The Water of Life: Pt 1

A spirit totem protects the rice fields from malevolent spirits

Early this morning I was awoken by a knocking sound. It was still dark, and unusually for a residential street in Laos, quiet. As my mind groggily tried to think what the noise could be there was an enormous crack of thunder outside and the window rattled as gusts of wind from the leading edge of the storm hit the house. Ah, just another storm I thought to myself and tried to get back to sleep. For the third day in a row, Luang Prabang would wake up to heavy rain and overflowing drains.

Life in Laos revolves around water. In the dry season there is not enough and only farmers lucky enough to have irrigated fields can grow crops. The hot skies are thick with smoke as the remainder burn their fields in preparation for the impending rains. In the wet season, the country struggles to cope with too much water. Overflowing dams, landslides and major floodings are a regular occurrence. Farmers on lowland fields have to judge the best time for planting. Too early, and they risk losing the crop to another flooding. Too late and the crops might not get enough water as the wet season dries up. A month ago, on a hike to Tad Sae Waterfall (read about our first visit here), the difficulties in coping with so much water in so short a time were apparent.

What used to be green fields with crops and goats is now a barren wasteland. The villagers, on the surface at least, seem to be unperturbed. Less than a week after the flood a few industrious souls had already re-fenced their fields and sowed more crops. We continued down to the riverbank and boarded our boat (thank you Noy’s brother!) that would take us upriver.

After a short time motoring up river we pulled into a muddy landing. Around us, a small herd of elephants were grazing on what plant life had survived the flooding. On a small boat, anchored just offshore, the mahouts were playing some sort of card game and drinking beer lao, no work for the elephants today!

We set off along a muddy trail and into the trees. A few minutes later, hanging from a tree were the mahout trade tools: chains and spikes. It turns out that elephants don’t really want to spend their days hauling logs and large falung around!

The path began to steepen and after 30 minutes or so the trees opened up to reveal rice, jobs tears and maize crops on either side. The, fields being flat and irrigated would belong to the wealthier villagers.

The narrow path was well-worn. All these fields were planted, maintained and harvested by farmers on foot and the occasional scooter. A small river, which was running high due to the recent rain was only passable by a narrow bamboo bridge. I wondered how far a farmer would have to walk if (when?) the bridge gets washed away.

Do any scooters cross here?

After a few more fields the terrain started to undulate and the rice and maize changed to plantation rubber. Our narrow path was now a dirt road and we wandered into a small, obviously poor village, checking out the local school.

The village was hard done by, less than 30km away you can spend $40 on an Australian steak or buy your choice of European wines and cheeses. Yet, here the local school only just got a toilet and children walked the dusty streets with distended bellies. As we continued back along the road, well tended rubber plantations stretching off on either side, I asked Noy why this village was so poor when it was surrounded by productive land. He told me that years ago the village sold their farmland to a group of Hmong people (financed by the Hmong diaspora in the United States) who developed the plantations.

We continued hiking and the day got even hotter, occasionally I could hear the distant roar of the waterfall taunting me. Before we could get there though we needed to choose the right turn-off on a fork in the road. We chose poorly, and after a small detour and improved directions from a group of rubber farmers we made it to a steep path that led down under the jungle and towards Tad Sae Waterfall.

With so much rain, the clear blue pools we had swum in a few weeks earlier had become a boiling mass of white-water. Undeterred, we continued downstream until the current slowed down in a wide pool. Here, if you kept your wits about you, it was possible to carefully swim in the chest deep water without being washed downstream.

After an excellent lunch it was time to head back downriver. In a few weeks the rains will stop and in a few months, as the last crops are harvested the idea of so much water will seem hard to believe. In Pt 2, find out how much science happens when your laboratory has no running water!



2 thoughts on “The Water of Life: Pt 1

  1. Hi Damo,

    Thanks for sharing the story of your journey. Water is everything. Out of curiosity, have you noted how the locals get their drinking water in the dry season? I wonder if the people in that village knew what they were doing when they sold their land? Does the silt in the floods bring fertility to those paddocks? Mate, it has been flooding down here, I’ll tell ya! Far out! The photos are awesome.




  2. Thank you for the photo comments. I would be amiss not to mention that Rachel did take some of them. No doubt I took the best ones though…

    Drinking water is an interesting topic here. All over town and on the rural roads you will see little 2 tonne trucks driving around, the tray overflowing with 20L plastic drinking bottles (the sort you use on office water fountains). It is quite the business filtering and delivering drinking water for the entire population. So, AFAIK, neither foreigners or locals trust the water from a tap.

    On the other hand, the locals, on average do not seem to drink very much water. This could explain why they don’t sweat very much, and also why some of them always have headaches!

    The annual flooding is essential for a lot of agriculture. Almost every piece of river bank gets planted once the flood waters recede. And then, higher up, you have market gardens planted in silty/sandy ground which gets flooded every now and then. I have not yet determined how common fertiliser is in this country.


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