Bad road keeps tourists away from Meuangfeuang district

For Visit Laos-China Year 2019, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images promoting the two countries’ collaboration in tourism and hoping to inspire more people, especially from China, to experience the nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, the jewel of the Mekong.

Pha thor nor kham is known for its sacred golden patch.    --Photos Phoonsab

It is almost five years since I last visited the Nam Lik reservoir in Meuangfeuang district of Vientiane province.  At that time it was earning a reputation as one of the country’s most promising tourist hotspots, set to one day be as popular as Vangvieng and some of the other more developed sites found throughout the country. 
One of the first things I noticed on my recent arrival there was that development hasn’t proceeded as quickly or as robustly as one would have expected all those years ago. Indeed, the two restaurants whose food I’d then enjoyed were now closed and there didn’t appear to be any other alternatives.
One of the locals told me there are now fewer foreign tourists visiting the site than in previous times.  When I hear this, the answer is immediately obvious – the dirt road that leads to Meuangfeuang.  It has always been in poor condition and very slow going to drive on.  Currently, work is continuing on this main thoroughfare to the district, which makes travel slower still. 
Despite the restaurant closures, the reservoir itself looked as beautiful and as busy as ever.  Scores of fishing boats dotted the blue expanse of water and I couldn’t wait to join them. I’d purposefully arrived early so I would have time enough to cast my own line into the water and take in the beautiful mountain scenery.
After hiring my own little boat, I made my way out to a spot that looked pleasant enough and was a fair distance from some of the other fishing boats.  As I cast my line in I realised that with these two closed restaurants I’d just discovered a tangible example of a well-known economic fact - bad roads are bad for business.  
‘What a shame’, I thought, but soon it was the beauty of the water and the majesty of the mountains that were capturing my attention. Feeling lucky to be there, it also struck me that if visitor numbers are down, at least there were still enough people to keep boat hire operations viable. 
Even though the roads are improving, the islands and waterfalls at Nam Lik are pristine.  ‘When people know about this place they come back,’ I thought to myself.
While out on the water, I got chatting to the boat driver of another fishing vessel.  She told me that fish stocks are decreasing in the reservoir because so many people are coming to fish here now. ‘Oh’, I thought, looking at my own stagnant line in the water.  ‘Now is not the best time of the year for fishing with a line and hook anyway,’ she said. ‘From September through to November it is better when the water is high and the weather is fine.’
This friendly boat driver then told me she knew that some fishermen routinely use dynamite to illegally catch fish. Dynamite is indiscriminate.  It kills fish of all breeds and ages and it can inflict incredible harm on other species.  ‘This is what is really harming the fish populations,’ she said.
Later, on returning to shore, I spoke to the Deputy Head of the boat association on the Nam Lik 1-2 basin, Mr Phoukhong Oulayvong.  He said that on opening in 2014, 65 boats were licensed to fish with nets on the river. Now, 84 boats are able to fish in the basin.
Mr Phoukhong told me that a local businessman receives a concession from district authorities to collect fish from all of the association’s fishing boats. “He pays 40 million kip a year for that concession.” 
“Other people still come here to buy fish that they then sell on to vendors in other districts.  However, concession holders are obliged to supply fish to two markets in Meuangfeuang district on a daily basis.  They must also supply two markets in Vientiane twice a week,” he added.
Mr Phoukhone said he was aware fish numbers appeared to have reduced.  “At this time of the year a full day’s work might net us about 500kg of fish or so. In August and September that number could go up to 800kg. In years past, 1,000kg per day was the norm at that time of the year.” Fish prices range from 10,000 to 70,000 kip per kilo.
“While there is a lot of commercial fishing taking place on the lake, fishing is also a legitimate activity for tourists, Mr Phoukhone said.  “People come here from other provinces to fish and it is very difficult for the association to monitor and police them.  Some people come and just catch a few fish for their dinner.  Others come and catch fish to sell elsewhere. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  Many people who come are also from ethnic cultures, and probably don’t understand the rules,” he added.  
Mr Phoukhone admitted that a lack of customers and tourists was the reason for the restaurants’ closure, and also acknowledged that the road had deteriorated over the last five years. The road was badly damaged and no repair work had been done for a long, long time.
“If the road is in good condition, I believe tourists will come back. During the rainy season the road is really only passable with certain types of vehicles and it is very narrow in certain places,” Mr Phoukhong said.
When I got back to Vientiane, I spoke to the Head of Meuangfeuang district’s Information, Culture and Tourism office, Mr Khamlek Thipphavong. He told me that the site is attracting a growing number of local visitors, even if foreign numbers are down.  “Don Kang beach on the Nam Lik river was only recently launched as a tourist site with facilities. It was extremely busy with Lao families over the Lao New Year period in April.
Mr Khamlek also thought the poor road quality and ongoing road works deterred people from turning left off Road No. 13 North at Hinheub village. Once the road is resurfaced and asphalted, more tourists will come, he said, but was yet one more person to tell me progress on the road was slow.
Whatever the case, my two hours out fishing on the reservoir were thoroughly enjoyable.  The picturesque quality of the mountain landscape and the dense blue of the water meant waiting for a nibble on the end of my line wasn’t boring in the least.  When my two hours boat hire was up I was sorry, not only because I hadn’t caught a single fish, but because I didn’t have more time to stay and explore some of the hidden gems in the area.
When I saw Mr Khamlek he told me about several waterfalls, caves and temples around Nam Lik that sounded as impressive as any to be found in Laos. Pha thor nor kham is also one of the most wondrous mountains in Laos, known locally for the sacred golden patch high on its side that is no longer visible.  It is considered extremely lucky to see this golden patch.
Mr Khamlek also told me that while those two restaurants on the reservoir had closed, there are still 14 guesthouses and 14 restaurants in the district which provide excellent food and services.
He didn’t need to encourage me.  I’ll be back, even if the road works are still continuing.    Next time, it will be in September when the sun is shining and the river is high and the fish are hopefully biting the ends of fishing lines a little more often than not at all.  In the meantime, I can’t wait.
Meuangfeuang district is about 130km from Vientiane.  It can be reached by car and is about 30km from the turn off on Road No. 13 North.  

By Panyasith Thammavongsa
(Latest Update May 21, 2019)

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