Mr. Sompat had loaded the truck the night before--500 kilos of coffee beans, about the same of rosewood roof planks, and a spare engine. Despite this, our early morning departure was delayed until well past noon due to engine trouble.
Vientiane is unrecognizable to me these days, despite that being the sentiment people my age express everywhere, it seems. Anyone who spent time in India in the 80s knows what I mean. And not just India, most Asian countries, the former East Bloc, the old chunks of Soviet Socialist Republics (the --istans,) The Gulf, although not many of us were traipsing around Al Jazeera back then.
I first came to Laos, officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, in 1994. I had tried to come in 1986, with Jonathan. We had, inspired by a hitchhiking trip up the Rio San Pedro from Guatemala's El Petén, to Mexico's Tabasco, decided to build a raft at the source of the Mekong, and float slowly down to the Delta in South Vietnam. Too bad for us in 1986, none of the countries were open. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.....we were refused visas at every embassy in Paris. So we bought aerial survey maps instead, plastering the entire Mekong river on the wall of our little apartment. Many elevations were not marked, and large parts of the map, mostly in Laos, were just gray. The legend read “unknown”. We tried to imagine what the Northern Lao rivers were like, Nam Ou.
In 1994 I found myself in circumstances where a one-way ticket to Indochina seemed just what I needed. My father and grandmother had died, my mother sold the house, and I found myself waving goodbye to her at the Singapore airport as she boarded a flight back to Los Angeles. A week later I was in Phnom Phen. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had just opened for tourism. The Khmer Rouge were still on the offensive near Siem Reap, Vietnam was difficult in the extreme, with the government loudspeakers constantly exhorting people to take advantage of all foreigners, and Laos was just Laos--remote, landlocked and mostly closed. Permits were required for land travel, the Vientiane-Vang Vieng road was closed due to banditry, the Phonsavan road was legendary for its towers of mud--Mr. Sompat had once taken 10 days to make a 120 kilometre journey by jeep through this mud--and on and on. Phongsali was not linked to any other place in Laos, only to China, and without a landing strip. Journeys were made by slow, smoke belching river boats, days at a time spent sitting and sleeping on planks, and passengers might have a pair of antlers as their only luggage. Un-exploded ordnance (uxo) was everywhere; Laos was the most bombed country in the world thanks to the Americans. During the war with Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, any bombs not used on Vietnam were jettisoned over Laos as the jets returned to their bases in Thailand. Luang Prabang was a golden sparkle on its little island in the river, surrounded by forest and water. There were three or four guest houses. Two and a half days downriver, Vientiane, the capital, seemed nearly empty, with little traffic, a sporadically attended market, and never more than perhaps 10 people in sight. There was very little tourist infrastructure: a couple of guesthouses, a hotel, a restaurant or two, a place to rent motorbikes, some small teahouses on the riverbank. Like the other two countries, it was rough traveling but I fell in love with Laos at once.
I went back to Laos in 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009 and each time found enormous changes. Laos’ tourism industry exploded and it became a haven for backpackers and a party place quite at odds with the previously permit-ridden, socialist and conservative society. This has now been somewhat rescinded; too many young westerners died of alcohol related stupidity, and measures were taken to stop the most extreme expressions of this.
Since 2009, though, Laos underwent a huge change, building up a tourist infrastructure with 4G service throughout the country, internet, a remake of all basic services, and top notch boutique hotels. It was at one of these boutique hotels that Mr. Sompat picked me up that morning: my exquisite little teakwood hotel, among fat frangipani trees, and bubbles of hibiscus.
We rattled off, our truck over-laden and low, piled high with planks of rosewood, sacks of coffee, luggage and the like. We were off to visit some of Laos’ agarwood, and what might remain of the forest.
Our first stop was Paxan, where his associate, Mr. K. lives. The road to Paxan is lined with agarwood plantations, now nearly worthless. The trees are denuded by caterpillars, foliage is meagre, and while still bravely facing the sun, the trees look exhausted. These caterpillars have become a problem in the past couple of years, as more and more agarwood plantations have sprung up. The plentiful agarwood leaves breed plenty of caterpillars. Agarwood was declared an endangered species in 2004, I think, and now requires a CITES permit to import or export the wood or essential oil. It shouldn’t have been and the real truth lay more in a market manipulation than any threat to agarwood continuing its existence. Along with rubber and teak, it’s one of the most planted trees in Asia. Agarwood usually comes from the Aquilaria genus and is hardy and fast-growing. It’s low maintenance too. Trees require an infection to their heartwood to produce the resin they are known for, and which was the impetus for the movement to “protect” them. Such a move will have almost no opposition because it’s no fun to be on the other side of an endangered species controversy and I have been on the other side of this one since I first learned about it 2003.
Despite this brilliant marketing coup d’etat, agarwood is now completely overplanted, and the forest continues to disappear, although the two are not very related. Clear cutting, new logging roads, and specifically the Chinese and Vietnamese, are raping the Laotian forests, as usual. CITES permits, now required for all agarwood, have utterly screwed the small producers, as only a few can afford the CITES paperswhether it’s on their end or the buyers end because both sides have to get them. And of course CITES is happy as it profits well, as do the mafia-style players who have the stomach, the foresight and the capital to take advantage of the situation.
Since CITES, there has been a rush to plant agarwood, even though it should have been obvious how the situation would play itself out. At the very least the price would have sunk due to over-production. But the situation now is extreme, at least in Laos, and I have heard of farmers even refusing free seedlings--no one wants agarwood these days.
We passed so many of these sad little ignored plantations. In contrast to the vibrancy of rubber, the majesty of teak, the emerald sheen of the rice paddies, agarwood trees look like they have a terminal disease, thin and sickly, sitting on the edge of a hospital bed slowly sipping Ensure through a straw, vertebrae visible through the back of the gown.
Four hours later we found ourselves eating a fish and vegetable hotpot on Mr. K’s floor. He is also an agarwood distiller, and collects large pieces as well, bringing them out to show like a little boy with his toy cars, and even shepherded me into the bedroom to see the best pieces, his favorites, the ones he sleeps near, and looks upon first thing every morning and last thing he sees at night. His dream is to build a resort high in the Laotian mountains, where visitors will come to see his collection, the very best pieces, all wild wood and mostly from Laos. Mr. K. has different sub-collections, in the corner of the living room, the entry, the outside porch, and upstairs. These natural sculptures are all considered carefully, and placed exactly. Each piece has its story. Mr. K. loves his agarwood.
Mr. Sompat showed me some bamboo spikes, and described the process, which I can’t repeat, of how he can infect the trees using them and his own mix of medicine. This process was different from Mr. K’s process, apparently, as Mr. K’s uses a lot more “medicine” and is therefore more expensive. 2 Forestry officials came over to see about buying a kit. The farmers in their area wanted to let the agarwood trees die, or just burn them. The officials thought perhaps, if they showed how easy it was to infect the trees, the farmers would believe there might one day be a profit and keep the trees alive, at least for now. Of course, another problem is that with the caterpillars, a tree might not survive an inoculation...
Outside, 10 tonnes of the lowest quality agarwood sat awaiting its paperwork. The wood is farmed, Lao origin, no infection, and barely worth the price of carting it away. It’s been sold for $5/kilo, including shipping (by sea) and all its paperwork, and will be exported to India. Once there it will be exchanged for better quality, Indian origin wood, and sent on with the same paperwork, including its CITES certificates, to the Middle East. Due to India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, no agarwood can be legally exported from there, except by using a “re-export” clause. The other big exporter, is, of course, Ajmal perfumes, whom I wrote about in 2010, even if carefully.
On the other side of the house, agarwood was soaking in barrels and vats. Mr. K. distills; he still has customers, but not so much for oud, the highly prized oil, as for boyah, its poor and uneducated cousin. You can see though, that his heart belongs to the wooden sculptures, and only to them. By 6 pm, the hotpot decimated, BeerLao drunk, Mr. K was off to play badminton and I was off to a hotel and Mr. Sompat was off to somewhere else.