Salavan and Sekong: Warm People, and Unparalleled Natural Beauty

I just got back from a trip to Salavan and Sekong Provinces in southern Laos.  The scenery was absolutely stunning.  Lush, dense forests, picturesque mountains and waterfalls, and the dark, fertile soils on the Boloven Plateau surrounded us, and we were warmly welcomed by the smiling faces of the provinces’ friendly people.  Salavan and Sekong Provinces are the homes of several of Laos’ minority cultures, including the Ta’oy and Katu peoples, and my wife, Judy, and I purchased some naturally-dyed textiles expertly woven by Katu women.

Agriculture is very important to this region, and I sampled several local delicacies, including bananas, mushrooms, and of course Boloven Plateau coffee.  If you have had a good cup of coffee in Laos, chances are the beans were from the Boloven Plateau, which occupies a beautiful area crossing Salavan, Sekong, and Champassak Provinces.  I stayed at the Sinouk Coffee Plantation in Thataeng and enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Sinouk Sisombat, who introduced his coffee plantation and allowed me to plant a new tree on the grounds.


The people I met in Salavan and Sekong told me that they welcome increased tourism.  The beautiful Tat Lo waterfall, for example, has three set of falls, each different and without a doubt worthy of many photos.  The waterfall area has accommodation with good food available for vacationers, backpackers, or people just looking for a nice rest in peaceful, natural surroundings.  I am already planning a return visit!


I visited with the Governors of both Salavan and Sekong and expressed the appreciation of the American people for the assistance these provinces have provided to teams searching for American personnel lost during the Vietnam conflict.  Along with the Vice Governor of Salavan, I visited the Ta’oy base camp where hard-working Americans and Lao are working together to account for American MIAs.  Our two countries are doing great work together, and their camaraderie showed at the base camp. Unfortunately, weather intervened to prevent us from taking a helicopter to the sites where the teams are searching.  The fact that the teams have to use a helicopter to access these sites brought home to me just how remote and difficult these places are.

Delivering healthcare and education to the people of Salavan and Sekong, who often live in some of these remote locations, was also on the minds of the governors. We discussed efforts to contain the very serious malaria outbreak in the region, including American assistance of about 1.2 million dollars to purchase and distribute medication, test hits and mosquito netting to help combat the outbreak. 


Officials of both provinces also helped me inaugurate new hospital facilities in Huai Ngua, Salavan and in Thateng, Sekong.  These facilities, part of the Embassy’s humanitarian assistance program in Laos, will increase healthcare capacity in traditionally under-served communities.  We also hope that they will help to continue the positive trend in Laos of increasing pre-natal and mother-infant care, so important especially in places far away from urban health services.


Students of the Ta’lo Lower Secondary School in Salavan helped me to inaugurate their new school, which is another excellent project from our ongoing humanitarian assistance program.  The school will serve a community near the border of Vietnam so remote that we could not reach it due to high river levels.  It didn’t seem to matter to the students, as they were clearly excited to embark on their studies in a brand new facility. 


I concluded a very busy visit to the region by meeting with dedicated teams clearing unexploded ordinance (UXO) from the Vietnam conflict.  Teams from UXO Lao and Norwegian People’s Aid took me to agricultural areas where they are finding UXO and destroying it so that villagers can continue to plant rice and coffee to support their families and communities.  The teams are dedicated to their communities and highly trained in their work, and the people of Laos can be proud of their efforts. Americans can be proud as well, as we have recently increased funding to these teams so that they can clear more areas of Laos faster.  It is precisely because of this dedication, from both countries, that terrible accidents from UXO are decreasing.

So there you have it.  After a fruitful week in southern Laos, I can’t wait to plan a return trip.  If you have the chance to visit, the people of Salavan and Sekong will certainly welcome you.

Bolikhamxay and Khammouane: Not To Be Missed

In early May, I took a road trip to Bolikhamxay and Khammouane provinces.  I’m glad I didn’t make the mistake of just sticking to National Highway 13 which runs through the two provinces.  If I had, I would have missed the tall verdant mountains, stunning karst formations, and lush wide valleys that these provinces have to offer. I started by stopping in Thaphabath, one of the main towns in Bolikhamxay where I visited the site of the footprint of the Buddha to pay my respects and ask for blessings for the rest of my journey.  It must have worked since the rest of my trip was wonderful!  While in Thaphabath, the Vice Governor of Bolikhamxay, Madame Bounyong Sisouvannakhone , greeted me and accompanied me to an official ceremony where I handed over disaster relief supplies that USAID is providing to help villages in Bolikhamxay and Khammouane mitigate the effects of natural disasters.  Our funding began in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana and other intense flooding in 2010 which exacted heavy damage to these provinces.  I hope that the villages will not have to use the supplies (boat engines, emergency communication equipment and lifesaving gear) but I do believe that they are now more prepared to cope with and respond to natural disasters in the future. 


The next day I head to Viengthong district, in the mountainous area of Bolikhamxay that borders Vietnam.  The newly-built road that leads to Viengthong made it easy to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The landscape was so breathtaking when we got to unique rocky formations in Kham Keut district I had to stop the car and take some photos.  When we arrived in Viengthong, villagers and local officials warmly welcomed me to the brand new district hospital that the United States built.  The U.S. Department of Defense has conducted humanitarian assistance projects throughout Laos since the mid-1990s and this district hospital is the first project completed in Bolikhamxay.  We are are also building a lower secondary school in Nakhamborn village.  I thoroughly enjoy my trips to places like Viengthong because it allows me to see firsthand the benefits ordinary Lao people enjoy from our assistance.

I would have liked to spend more time in Bolikhamxay but Khammouane province beckoned.  The Khammouane Vice Governor, Mr. Somchay Phetsinouane, graciously hosted me for dinner upon my arrival and described the many attractions of the province.   I soon saw for myself the vast potential for the province’s tourism industry.  After enjoying my morning jog along the quaint riverfront in Thakhek, the province’s capital, and eating at a café in the city’s colonial era plaza, I paid a call on Khammouane Governor Khambay Damlath the next day.  I told him that driving through Khammouane reminded me of America’s own natural treasures, it’s national parks, and gave him a book of Ansel Adams photos of our national parks and invited him to visit them one day.  I also told him that I would definitely return to Khammouane.  I then headed Xaibouathong district where I visited another hospital that the U.S. just completed.  The hospital has a maternity ward and first responder facilities where patients with serious illnesses and injuries can get treatment before being transferred to the provincial hospital, three hours away in Thakhek.  During the handover ceremony, I got a chance to thank local officials and villagers for their continued assistance in locating the remains of our POW/MIAs throughout the province.  Besides this hospital, we arehelping build a clinic in Sokpeng village and a school in Phansaan village.  


I then made my way to Mahasay where our Lao Red Cross and UNICEF partners greeted me at handover reception for disaster relief supplies.  Mahasay district is home to two of the five villages in Khammouane that have received supplies and funding through USAID’s community-based disaster risk reduction program.  Besides providing disaster relief supplies, the program trains villagers to identify risks and prepare for natural disasters.


My trip ended with a visit to the Nam Theun II dam, arguably the gold standard for dam development throughout the region.  The dam is currently the largest hydroelectric project in Laos and since commencing operations in 2010 has generated an annual average of 4,000 GWh of electricity, most of which is sold to Thailand.  The dam not only provides over $80 million in annual revenue to the Lao government but also meets stringent environmental and community development requirements.  To make room for the dam and the massive 4,000 square kilometer reservoir basin, villages had to be relocated.  A World Bank study conducted before and after the completion of the dam found that resettled villagers were now making more than three times their average incomes prior to their resettlement.  When I visited the resettlement villages, I talked to a couple of the villagers, both of whom told me that the new village offered them more diverse and stable sources of income and better standard of living.  When I visited to the reservoir basin, I saw only large swathes of forests and no signs of clear cutting.  Nam Theun II representatives told me although there is still some small-scale illegal logging in the protected area, clear cutting of the forests has not occurred.  If they are able to maintain the basin as it is, it will continue to provide enough water for the dam’s full operation for at least another hundred years.  I hope that other dam operators in Laos can learn from the experience of Nam Theun II.


Trip to Xayaburi and Luang Prabang

     My latest trip was to Xayaburi and Luang Prabang provinces and featured a visit to the site of a controversial dam project, the delivery of books to school children in a remote village and a ride on the back of an elephant.  

     The trip started with a courtesy call on the Vice Governor of Xayaburi Province, Mr. Yanyong Sipaseuth, where we discussed issues such as a recent outbreak of avian influenza in the province in chickens imported from China and environmental concerns over a dam that is being constructed in Xayaburi province on the main stem of the Mekong River. The Vice Governor was very pleased that we took the time to come to Xayaburi to witness the construction and learn about the dam first hand.

imageMeeting with Xayaburi Vice Governor Mr. Yanyong Sipaseuth

     We then visited the dam itself, which is now 23% complete and expected to be operational in 2019.  In an interview with a Vientiane Times reporter on the site, I noted that, while hydropower can play an important role in economic development, it is important to minimize downstream environmental impacts.  I also described the technical assistance that the U.S. is providing to the Lao Government on issues such as fish migration, sediment flows, and dam operation and safety.  The builders and operators of the dam emphasized the extensive redesign and scientific research they had undertaken to mitigate negative downstream impacts on fish, agriculture and the environment. 

imageVisiting dam construction site in Xayaburi Province

     Our day in Luang Prabang started off with the opening ceremony at the H7N9 Workshop attended by the Chief of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Minister of Health and officials from three northern provinces.  We then paid a short visit  to a new provincial blood transfusion center that was constructed and equipped by the United States Government.  It was uplifting to see how the center’s blood testing capabilities have been expanded through our support.

imageVisiting new blood center in Luang Prabang

     That afternoon, in one of the real highlights of the trip, my wife, Judy, and I joined the “Book Boat” up the Mekong River to deliver school books and supplies to a remote village called Ban Pak Ou, near the famous Pak Ou caves.  While there, Judy read a book to the children, and we enjoyed a puppet show and watched the children play outdoor games.

imageJudy reading to children in Ban Pak Ou

     On our day off, we took a trip to the nearby Elephant Village and enjoyed a leisurely elephant ride.  Judy was very good at being a mahout!


My First Trip to Savannakhet Province

     I recently had the opportunity to visit Savannakhet Province and was impressed with all of the economic and development activity – all pointing to a bright future for the province.  On the day of our arrival, we visited HALO Trust, an international NGO working hard to clear unexploded ordnance in Sepon District.  They gave us a chance to help dispose of a recently uncovered “bombie.”  We observed as the HALO team showed us the partially buried UXO, and then moved back 300 meters or so while they placed an explosive charge on it.  When the charge was set, they gave me the detonator, and I sent an electrical charge through a wire to the explosive.  It was startling to hear the power of the explosion, even from a safe distance.   HALO is funded as part of the United States’ $9 million annual assistance to UXO efforts and it was heartening to see the progress being made in this hazardous task by a dedicated team of Lao and foreign - including U.S. - workers.  They put in tremendous effort throughout the dry and wet season, usually in difficult terrain, to ensure the safety of local villagers.

Watching Lao staff of HALO Trust as they work to clear UXO

     The next morning we saw another side of the legacy issues from the war when we visited a crash site run by our Joint Personnel Accounting Command (JPAC), which searches for U.S. soldiers and airmen who were lost during the war years.  In this particular case, we were looking for a U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lieutenant who was shot down in an F-4 Phantom during the “Lam Song 719” battles.  I was impressed by the dedication of our JPAC team as they sought to bring home one of our own from the conflict.  I was also struck by the friendly and cheerful attitude of the local villagers who were working at the site.  Yes, Lao and Americans are working side-by-side on this important task.  It is hard work – physically tiring – and it is far away from any city or developed area.

I joined JPAC members as they sift through the crash site, looking for a trace of one of our Missing in Action from the Vietnam War.

     The day was a whirl of activity, as we went from the JPAC mission site to eat lunch at the Dongsavanh School, located right along the border with Vietnam.  The school is one of over 60 in Vilayburi and Sepon provinces that is benefiting from a school feeding program supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and run by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  My wife Judy and I were overwhelmed by the friendly greeting that the school gave us and had a delightful lunch with the children there.  I don’t want to forget some of the smiles I saw there.  In fact, I have a framed photograph from CRS that I will keep here at the Embassy to help me remember.   We planted a tree on the school grounds before we were off to the next stop.  

My Excellent Eco-Adventure


     I recently returned from a fantastic trip to the Nam Et Phu Louey national protected area in Houaphanh province.  In the protected area, local villagers are working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the government of Lao PDR to develop eco-tourism in the area.  I was able to spend the night in their lodge in the protected area and go on the night safari they operate.  I had heard a lot about the rich biodiversity and beautiful jungles here, and was excited to get to see it for myself.

      I started my trip in neighboring Xiengkhouang province, where I visited a local market that sometimes sells wildlife.  I saw a porcupine, but not much else.  Many local people depend on bush meat for subsistence, which is allowed under Lao law.  Commercial wildlife sales, however, are illegal, and the Lao government is working with NGOs like WCS to help stem the trade.

     After the market, I took a long and beautiful drive from Phonsavanh into Houaphan, and arrived at a boat landing to start my tour.  Along with WCS staff and local guides, I took a boat up the Nam Et river, where I saw the eco lodge and enjoyed a peaceful dinner along the riverbank.  Our guides cooked some delicious Lao food, accompanied of course by sticky rice.  As the sun set over the jungle, we were lucky there were only a few clouds, so I could see a lot of stars. 

      I then floated downriver in the dark, while the local guides swung their flashlights to and fro in order to help me spot wildlife.  The tour recently won a prestigious World Responsible Tourism Award because it links the revenue earned by locals with the numbers of wildlife seen during each tour.  For every animal I saw (and I saw a bunch of deer, civets, and lizards), local villages got a bonus that can help fund economic development programs. As wildlife sightings increase, the locals are viewing conservation as an active and profitable partnership. Local villagers also work as guides, boatmen, cooks, and handicraft producers. 

      I also saw firsthand the challenges facing wildlife conservation in Laos.  The protected area spans over 2300 square miles of mountainous terrain.  Local villagers are allowed to harvest natural resources for subsistence in around half of the park, and because most villagers depend on subsistence activities such as small-scale agriculture and livestock, harvesting of wild meat can be an additional food source.  That’s why it’s so important that this program provides an alternative revenue stream - villagers have an incentive to protect native species.  

      Overall, it was a highly educational experience, and a seriously fun trip.  WCS staff told me the program is in its third year, and over 100 tourists had visited so far this year.  The holy grail of the safari is a tiger sighting, and although I didn’t get to see one, the guides told me they’ve heard one roar near the place I had dinner.  I would love to visit again with my family so they can see the jungles of Laos.  Who knows, I might even get to see a tiger!


A Bittersweet Visit to Pakse


     Shortly before I arrived in Laos, I received a letter from a Lao-American woman who was working hard to organize the Run Laos Challenge – Laos’ first-ever ultra marathon – in order to raise awareness and financial support for organizations assisting human trafficking victims in Laos.  I was immediately interested in supporting - and participating in - the run, and the more I learned about this important cause, the more I knew I wanted to be a part of it.  I agreed to attend the start of the run in Pakse and run the first few kilometers with the three brave women who had committed to completing the entire 130 mile (209 km) course, covering three provinces in three days.     

     On October 16, as I was eagerly looking forward to this exciting event, a horrible disaster struck: a Lao Airlines flight tragically crashed in Pakse during a storm, killing all on board. Shocked and saddened, the organizers of the Run Laos Challenge eventually decided to proceed with the run as planned.  I travelled to Pakse on October 31 and went to the crash site to pay my respects to the 49 people who lost their lives and express my sincere gratitude to the men and women who are risking their lives every day as they work to recover the remains of the victims and investigate the accident.  It was an incredibly moving experience to stand there along the river and solemnly pay tribute to those who died.  On behalf of the American people, I extend our deepest condolences to the relatives of the deceased.  May all who lost their lives rest in peace.

     That same day I attended a baci ceremony to wish the runners good luck with their upcoming run.  Needless to say, it was a very bittersweet occasion given all that had happened in the two weeks leading up to the event.  I had the honor of meeting the famous Lao runner Sirivanh Ketavong and the two Lao-American runners, Nang Nonnarath Dunn and Nancy Southasarn, who were to begin the 209 km course the next morning.   I also visited to Dream House, a Village Focus International shelter where human trafficking victims can begin the long process of healing and recovery. 

     The following morning I woke up bright and early, reflecting on all that I had experienced in my short time in Pakse and ready to tackle the first 5 km of the marathon with Nang, Nancy and Siri.  We had a great time running together, and I greatly admire them for all they have done to support victims of human trafficking.  I am proud of each of the runners, and of each and every organization and individual who contributed to this important event. 


Getting to Work.


Sabaidee tuk-tuk Than!  

After months of preparation, planning, and packing, my wife Judy and I finally arrived in Vientiane last week.  It was hard to say goodbye to our family and friends in the United States, especially our three daughters and two grandchildren, but we are very excited to be here, and look forward to meeting our new neighbors, making lots of new friends, and travelling in this beautiful country. 

 I’m also very excited to begin working here.  It is a great honor to represent President Obama and the people of the United States to the government and people of the Lao PDR, and I am eager to build upon the work that has already been done to improve relations between our two countries.

 During my three years in Laos, I intend to focus on five priorities.

 The removal of Vietnam War era unexploded ordnance and the retrieval of the remains of American service members missing in action are two very important issues that our governments have worked on for many years, and I welcome the Lao Government’s continued cooperation in addressing them.

 I will continue to work with government and people of Laos to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Laos and the United States already enjoy excellent cooperation in the fields of health, counternarcotics and the environment and I will work to strengthen and expand that cooperation.  In particular, I look forward to promoting increased information exchange among American and Lao experts on infrastructure development through the Lower Mekong Initiative.

I will also strive to increase contacts between the Lao and American people through our public diplomacy programs.  Judy and I will travel to every province in Laos and get to know as many people as we can.

 I’ve devoted many years in my career to working on trade issues, and, as Ambassador, I want to help increase U.S. trade and investment in Laos.    

I will also be overseeing the final phases of the construction of the new U.S. embassy building, which should be completed by next year.  The new facility will provide a great working environment for the dedicated and highly capable American and Lao staff members of the U.S. Mission, and will be followed by construction of a new state-of-the-art American Center, open to the Lao public, right where the current embassy stands.  

These are just a few of the many things I am looking forward to achieving in tandem with our Lao partners during my time as U.S. Ambassador to Laos.  We have many great things to accomplish together, so let’s get to work!