Modern tourists are becoming increasingly discerning. When planning holidays to remote destinations, or areas of outstanding natural beauty, many consider more than just the sightseeing. They take into account the benefits their cash brings to local communities and how the essence of a place they visit, can be preserved sustainably.
Hin Nam No Protected Area (HNN) is a prime example of how the pristine beauty of an area is being utilized to develop rural livelihoods, while at the same time preserving the natural heritage and wonderfully diverse cultural tapestry of those dependent on it. Situated in Bualapha District of Khammoune Province near the border with Vietnam, HNN is benefiting from a joint Lao–German project implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer international Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH to support local people in their efforts to develop the area as an ecotourism destination.
The incredibly beautiful jagged karst mountains cover 82,000 hectares and meet the Annamite mountain chain. Vistas are characterized by vertical limestone cliffs, interspersed with deep forested gorges and an extensive system of caves, many unseen by human eyes. The very remoteness protects it and the sharp limestone formations make even walking a challenge.
However, lovers of the natural world, heritage and history will love HNN.
It has an abundance of flora and fauna, much unique or rare. Research suggests the karst habitat supports 452 plant, 184 bird and 55 mammal species, including a number of globally threatened primates. And the number keeps growing with each new fact-finding expedition. Indeed, a campaign is underway to achieve Natural World Heritage status.
HNN also supports 7,000 people across 22 ethnically diverse villages on its periphery. The locals, with support from of GIZ, have developed a number of activities to make the most of this beautiful landscape within the principles of ecotourism. These include a ticketing system for tours from which 60% of proceeds go into a village development fund and 40% into park management. Tourism enables villagers to diversify sources of income, and encourages preservation of, and pride in, traditional lifestyles and protection of natural resources, as these are the major attraction for visitors. The tourist offices in Bualapha and Langkang provide knowledgeable and well trained local guides for different treks. Good accommodation is available with a new resort in Langkang, a guesthouse in Nong Ping, and village home stays for the more adventurous.
Xe Bangfai River Cave trek will appeal to those yearning to witness the eerie magnificence of caverns cut out of limestone. It is possibly the largest active river cave passage in the world, but remained virtually unknown, except to locals, until a small team of North American cavers explored it in 2008. It is navigable by boat for 2 km before encountering a section of rapids. The grandeur of the limestone chambers, featuring spectacular natural formations, flowstones and cave crystals, provides evocative and rarely experienced imagery. Local legend has it that the cave is inhabited by a benevolent spirit. An annual sacrificial offering is made to ensure its continuing protection.
Accessible by boat, and only in the dry season, two guided trips are available and despite the good spirit, hard hats are provided. The shorter trip involves paddling 300 metres into the cave, followed by a fairly steep climb to Dragon’s Balcony, a passage with wonderful views of the haunting formations in the cavern. You need to be sure-footed for this one. The longer trip, strictly for adventurers, is a 2-km ride into the heart of darkness, a subterranean world of pounding rapids.
The HNN nature treks, centred on Thongxam, offer the opportunity to see rare animal species clinging precariously to a fragile environment, as well as to experience traditional local lifestyles. You can opt for a shorter 6.5 km trek of 3-4 hours, or a more challenging 12 km one lasting 7-8 hours. Start your trek early or late enough and you’ll be privileged to view the troupe of black langurs inhabiting the area as they come out to feed on the cliffs overlooking the path. If you’re lucky you’ll even get to see the southern white-cheeked gibbon, the red-shanked Douc Langur (one of the last viable populations of this endangered species anywhere), the bear macaque and the pig-tailed macaque. The vibrant fauna includes four species of hornbills, including the endangered rufous hummingbird. Experienced guides, who take great pride in their homes, can also introduce you to the culture and history of some of the ethnic groups that have lived around the area for generations; the Makong, Tri, Yoy, Phoutai, Kaleung, Vietic, and Salang. The last-named were hunter gatherers, who until recently survived entirely on the forests, even clothing themselves with forest produce. Indeed, one young man remembers as a child licking moisture from leaves and cave walls as he had never even seen a cup.
The two-day Ho Chi Minh trail tour is a must for history buffs. It’s a site of immense historical importance. During the war 75% of all war supplies to the Viet Cong in the south, went through, or near, the villages of Nong Boua, Panop, Vangkon, and Senphan resulting in massive American bombardment. Even today, large quantities of unexploded ordnance still claim the occasional casualty. As you retrace a small part of this amazing feat of human engineering and ingenuity, courage and endurance, talk to elderly residents about their harrowing experiences during those war years, when a conflict that had nothing to do with them engulfed their innocence and tranquillity and scarred generations to come.
- By David Fairhurst -
√ Recently, the largest known species of spiders was discovered in one of the caves in HNN area.
Treks & Tours: (Currently two are available)
√ Ho Chi Minh Trail
√ Nature Trails
For more information about the tours, contact: