Death in the Forest

One time I was in the far North of Laos, staying in a slightly upmarket hotel by a river. I had been there before and spent long hours with the owner discussing the possibilities that tourism could bring to the area and how it best served the people if they were in control. This was pertinent as around the hotel there was pristine second growth rain forests and the people were trying to maintain their traditions, their semi-nomadic way of life. They were up against against the incursion of Chinese money and corrupt local officials who wanted to build an enormous casino for incoming Chinese tourists. He invited me to come the next day to take photographs of local people who were developing a little tourist project. They wanted to clear footpaths through the forest and construct three small huts on platforms roughly a day’s walk apart from one another to form the basis of a self guided tour. The local people would make a little money by cleaning and renting the simple accommodation, cooking simple meals each evening and providing locally sourced picnics.

We set off at dawn and soon met up with young lads carrying adzes, machetes, knives and hammers. They had chosen and cut down straight poles from specific forests trees and soon were building a hut some ten by ten metres square. I hovered around, out of the way discretely snapping pictures and enjoying the moment. Everyone was happy and seemed fulfilled. These were happy people who enjoyed their lives. Not far away from the building site forest vines had been woven together to form a thirty metre swing big enough for several passengers. They explained this was for young people to get together away from the village. The area had trees and shrubs around and the young people were able to get up to whatever they wished out of sight of their elders. Among the young men was an older man with a mangy black haired dog, several women with babies slung across their backs and a handicapped woman who had mini fits every hour or so. Strangely the villagers ignored her and did not seek to offer comfort.

I spent my time looking for good camera shots and took several that demonstrated the young men climbing poles, strimming wood and building the house. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the old man make a swift move with some tool or other, but took little notice. The dog seemed to have disappeared, but I was busy with my camera and it was only a mangy old dog. Then I saw the old man without the dog and a suspicion arouse. He was walking around holding a metal pot in one hand and stirring some dark liquid with the other. My imagination began to fill in the gaps. Maybe the dog had been sacrificed to give blessings to the newly built hut. Maybe the old man was stirring blood from the dog to hasten coagulation for some reason or other.

Time went by, the young men worked hard and the frame was up by mid day, planks were laid for a floor just above ground level and a first floor was laid half way up the poles. The sun was hot and we were called in to the Head Man’s hut for lunch. Everyone sat around on handwoven mats, a big pot was stirred and metal bowls filled with soup. I had a suspicion we were about to eat the scruffy dog and priding myself on my cultural sensitivity began reasoning with myself that a little dog soup would do no harm. Twenty pairs of eyes looked at me as the wife of the Head Man passed me a bowl. Someone translated:

“You are the oldest so you must have the liver.”

I have always been good at one liners and rapidly managed

“I am a vegetarian.”

And everyone laughed.

That could be the end of the story. But there is a dark twist. The head of the hotel was a kind, generous man with a gentle wife and lovely son. He had been a thorn in the side of the corrupt politicians for many years, skilfully using local and international press to resist the encroachment of mass tourism. Months after the event described above he mysteriously disappeared. Last seen getting into an SUV he is assumed to have been murdered by agents of these local politicians and their Chinese allies.

Copyright ©2020 Roger Jinkinson