Scary stories about vengeful sorcerers commandeering man-eating tigers to wreak revenge on entire communities have the potential to disconcert under any circumstances.
But they resonate even louder deep in the dark heart of Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, where even the crackle of a campfire is drowned out by the encroaching sounds of insect and animal life.
“He was known as the eater of souls,” says my guide, Souvit, as we huddle closer around the protection of the fire after a seven-kilometre hike into the wilderness. He’s talking about Chue Xa, an infamous Hmong healer whose power to transform himself into a big cat led to a regular culling of the human population and a spike in tiger numbers in this region of north-eastern Laos.
“He became embittered by a dispute with people from his village,” continues Souvit, in hushed tones that belie his usually effervescent demeanour. “From then on, his sole purpose in life was to kill and to mate as an animal.”
It’s not so long ago that tigers were thriving without assistance from malevolent magic men in this remote area. It seems hard to believe now, but Indochinese tigers were once so common in parts of South-East Asia that they were considered pests, with governments sponsoring their killing.
These days, however, encounters with these former lords of the jungle are about as likely as a run-in with an actual human shape-shifter. Habitat loss and fragmentation, market-driven poaching and loss of prey have taken a brutal toll on tiger numbers, with conservationists fighting an ongoing and gruelling battle to maintain bio-diversity in the face of enormous challenges.
It is the cause of conservation – and the prospect of exploring one of the region’s most remote frontiers – that has led me around 300 long kilometres north-east from Luang Prabang to this rainforest clearing. The biggest National Protected Area in Laos, Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) comprises 4,229km2 of mountainous, forest-covered and river-indented territory.
This bountiful landscape hosts one of the most diverse eco-systems remaining in mainland South-East Asia. Besides being home to one of the key tiger populations in Indochina – numbers are estimated to be between seven and 23 – it’s also a sanctuary for other endangered species such as the gaur, the white-cheeked crested gibbon, the clouded leopard, the sun bear and the Asian black bear.
Despite its size, diversity and importance, however, the region has not been immune to the twin scourges of slash-and-burn agriculture and the menace of poaching; the latter is a depressingly lucrative carrot for poor hunters from the approximately 99 ethnic Khmu, Hmong, Tai and Yao villages within and surrounding the protected area.
Recently, the Wildlife Conservation Society – the NGO overseeing the NEPL – has turned to eco-tourism as a more positive source of income for villagers. First came the Nam Nern Night Safari – an overnight boat journey where village guides ferry visitors deep into the jungle. Visitor fees of US$200 per person help pay guides and cooks, giving them the chance to tap into the growing tourism-based economy.
Each tourist is charged an additional bonus fee for each animal he or she spots; this is deposited into a development fund, which is used to improve local schools, buy medicine or build toilets. For instance, a tiger sighting fetches US$245; spying tiger tracks or a sambar deer is worth US$5; and a muntjac or loris earns US$2.50. The venture has been a huge success, and has twice been recognised by the prestigious World Responsible Tourism Awards.
Buoyed by the positive reception, the Wildlife Conservation Society has adopted a similar model for new projects within the protected area. This includes the Nests Trek, the two-day, 14km jungle odyssey that I’ve journeyed all the way out here to undertake.
Indeed, for visitors to NEPL, the adventure begins long before they get to Muang Hiam, a dusty one-street outpost that is home to the park’s headquarters. Just one public bus a day makes the 10-hour schlep along the tortuous mountain roads from Luang Prabang. And although a good 15 years have passed since my last epic bus journey in Laos as a naïve backpacker, memories of being squeezed between an angry Hmong lady and a box of chickens remain fresh.
Scarred by that experience, I opted instead to hire a motorbike and set out early from the former royal capital of Laos. I hit the open road with the scent of frangipani in my nostrils and the tinkle of temple bells in my ears. A full nine hours later, I rolled into Muang Hiam. Despite the expected weariness, the exhilarating hairpin bends and spectacular mountain vistas made the journey well worth the effort.
The trek itself proves to be a similar blend of pleasure and pain, thanks to unfavourable meteorological conditions: much to our dismay, a mighty thunderclap heralds a biblical downpour before we’ve even ventured into the jungle.
Although there’s something of the bucket-list feeling about hiking through virgin rainforest in the pouring rain, the wet conditions make the going tough. Nevertheless, when we finally make it to the campsite, a sense of levity returns to the proceedings. As the Khmu cook steeps chicken in a pot and the porters set to work on preparing the campfire, I dry off and kick back in my “nest”. This is one of several spherical hanging quarters constructed in the clearing, whose elevated position protect us from pesky intruders that can range from bears to wildcats.
Indeed, the unique accommodation that gives the trek its name is, for me, one of the highlights. After a basic dinner of chicken stew and jungle herbs, followed by an evening of campfire tales, I retire to my sleeping bag and let the soundtrack of the jungle night and the gentle motion of the nest lull me to sleep.
After the deluge, it’s a huge relief to see rays of sunshine piercing the canopy the next morning. With the trekking route doubling back to its starting point, improved conditions offer scope to properly appreciate the landscapes we trudged through so myopically the previous day.
The track snakes through dense, silent forest; over bubbling rivers forded by rocks, and through vast clearings where luminous butterflies flit around gargantuan hanging vines and towering wild grasses. It’s The Lost World, Indochina-style, and is as impressive as you’d expect one of the most pristine environments in the region to be.
Despite our obvious awe at the almost primeval surrounds, something has been bugging Souvit ever since a morning visit to a salt lick known for its wildlife spotting opportunities yielded zero sightings. “I’m sorry that you came all this way and didn’t see anything. Not even a monkey, let alone a tiger,” he says. “We can’t guarantee anything. We only know that they are there.”
It’s good to know that the trope of “seeing is believing” isn’t true in this instance. But the fact remains that the threat to species like the Indochinese tiger remains very real, despite the work of authorities. That’s as scary a thought as the most chilling campfire tale. But with eco-tourism now beginning to take hold, invaluable exposure is thankfully being given to conservation efforts in this wild and wonderful part of the world.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine