Musings on Development in Northern Laos

Deforestation in Laos

This kind of ugly scar on the landscape is now a common sight in Luang Nam Tha province, northern Laos… where did the trees end up?

Development is a double-edged sword, as we all know – naturally the local people of any developing place wish to (and surely deserve to) benefit from the same modcons as all of us, yet the very lack of them can be one of the things that charms visitors so. If you’re sick to the teeth of social media, the always being connected, the keeping up with the Joneses, the rat race, then how lovely it is to stay in a quiet mountain or river or beach town somewhere in rural Asia where all those things feel miles away and you can really unwind.

Returning to such a place after an absence of years, many travellers feel a sense of disappointment, a sense that something has been lost – that the modern world has encroached on the idyll of their memory and it just isn’t the same anymore.

And in a way, it isn’t. But nor does it have to be. Of course the people there don’t usually want to (and certainly don’t have to) live frozen in time, or decades behind the world at large, just so that visitors can go there to escape the world at large. Any given town or country exists first and foremost for the people living in it, not for the satisfaction of those who visit. So I, for one, do not lament the development of developing places, and nor do I buy the argument sometimes made that it’s some sort of specifically western affliction.

On the other hand of course, development often brings with it serious environmental and social issues – so while I don’t lament development per se, poorly managed development usually does lead to some lamentable results.

Of all the countries I’ve visited, the one which really springs to mind when discussing this is Laos, and most especially the towns of Luang Nam Tha and Vang Vieng.

Beautiful scenery in Luang Nam Tha

Beautiful Luang Nam Tha

Luang Nam Tha is the far northern province of Laos, wedged between Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province and southern China’s Yunnan province, the bridge between two much larger (in China’s case, giant) populations and economies. Overlanding between China and Southeast Asia, Luang Nam Tha is one of the main routes and I’ve been there several times.

The first time was in 2008 when I travelled through northern Laos from Thailand to Vietnam (including this ridiculous journey), opting for a couple of days checking out Luang Nam Tha rather than the tedious-sounding slow boat or sketchy-sounding fast boat to Luang Prabang. It’s a gorgeous little corner of the earth, with a great diversity of people – when we were cycling along one of the country roads (en route to a nice waterfall), a young Hmong chap on his motorbike stopped and flagged us down just to have a chat. The people were warm and friendly, the food good, and Luang Nam Tha won me over with its rustic charm.

(To anyone debating how to get from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang – slow boat or fast boat or night bus – I say none of the above. Go via Luang Nam Tha!)

Luang Nam Tha

Rice cultivation in Luang Nam Tha

The road to the province’s main town (also named Luang Nam Tha) from the Thai and Chinese borders had at that time just recently been built, by the Chinese, to link Yunnan and Chiang Rai directly with a good road for easy transfer of goods. The 4th Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge wasn’t there yet though, so we had to spend a night at the Thai border town of Chiang Khong (where I had a face off with some sketchy dogs) and then cross the river in the morning on canoes. The bridge finally opened in 2015, enabling same day travel all the way between Jinghong (in the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan) and Chiang Rai (or even Chiang Mai).

This high quality Chinese-built road (and the bridge built in partnership with Thailand) are in great contrast to the absolutely dreadful road from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang (which I’ve suffered twice), and are good examples of the benefits of development.

Bus being towed over a mudslide

Slipping around in the mud en route from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang

However, they are also illustrative of some of the pitfalls; while the road is great for travel, travelling along it you can make out huge swathes of recently deforested hillsides (see photo at top) – China gave Laos a road, and in return is taking her trees. Visiting Luang Nam Tha in 2012 the deforestation already seemed noticeably worse than only 4 years previously, and then worse again in 2015. With money to be made and unaccountable governments in both countries, I doubt this will be stopping any time soon.

Stranded bus, Luang Nam Tha

The awful road between Luang Nam Tha and Luang Prabang

Something that will (probably) be happening soon(ish) is a Chinese bullet train to Vientiane, from Kunming (capital of Yunnan province) via Luang Nam Tha, Luang Prabang, and Vang Vieng. Having done the brutal road from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang twice, I can safely say I would’ve happily paid the extra to do it by bullet train instead – a comfortable 3-hour train ride instead of a pain in the ass 10-hour bus ride for a few extra dollars is a no-brainer. But for many (or most) locals whose regions the train will pass through, even if it stops anywhere near their village those extra dollars price them out of using it and so it seems that the bullet train will be great for international tourists, Chinese business and leisure visitors, and the bigwigs in Vientiane, but without benefiting the local populations; another double-edged sword.

Also on that second visit in 2012, Luang Nam Tha town felt like a choking building site, with Chinese signage having sprung up all over the place. I asked some of the guesthouse and restaurant owners who I’d met before in 2008 about all the construction, and they complained that it was Chinese hotels and restaurants being built and staffed by Chinese companies to cater to Chinese tourists and business people – in other words, they felt they were seeing little of the benefits arising from all this Chinese commercial activity in their area, with all the profits on the Lao side winding up with the fat cats down in Vientiane. Development – but for the benefit of whom?

The limestone karst of Vang Vieng

The stunning karst scenery of Vang Vieng

As for Vang Vieng, that small town became a microcosm of all the negative effects an influx of (relatively) wealthy (mostly) western backpackers can have on a small town in a developing country. The area’s stunning natural beauty was what drew the first visitors, who took to floating down the river on inner tubes, perhaps with a nice cold beer. This quickly evolved into a dedicated binge drinking activity, the river lined with bars, rope swings, and ‘death slides’, the town defacing itself with ugly and shoddily constructed budget hotels and ‘Friends bars’ for hungover tubing zombies to waste away the lazy days when they weren’t shitfaced on the river; it became a town to visit for this specific purpose, one of the main party destinations on the Banana Pancake Trail, a tiny town with massive quantities of beer and laolao liquor consumed on a daily basis – and with backpackers dying on a regular basis. The uncontrolled development of tourism in Vang Vieng and the complete lack of oversight of what went on on the river was having tragic consequences, yet the town had become dependant on the backpacker dollar.

I visited Vang Vieng in 2008 and 2012, the second visit happening to be shortly after the government finally acted (responding to pressure from other governments) to get the tubing under control. First time around I went tubing and got hammered like everyone else and almost broke myself in the river (I got lucky), but the second time the party was over and I found a town uncertain and anxious about its future.

Since then, the Chinese presence in Laos has extended down from Luang Nam Tha to Vang Vieng, which now finds itself catering more to moneyed Chinese families and less to hedonist budget travellers – tubing still happens but is no longer the notorious activity of old (with most of the bars and all the death slides now gone), and the town is starting to market itself more as an adventure tourism and family destination rather than a backpacker party hub (and is finally losing those god-awful Friends bars). On the other hand, Vang Vieng, this small town in the most beautiful of surroundings, continues to rampantly build hideous hotels in pursuit of the tourist dollar, and is never again going to be the sleepy little riverside town it once was.

The people of Vang Vieng surely deserve their chance to develop and to profit from the tourist crowd their beautiful slice of Earth pulls in, but it’s a tricky balancing act. My guess is that the town itself will sadly lose whatever charm it once had (or, rather, fail to regain it) and become (if it hasn’t already) a rather commercial destination and a rather ugly eyesore; but it will also become rightly famous for the magnificence of its surroundings and the opportunities it offers to get out and enjoy them, rather than being famous for drunken backpackers killing themselves in the river.

It’s a familiar story, really; development should not be denied to places like Luang Nam Tha and Vang Vieng, but it’s also awful to see when things go too far too fast without sufficient oversight, or when the development fails to benefit the people who actually live there.

So what should you do, as a visitor to Laos? To that I would say: go there, enjoy these beautiful places, don’t be an asshole about it, do spend your money on well-run local businesses, and don’t feel overly guilty about the negative aspects you see; remember that rampant development would likely always have come, one way or another, and corruption with it, and that even if the Banana Pancake Trail had never arrived these towns would always have eventually had a lopsided tourism and development boom due to Laos’ position to the immediate south of China and the way its population and economy are so dwarfed by its giant neighbour. So instead of feeling guilty, check out which local businesses you think deserve your support and spend your money accordingly.

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

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