There’s no getting away from it, if you want to do a quick highlights trip this isn’t the part of Laos to explore. Invest time and you will be thoroughly rewarded, for the journey is part of the experience and must be appreciated.
It also provides a rough insight into the nature of development in Laos. This is by no means a wealthy country, as any visitor would swiftly appreciate. It’s also one with few natural resources and this creates it’s own problems as the country strives to grow.
There is plenty of history en route for certain, the striking ruins of centuries old stupas may not rival Bagan for number, but they are no less fascinating and in some ways perhaps more so for being allowed to decay more naturally.
Some of the other sights are less welcome. The most obvious primary commodity is wood, and the heavily forested nature of the surrounds is evident with even a cursory glance. Unfortunately the scarring and gaps in the treeline is equally clear, as is the evidence of landslides where the deforestation has removed the binding of the soils. Such logging is illegal and has been for some time, but tacit approval from the authorities meant that it carried on undisturbed, damaging the ecosystem and leaving ugly gaps behind.
More recently efforts to curb this have begun, and the rate of clearance has slowed but not stopped. More sustainable practices have begun to be put in place, though it is too late to disguise the damage done. Laos is hardly unique in this regard, indeed my own island was once almost entirely forested before my ancestors cleared almost all of it – the much vaunted English landscape is manicured and man-made, it is by no means natural.
That is why the worst approach is an external lecture on the rights and wrongs. Although many a visitor wishes to see traditional life in a destination, that does not mean progress can be denied, for a refusal to accept that condemns an entire people to permanent poverty.
And so while deforestation is a major issue, it is not one to lecture about, assistance is more useful, and from a consumer perspective, to buy sustainable wood products.
Similar issues surround the hydroelectric programme throughout the country. Damming rivers unquestionably changes the environment and some species are directly in peril as a result. But Laos gains much needed hard currency through the export of electricity, in particular to Thailand. National income is as essential here as it is anywhere else.
The worst kind of tourist is the one who wishes to preserve traditions in aspic, for the working life of people is through necessity. Humans do aspire and the reality is that backbreaking labour is not the choice of anyone. This does not mean that everything and anything is acceptable of course, but it does mean that opposing the freedom to be able to for example also afford the smartphone the tourist takes for granted is arrogant and immoral.