My adventure in Laos
In the beginning of that year I travelled to the Mekong river in Laos. That trip was one of my biggest adventures. I had to manage difficult situations, challenging circumstances and reached my limits. I often went fishing with a traditional family from Laos. I could never explain the effort and strengh those people put into this work.
In 2014, I visited Si Phan Don – Four Thousand Islands in Laos. It is a beautiful area near by the Mekong River and close to the border to Cambodia. I lived in a bamboo bungalow on stilts next to the river, on the island of Don Det. I rode my bicycle every day and drove over the old French bridge to get to the island of Don Khon to photograph the fishermen on the Mekong river and the Li Phi (Somphamit) Waterfall.
Although I was in an exotic and tropical country the temperatures and climate remembered me of my country of origin, Poland, on a hot summer day in the 80s. At that time I often rode my bicycle along the dusty paths of the Oder River. Also Poland was a Socialist country like Laos so nobody seemed to be in a hurry.
The Mekong river and area fascinated me in two different ways. On the one hand the scenery and nature were absolutely breathtaking. On the other hand I was impressed by the local lifestyle and their great harmony with the river. It even seemed like these fishermen were part of the ecosystem.
The Mekong River is the world’s largest inland fishery. It accounts up to 25 percent of the global freshwater catch and provides livelihoods for at least 60 million people. Furthermore is has the second largest fish biodiversity behind the Amazon River. On top the Mekong river is the fastest growing large river basin in the world in terms of hydropower construction.
It is estimated that 40 million rural people, more than two-thirds of the rural population in the lower Mekong basin, are engaged in the wild capture fishery. Only in Laos, 71 percent of rural households (2.9 million people) rely on fisheries for either subsistence or additional cash income. Fishes are the cheapest source of animal protein in the region and any decline in the fishery will result into a significant nutrition impact, especially among the poor. Aquatic resources make up between 47 and 80 percent of animal protein in rural diets for people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin.
On my trip I focused on documenting the daily life of fisherman Kham (38), his family and friends from Don Khon and Don Det Island in Laos. They all fish in traditional ways. They are almost entirely depending on fishing. An interesting fact is that the number of fish in the Mekong River is decreasing because of the overfishing and the dam building. Unfortunately in the nearest vicinity of Don Khon island the Laotan government is building another dam on the river. According to environmentalists the new dam will reduce the number of fish close to that area up to eighty percent during the next ten years. The same scenario happened 300km upstream on a tributary of the Mekong because of a dam building. That means that the future of Kham’s family and friends as well as millions of other fishermen families is uncertain.
In January 2017 I went back to Laos to spent three weeks with Kham, his family and friends. My goal was to show their harmonious lifestyle in accordance with the rhythm of nature and the river. The circumstances were really challenging for me. On the one hand I had to be very careful because of giant spiders and snakes. On the other hand I struggled with the climate change and the hot temperatures. I left Poland at minus 11C and landed in Laos at plus 34C. That was quite a change I had to get used to. The intensive work from dawn to dusk every day required a lot of physical effort. On top of it the ubiquitous dust hovering everywhere near the roads caused bouts of coughing and made my life even more difficult.
With those challenging conditions I was happy working with a lightweight, rugged and weather sealed camera. The Lumix G80. Moreover I just took three lightweight, small lenses with me. The Leica 15 mm f/1.7 (30 mm equivalent of full frame), the Lumix 20 mm f/1.7 (eq. of 40 mm) and the 25 mm f/1.4 (eq. of 50 mm). Especially when I felt tired and weak I imagined that working with a heavier gear would be a sheer torment. Moreover I really appreciated the splash- and dustproof of the Lumix G80. Because on our everyday excursions on the river there was always water splashing either on me or the camera.
The Mekong river is cluttered with many waterfalls. That is why the river is often rough and has some dangerous sections which make it difficult for the fishermen to reach the fishing grounds with their motor boats. Finally we arrived at the the part of the river where we expected good fishing conditions. The fishermen often leave their boats to go right into the water with their heavy nets. They are standing in the middle of the river with the water up to their chest, fighting with the strong current. That time I also jumped into the Mekong with my Lumix G80 to capture the scene in action. I was also wearing my sneakers for protections so that I won’t get hurt by the rocks at the bottom of the river.
Even with the difficult conditions the Lumix G80 never let me down. The splash- and dust protection delivers what it promises. Another excellent feature is the super-fast autofocus as well as the built-in flash. Both helped me to make the best out of challenging circumstances. For example when I went fishing with Kham in a very rapid area at dusk where we could both barely stand on our feeds. But while I was fighting with the strong current I managed to take an amazing picture of the dramatic scenery. Thanks to the super-fast autofocus and the built-in flash.
I was so impressed by the capability and strength Kham and his colleagues were fishing in difficult locations with while using different traditional fishing methods.
Last but not least I would like to tell you the story of one of the most intense adventures during this trip. Kham and his colleagues sometimes fish during the night near the coast of a small Island called Don Tahim. They even catch the fish with their bare hands. That night we spend on the beach of Don Tahim. It was one of the most difficult nights in my life. I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid of snakes and spiders. Also Kham couldn’t sleep. He was fearing an attack of robbers from the Cambodian side of the border. Locals warned us earlier that day that an attack might occur.
Despite of all the challenges and efforts I had to invest in the project I am very happy and thankful that I’ve gotten the privilege to meet these brave people who live hand in hand with the nature. A trip I will never forget.
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