The Endangered Last ‘Blank Spot’ on Indochina’s Map

Attapeu—which translates somewhat poetically to “buffalo dung station”—is at the very bottom of Laos, bordering northeastern Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, a heavily forested region called Phuvong District. It is seemingly one of the few truly lost areas remaining on the planet, an unmapped, unknown area that seemingly couldn’t exist in a region as heavily exploited as Indochina in this millennium.

But it does exist although it is in deep danger from encroaching civilization. It is a place of great mystery. Rumors have abounded for years that it was the final detention center for American MIAs from the Vietnam War who were said to have been kept there until the late 1990s, a myth peddled by veterans’ groups in America. Other theories suggest it is at the center of a massive Vietnamese-run illegal logging scheme that is exploiting one of the final frontiers in the region. And it is also said to be the last retreat of the tropical yeti, called the Tek-Tek on the Cambodian side of the border and Briau on the Lao side of the mountains. Certainly it teems with some of Asia’s most precious animals.

How do we separate fact from fiction? What is the actual status of this blank spot and how might we know what’s going on there?

In fact it is probably just a final frontier to exploit, and the only thing holding up utter annihilation is the rugged mountainous terrain. In the early 1990s when Cambodia’s Virachey National Park was first created—Vietnam’s contiguous Chu Mom Ray National Park was gazetted a decade later in 2002—ideals were running high and the idea was proposed to make the Tri-Border Region a “Tri-Border Ecological Peace Park” between Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

What a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, as time passed, ideals gave way to business interests, and instead the region was designated as a “Tri-Border Economic Development Zone.” What has followed is deforestation, large-scale agribusiness, road-building, dam-building, and “economic development” in its myriad and often exploitative forms. At least Virachey and Chu Mom Ray were designated as national parks and their demise can be documented.

Virtually nothing is known about what was once Nam Ghong Provincial Protection Area and it remains a blank spot until now. Just two months ago, my colleagues and I were on a trek in neighboring Virachey National Park in Cambodia when we stopped in our tracks after hearing a massive explosion coming from the Lao side of the mountains; it was a sound we would become accustomed to, hearing it on a daily basis. We were told by the locals that if we got close enough to see what was actually going on we’d probably be shot on sight. Could it be mining? Dam-building? Road-building? Detonation of unexploded ordnance left over from the massive bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War?

All are real possibilities, and I recall, while standing upon one of the border peaks with a view into Nam Ghong PPA (the PPA stands for Provincial Protected Area, but in reality probably receives little if any actual protection from local authorities) seeing giant white scars leading down the Lao side of a border mountain farther east in the direction of the “Dragon’s Tail” where Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam converge in a knot of mountains.

In times past, the Dragon’s Tail area saw fierce fighting between the North Vietnamese Army and American GIs, and combatants from both sides claim to have seen and fired on the Tek-Teks and Briau, or Ngoi Roung as they’re called in Vietnam.

Both Cambodia and Laos have “border belt” roads planned for the area, and two years ago Cambodia’s road building triggered an armed standoff with Laotian Army troops crossing over the invisible “border,” digging trenches, and ordering a halt to construction in an area which is essentially a no-man’s land. Hun Sen sent troops to the area, issued an ultimatum, then flew to Vientiane to meet with the Laotian Prime Minister.

The issue was resolved peacefully, and construction has resumed. In fact, what is today called Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia didn’t even exist until 1954 when France redrew the borders in the region, and it is the sometimes-unclear French maps that are the source of much of the confusion.

Plans for Laotian dams on several of the rivers that flow north into the country from those mountains have been in the works for years, much to the dismay of conservationists. In fact, Laos has promoted itself has the “battery of Asia,” theoretically able to produce massive amounts of electricity, and has rigorously embraced the construction of hydropower dams on virtually all of its major rivers as well as their tributaries. Nam Ghong PPA would likely be no exception.

Therefore, road- and dam-building could be and probably are going on simultaneously. The area was heavily bombed by American planes during the war, so it is also fully conceivable that the clearing of unexploded ordinance is going on independently or in conjunction with the infrastructure projects. All, taken separately or together, could account for those huge explosions. Mountains would need to be blasted through for roads, and diversion channels created for the rivers for dam construction. UXO clearance is self-explanatory. What else is going on there?

Several of the camera traps we set up to attempt to photograph elusive animals moving by night lie right on the dividing line of the border peaks themselves, so the wildlife that we photograph are almost certainly “transboundary species,” meaning that the animals regularly cross back and forth between Cambodia and Laos. Wildlife is unaware of political boundaries unless walls or fences are constructed. Neither exist in this area, yet. We have found gaur, dhole, clouded leopard, douc langurs, elephants, marbled cats, and many more species listed by the IUCN as Endangered or Threatened. Nam Ghong PPA is an important refuge for them. But for how much longer?

One question might be—is the area even called Nam Ghong PPA anymore? It used to be, but most likely it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense. I would hope that at least a scrap of biodiversity can remain, that after all the blasting and cutting and cement-laying is finished that there is still a significant strip of forest cover on both sides of the border mountains to give the gaur and clouded leopards and other species the habitat they need to survive. But it is no sure thing.

Road map plans that I have seen for Virachey’s road show it hugging the border the entire way. Most likely this is largely a fantasy drawn up by officials who have little knowledge of the area, who didn’t bother to look closely at the topographical maps. “That road will take 1,000 years to finish,” a local quipped.

At one point in our expedition we came upon a very strange-looking pile of bloody, leaf-strewn feces. We asked the guides what could have left this mess on the trail. They said it was a monkey-like animal that wiped its bottom with leaves to throw off predators. Which animal, exactly, was it? We wanted to know. “Something like the Tek-Tek; its smaller cousin, the Yai-Yai,” one of our team explained in a whisper. A few minutes later, two of our team members disappeared. We marched on, and pitched our hammocks in an empty poaching camp.

“Massive daily explosions from Laos—the witnessing of which would result in our execution, sleeping in clandestine logging camps, two of our team members disappear after finding the bloody feces of the Yai-Yai,” my friend and research partner remarked. “The sad thing is that it’s all true.” (Our friends showed up a few hours later, having taken a wrong turn). I imagine these factors are all amplified in Nam Ghong PPA, but the area will most likely be almost completely transformed before we ever learn what was really there.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.