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Sustainable Laos and Hawaii

WE KNEW WE WERE GETTING CLOSE when the boot tracks on the trail changed to barefoot prints. My hiking partner and I had just endured 15 miles of grueling hiking over two days on the Kalalau Trail and we could think of nothing more pleasant than dropping our heavy packs and getting out of the drenching rain. We had just arrived in a very remote valley where rumors of a sustainable community have been circulating since the 1970s. Other hikers on the trail told us that we'd most likely find the permanent inhabitants living in the forest near the beach. It wasn't long before we made contact with the friendly natives. My partner was the first to locate the telltale smoke rising from a cliff overhang. When we came towards their camp they welcomed us in with an offer to join them in a locally produced meal they were just taking off the fire. We accepted.

In the disposable society of this modern age it is difficult to find truly sustainable communities anymore. Some would argue that they are now extinct like the dinosaurs or the dodo bird, but I'll beg to differ. Although one would have to venture deep into the Amazon or New Guinea highlands to find truly uncontacted people who still live off the land, they do exist in isolated pockets. Sad to think that only a century ago almost everyone on the planet lived a sustainable existence where virtually no pollution or non-biodegradable waste was produced. Today the trash dumps of the world have become eyesore mountains and the cities are choking on atmospheric pollution. Fed up with the concrete jungle I accepted passage to the ASEAN Tourism Forum in Vientiane, Laos primarily so I could travel after the show and search for my prophesized sustainable community. I found one in Southeast Asia, then I found another in the most unlikely place of all - in the United States of America on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i.

From Muang Noi to Kalalau

The official name is People's Democratic Republic of Laos, but there is no democracy for the people in this so-called republic that has been ruled by one party since 1975. Despite singular communist rule - one of the last true socialist states to survive - the people of Laos are happily devoted Buddhists. Called the Jewel of the Mekong River, Lao PDR is one of the least visited countries in Southeast Asia and remains among the most pristine. Neighboring China is an economic powerhouse, as are upcoming border countries Thailand and Vietnam, while the final two neighbors, Cambodia and Burma, are poor but contain incredible ruins to attract tourism dollars. Landlocked Laos relies on pristine natural scenery and the kindness, smiling and generosity of its people to lure in precious foreign currency. Outside the two tourism cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang life moves pretty slow in Laos. Over 80% of the population lives a quiet existence on small family plots of land. The agrarian people have an intimate relationship with nature, in fact most Laotian people are more familiar with the genitals of a pig than the controls of a television set. Only now are a few hilltribe villagers getting their first glimpse of television and a distorted image of things to come. The glow of a television at night draws people inside where they sit quietly in a mesmerized state. An apt description would be moths to the flame. Other villages still have no televisions or electricity and at night people sing and tell stories to each other. This is where I wanted to be.

Being in a village where there are no motor vehicles undoubtedly changes the atmosphere of a place - for the better. Things slow down, people stop and talk in the middle of the road, while noxious fumes and obnoxious noises are relegated to the outhouse. Muang Noi in northern Laos fit the bill. Only accessible by riverboat or footpath, this village on the River Ou exudes charm amid a cathedral landscape of vertical rock formations. Fortunately roads have never reached Muang Noi and likely never will. All commerce travels on boats or the backs of men and women. A network of footpaths leads to outlaying villages that are completely sustainable. Animals co-exist with humans in bamboo and palm leaf huts. Men and women share in the chores of tending the fields, feeding the animals, and looking after the children. From what I observed village elders settled disputes in a polite and nonviolent manner. After all, about 90% of all Lao people profess Theravada Buddhism as their religion. One unique aspect of Laotian Buddhism is the "Calling for Rain" image, which depicts the Buddha standing with his hands held rigidly at his side with fingers pointed downward towards the soil. Indeed, living sustainably in Laos has influenced Buddhist thought and portraiture.

Modern travelers are welcome to Muang Noi as well as the outlaying villages. Local entrepreneurs will arrange tours to caves and waterfalls, take you hiking or on river trips, or construct a bamboo raft for you to float downstream the old fashioned way. Travel writer Bruce Northam and I choose to do all we could during our weeklong stay. Both of us agree now it was the homemade raft trip down the River Ou that defined our "authentic travel moment" in Laos. As a testament to living sustainably we even defied the motorboat on our journey out! Navigating a bamboo raft is no easy task. The watercraft rides low in the water with little draft for maneuverability or speed. Basically we just floated along with the current. Several times we hit rapids and there was little we could do but steer the raft straight into the current. A few times we hit a rock and went spinning out of control. Within the biggest rapids the raft went completely underwater and we found ourselves waist deep in water. Our daypacks were floating on the surface of the water only attached to the raft by the twine I tied around them before we left. Needless to say we were soaked and so were our packs, but what an exhilarating ride we shared!

Leaving Laos was sad, but all good things must come to an end. Besides, I had another adventure coming up, this one to the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. I had heard of a "lost tribe" living in the secluded Kalalau Valley in Kaua'i and I felt it necessary to investigate. It seems that if people were living in the valley full time it must be a sustainable community.

Native Hawaiians had densely populated Kalalau Valley in prehistory. It was only in 1919 that the isolated canyon was finally abandoned. Since Kalalau is the largest valley on the Na Pali coast (Na Pali meaning "the cliffs"), it was prized by the native people for its fertility of soil and abundant fresh water. Two sacred heiau platforms flank the valley on either side of the river. The valley remains a recognized sacred place on the island of Kaua'i. In the early days, seafaring Hawaiians used canoes to travel around Kaua'i and out to neighboring island Ni'ihau. Regular trade throughout Kaua'i and to the isolated canyons on the Na Pali coast were commonplace. Like days of old, kayaks still ply the Na Pali water route. Today dinner cruises and commercial adventure trips navigate the scenic shoreline. Similar to the villagers of lore, modern campers can set up their tents on old Hawaiian agricultural terraces. Wild plantation crops such as coffee, guava, mango, bananas, tobacco, oranges, taro, lemons, limes, eggplant, and squash grow wild in the Kalalau Valley. I was told there were community gardens with radish, basil, rosemary, lettuce, and marijuana. Feral animals such as goat and freshwater prawns could also be killed and eaten. With so much abundance it seemed logical that a sustainable community could exist. Now I just had to endure the long hike to get there.

Getting into Kalalau Valley is its saving grace. The only land route in and out is a strenuous 11-mile scenic path. The isolation and difficulty of getting there allows a few dozen permanent residents to lead a mostly sustainable lifestyle. But it is illegal to do so. Helicopters with Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLR) agents can arrive at any time and give tickets to squatters. Zodiac rafts and kayaks can arrive via the ocean, but only in the summer months when the north shore swells let up. However the DLR agents wish to make their raids - by air, boat or trail - the lawless citizens of Kalalau can detect their tormentors coming several critical minutes ahead of time and immediately evacuate to their protective hiding places. According to a Hanalei local named Kevin the raids are like a scene from "Planet of the Apes." When the oppressive DLR agents move in (the Apes I presume) the jungle people warn each other first before they scatter and hide. They entrench themselves so deep into the foliage that rarely do any get caught. "Like animals," notes Kevin. The main casualty of the DLR raids thus far has been the 400-book library, airlifted out and destroyed. Kevin tells me the collection is back up to 100 books now. As much as the DLR has tried to clear the valley of illegal campers - and they have been trying for 30 years - it is virtually impossible to evict the permanent residents. Thus one of the most unique sustainable communities in the Western world continues to exist.

Going to Laos and Kalalau was a reassuring lesson for me that indeed the best things in life are often the simplest. Living sustainably is a goal we should all try to achieve - at least in part. It's not too hard to reduce our garbage load, recycle, compost, or even grow a portion of our own food. In my opinion even the smallest effort is a big help. After all, the planet is being rapidly consumed by the parasite known as the human race. Practicing sustainability in the modern world can lessen our impact and very likely aid in leaving a renewable planet for future generations. A Laotian Buddhist would say it's our karmic duty. A Kalalau hippie would wholeheartedly agree.

When planning a trip to Kaua'i, please call Hanalei Vacations at: 1-800-487-9833 or email: My favorite location was the Hale Makai beach cottage overlooking the tumbling waves on Kepuhi Beach in Ha'ena. Hanalei Vacations offers ideal rental properties before staging a hike into Kalalau. I'd also like to thank the Lao Tourism Authority and the ASEAN Tourism Forum for introducing me to the natural splendors and happy people of Lao PDR.

Brad Olsen's sixth travel book, "Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations" was released just a few months ago in a second edition. Brad will be speaking at the Kempton Conference on June, 12th on the subject of unusual sacred places in North America. All of Brad Olsen's travel guides can be found and purchased in the Adventures Unlimited catalog. His latest website is

Reprinted with permission from "World Explorer" Summer Edition, (c) 2004 Brad Olsen
1560 Howard St.
San Francisco, CA 94103

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