves and rock shelters. Many of these served as homes and hospitals for villagers during the Second Indochina War, and in recent years, a number of these subterranean beauties have been transformed into tourist attractions. At the request of Lao authorities, we are there to assess the tourism potential of a little-known cave called Khoun Keo, just outside Nahin village.

WATER WORLD

Situated in the permo-carboniferous limestone at the base of the Phamarn mountain range, Khoun Keo was the perfect excuse to leave our home in Cambodia and beat the heat of the dry season. One just has to stand atop the boulder choke for cool cave air to kiss the skin. Beyond this, a fair size chamber opens up, revealing a pebbly, sloping floor and a dark, spring-fed pool. We can't calculate the water's depth but we understand its significance. It's one of the reasons why we're here.

Khoun Keo was discovered in September 2012 by a subsistence farmer named Mr Seng. Five years ago, the 56-year-old Laotian moved to Nahin and started cultivating farmland around the Nam Theun River. Like most farmers in Laos, Seng grew rice during the wet season but also used the river to irrigate his fields. All this changed in 2011 when the Nam Thuen 2 Hydropower plant, upstream from Seng, started diverting the river. Thousands, including Seng, were left without access to water.

In Laos, it is common practice to relocate communities impacted by damming activities. As the largest hydroelectric project in the country, Nam Thuen 2 is no exception. The dam has generated a sizable revenue, allowing authorities to resettle more than 6,000 people, build 1,310 new houses and provide electricity, rainwater collection tanks and over 300 water pumps. Moreover, the dam has built or upgraded 270 kilometres of roads, 16 new nurseries, 17 primary schools, two new health centres and an upgrade to the local hospital.

Against this backdrop, Laos wants to build more hydro dams in a bid to fuel the economy and reduce poverty. Not everyone is happy. Seng and his family were resettled to a plot of land next to the Phamarn mountains, but without the river he had to rely on the wet season to grow his crops. …

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