Never let a beetle piss in your eye!
Outside the north-eastern Thai town of Mukdahan, Friendship Bridge Two reaches across the wide, muddy Mekong to the provincial capital of Savannakhet in central Laos.
Somnolent Savannakhet sprawls along the banks of the Mekong – crumbling colonial villas and shophouses populate a flat landscape, punctuated by the spires of the Buddhist Wats. Diversions begin to seem few and far between.
Dong Natad, the Sacred Forest of Savannakhet is not exactly the heart of darkness, but there are wondrous things to see – or to avoid – with the help of forest-wise guides. This tract of tropical monsoon forest has long been revered by local people.
Oudomxay at the provincial tourism bureau has booked up two other takers for a day hike or ‘eco trek’, so the trip I casually enquired about, can go ahead – if I make up the party. In fact, Oudomxay jumps on his motorcycle and drives around town to look for me! In Savannakhet, it’s not that hard.
Early next morning we three falang climb into a three-wheeled ‘skylab’ – the local variant on a tuk-tuk – and sputter north up Route 9. We are escorted into the forest by the petite Ms Sinakhone Sengphalichanh – “call me Nicky” – who works with Oudomxay at the , and Mr Soda Chanla, a member of one of the local forest-dwelling minority peoples.
At the reserve entrance, a muddy road leads straight into a dense rainforest. The Lao Loum or lowland Lao, we hear, gouge wedge-shaped openings into one particular tree to collect a paraffin-like oil for torch light. Precarious ladders, a series of single toe holds, scale the tree trunks and are used to collect honey. Another type of honeycomb is collected for use as a natural glue. The deep red resin of one tree is collected for use as a tonic for nursing mothers who need to stimulate lactation after giving birth.
Soon the seemingly monotonous vista of forest stretching either side of a puddled track becomes a medley of individual specks of life. To prove the point, Soda grabs a passing scorpion and eats it – live – with gusto.
Stick insects vary dramatically by gender: the males are black, the females bright green. Small, lively geckoes (or chameleons) will nip at your ear if you let them. Red ants stitch up certain leaves, forming sacs; certain edible berries are coloured a shiny pillar-box red; the wild ginger is equally recognisable. When disturbed, “eyeball” fungi release a shower of fine dust. Large black-and-yellow beetles produce a urine which can cause temporary blindness if it enters the human eye – never let a beetle piss in your eye!
Images of Laos, including Savannakhet and Dong Natad