Mekong views: life on the banks

More Mekong River views, this time concentrating on the life of local people along its banks rather than its use as a highway as shown in my previous post. All were taken between Luang Prabang and Chiang Kong.

village on high sandy river bank
A typical small thatch-built village perched high above the end-of-wet-season water level to be above flood level.
vegetable garden on river bank
Silty banks exposed as the waters recede are often cultivated, producing quick-grown crops such as peanuts and corn every dry season.
trimming a log on the sandy beach
Local people trimming a baulk of timber – presumably teak, since the flowering trees in the centre of the photograph are teak.
A closer view of the workers.
A closer view of the workers.
Thick rainforest.
Thick rainforest still covers many of the hillsides. The yellow-flowering tree in the centre is teak, with (I think) wild bananas at lower right.
part-cleared hills by the river
Land partly cleared, perhaps for slash-and-burn agriculture but perhaps by loggers.
new road by the river, with cleared hillsides
This new road allows logging companies as well as farmers full, easy access to the rainforest.
tree towering over thatch house
Some of the forest giants are left standing. Compare the height of this tree to the house beneath it.
village and boats
Another river-side village, rather more modern than the first on this page, with boats moored on the bank below.

Mekong views: boats and the river

The onset of our Wet season, bringing us the monsoon skies I posted here a week ago and reminding me of similar skies in Laos at the end of their Wet, brought back memories of my visit (outlined here) to that country six months ago. This post presents photographs of the Mekong, which dominates Lao geography and landscape, and the boats which serve its travellers. My next will do the same for life along its banks.

storm clouds backlit by the sun
A dramatic skyscape over the Mekong at Vientiane
Mists, river, mountains
Early morning mists on the Mekong near Luang Prabang. The boat in the distance is very similar to the one I travelled on.
Mekong ferryboat
A closer view of the same type of boat

These boats are all built to very much the same size and proportions: very long for their width, perhaps 30m long but only 3 or 4m wide, with a small wheelhouse in the bow separated from a substantial deckhouse at the stern by a roofed section which takes passengers and cargo equally easily. The rear section houses the engine (below deck level), stores and living quarters for the crew.

riverboat wheelhouse
The wheelhouse of our boat, with the captain’s wife keeping him company for a while.
riverboat open cabin
Looking back from the wheelhouse to the open cabin.

Our seating was spacious and luxurious by local standards. Locals making routine journeys between villages would get plastic chairs like the one the captain’s wife is using in the previous photo. There might be 50 or more instead of our 20, and assorted produce and livestock instead of our backpacks. The captain’s wife produced lunch for us each day, and it was better than many restaurant meals I’ve had. Their teenage son helped out.

moored riverboats
More of the same kind of boat, moored to the bank near a village.
Longtail speedboat
Travellers in a hurry could go by speedboat. They are ‘longtail’ boats – the propellor shaft extends about half a boat-length behind the stern.
longtail speedboat and log
Another speedboat. Note the floating log in the foreground.

The speedboats are very fast, very noisy, and so dangerous that passengers are advised to wear crash helmets. Not many do, although a collision with a log like the one in the foreground of my second shot, or a barely-covered rock, would be disastrous.

Mekong freighter
Bulk carrier, Mekong style.
small canoe with passengers and cargo
Smaller boats, down to one-person width, are still very long and narrow. This one is near the end of our Mekong journey at Chiang Kong on the Thai shore.
River view
Looking back downstream from Chiang Kong towards Pakbeng (one day away), Luang Prabang (another day) and distant Vientiane.

Elephant-poo paper

While I was in Laos last year I took a day trip from Luang Prabang to a nearby village where the locals were making paper. Their raw material was somewhat unusual: elephant poo.

Paper-making always begins with fibres which are stirred up in a slurry, spread out in a thin layer and dried. That’s about all there is to it, in fact, apart from controlling colour, thickness and surface finish. Vegetable fibre has been used ever since papermaking was invented in ancient China (details from Wikipedia. Papyrus, by the way, is not quite paper because it does not pass through the slurry stage – Wikipedia explains that here).

The first major step in the process is separating the cellulose fibres, which are all that is needed, from the rest of the plant. Industrial paper production does it via expensive mechanical or chemical pulping, but guess what herbivores can’t digest? Cellulose. That realisation led to a whole new way of looking at elephant poo and turned it from a problem into a resource.

When I visited the village I saw the latter stages of production, with cleaned fibres floating in tubs of water being ladled out onto silk-screen frames, put out to dry in the sun, and turned into finished products: tissue paper, cards and envelopes, sketch-books and so on.

paper maker washing a fabric screen
Preparing the screen
Screens of new paper drying against a fence
Paper drying on the screen. Flowers and leaves are floated onto the slurry for decorative effects

Other small businesses in the village included silk weavers and wood carvers.

Silk weavers working on hand looms
Silk weavers at work in the village

More: A magazine article (formatting is wonky but content is good), probably about this project which was not the village I visited but is nearby. Also, on Treehugger, a Sri Lankan project written up nicely and with useful further links.

Serpent lore

Serpent on staircase
Nage at the Golden Stupa, Vientiane, Laos

When I went to Laos and Thailand I didn’t see many animals at all except domestic livestock, insects, whatever showed up on restaurant tables (which did include insects, but that’s another story) and the inhabitants of a zoo and a bear sanctuary. However, I have some mythical monsters to share with you.

Temples are decorated with sculpted, painted or stencilled guardians which typically protect the most vulnerable points of a building, the entrances, windows and roofs. The most common is the serpent – naga – an inhabitant of waters and the underworld, which often appears on balustrades of staircases.

multiple naga
Naga, Luang Prabang, Laos

Sometimes it will have a single body and multiple heads, sometimes multiple bodies. It is usually as long as the staircase so the pair below, guarding a hilltop temple, are a good 50 metres long. And we reckon a 5m python is big!

Serpents on brick staircase
Nagas on staircase, Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The mom is a heavily built aquatic reptile which also guards staircases. I don’t know what it’s earthly antecedents are but I don’t think I would like to encounter one in the wild.

plump golden crocodilian monster
Staircase mom at a small Chiang Mai temple

The makara is another crocodilian creature. It usually appears with a naga emerging from its open jaws, although the example I came across in a small local temple in Chiang Mai shows two makara and a creature with a horse-like head.

crocodilian monsters
Makara at the same temple as the mom above

Insect photos and some landscapes from my recent Laos trip are already on Green Path and my Flickr photostream. The easiest way to find them is to type ‘Laos’ in the search box at upper right.

Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, Laos

close-up of Asiatic bear
Not quite awake?

While on holidays I was lucky enough to visit a bear sanctuary near Luang Prabang. I vaguely thought that the bears there would be quite small but I was wrong: adult males average 115kg and most of the animals on the centre were bigger and heavier than most people. The photos here are mine but the following description of their history and work comes from their website

Wild bear populations across the globe are threatened with extinction, with Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable.

bear on platform
Lounging on a platform above his sturdy hammock

Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre was established by Free The Bears Fund Inc. in 2003 after local authorities confiscated three bear cubs and asked for assistance to help look after them. The rescue centre has continued to care for these bears and also accepted further bears that have been confiscated by the Lao authorities. All of the bears at the centre are Asiatic Black Bears (Moon Bears) that were illegally captured from the wild as young cubs. It is likely that they were destined for use in the traditional medicine trade.

The Centre is situated within the beautiful Tat Kuang Si Park, a Provincial Protected Area [i.e. a National Park in Australian terms] approximately 30 Km from the UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Luang Prabang.

Placid pools at the foot of Kuang Si waterfall

We are fortunate to be just minutes from one of Laos’ most famous waterfalls – a location which has helped us to become an extremely popular destination with both locals and international tourists. Visitors to the rescue centre are able to enjoy seeing one of Laos’ most endangered species and also learn about the threats to bears and how they can help to protect Laos’ precious wildlife. A program of extensions started in 2008, building viewing platforms for visitors and larger enclosures for the bears, and allowing the fund to provide care for further confiscated bears.

The centre is run by a dedicated team of staff who care for the bears on a daily basis. Our bears enjoy large forested enclosures, cool fresh water streams and pools (fed by the nearby waterfall) and, of course, lots of play and enrichment items to keep them fully occupied.

This post appeared almost simultaneously in Waves, the newsletter of Reef HQ Aquarium Volunteers Association. It is true that bears and aquariums don’t have a lot in common but there are still two strong connections: wildlife conservation, and the efforts of dedicated volunteers to address needs they perceive.

Sometimes it seems that a person is attracted to a particular project almost by accident – “my friend told me about it” or “I happened to see” – but voluntary work, from Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums to the teenager helping out at an animal refuge, makes a profound difference to our world.