An interview with Dave Williams
By Terry Blackburn
Gliding into the mysterious and beautiful hongs of Phang Nga Bay aboard a sea kayak has been a high priority for Phuket visitors for the past decade. The hongs (room in Thai) are entered through low ceiling caves in the imposing karst rock islands of the bay. Once inside, visitors enchanted by a variety of wildlife – ranging form birds to monkeys.
However, what many people don't realise is that after exploring the wonders of the bay, there are many more equally exciting kayaking destinations nearby. Namely, Khao Sok, Trang and Tarutao.
Dave Williams has been a kayaking and rafting enthusiast for over 25 years. A native of Virginia, he spent his formative years tackling some of the most vicious rivers and creeks in North America. He has been based in Phuket for the past nine years and was one of the founding fathers of sea kayaking in Phang Nga bay and southern Thailand. He now spends much of his time exploring rivers in Laos and Cambodia and his company, Paddle Asia, is currently the only one to offer paddling expeditions in these two countries.
The sea kayaking industry in Phang Nga bay has attracted a degree of controversy lately, including accusations of environmental damage. What’s your take on that?
The bay's a large place. There are over a hundred islands there. Most companies go to the same four islands, meaning that there's still a lot left to explore. The biggest problem in Phang Nga bay in my opinion is litter. Judging by the stuff we find, most of it seems to come from fishermen – Styrofoam, water bottles and clumps of fishing net. But that's just a matter of education – don't hold it against them. We should clean it up and try to get some educational programmes going. As for the other companies, I don't see any serious environmental damage being done. People aren't going in there and breaking off stalactites, climbing all over the trees or defacing the environment. There's noise pollution, but that's about it. I'd say there's room for even more companies there and I'd welcome the competition as long as they keep safety paramount. Paddling is still a great way to explore the bay without doing any harm. Sailing is also good, but you can't get as close to the wildlife.
What was the attraction of Laos?
A friend of mine took me there in '96. We paddled the Nam Ou, a river that eventually flows into the Mekong, just around the corner from Luang Prabang. That's all it took – one time in Laos and we were absolutely 100 percent sold on it. The rivers and the scenery are astonishing. There's a problem with tree poaching but what remains of the forest is stunning. We go past villages, some of which are only accessible by river, and the experience is pure magic – everyone runs down to the shore to wave, kids jump of trees to impress us, everyone's smiling and happy.
Are there any problems kayaking in Laos?
Logistically there can be. We use government issue topographical maps and work closely with local guides. The main problem is finding road access to rivers to take the boats in and out. The adventure starts when trying to get to the river.
What kind of rivers are you looking for?
Most of the rivers are slow flowing and don't have any hazards as such. We try to avoid really challenging rivers at the moment, because if there was a problem the medical facilities are very limited. However, both Laos and Cambodia have mountains, lots of rivers and a dependable rainy season. These three factors convince me that there is excellent white water out there somewhere. If we can find an accessible river with grade three to four rapids all the way down, it would be like a gold mine for the country - like in Costa Rica, Chile, or Zambia for example. I've seen a few possibilities on the map, particularly the Nam Kading, but we'll need to go over in a helicopter to check them out properly.
How do you see river tourism developing in Laos?
There's been a big increase in activity lately, particularly around Vang Vieng which the Nam Song runs right past. Unfortunately, a lot of the tour operators are using inferior equipment and aren't following basic safety procedures. So we're currently working closely with the National Tourism Authority to draw up a set of river safety guidelines and start up a free training programme for guide certification, which we'll run a few times a year. I personally don't like what's happening in Vang Vieng – there's bars, loud music, people openly doing drugs and even working girls there now. This is not Laos; it doesn't represent what Laos is about and I hope it doesn't represent the future of Laos. I've recommended to the NTA that they follow Bhutan's example by putting up the price of visas and setting a minimum amount of money to be spent per day. Laos is worth more than ten dollars a day – they need to preserve their culture and they can't do it with mass tourism.
What’s the reaction been from the NTA?
Very positive – I think that the Laos government genuinely has the people's best interests at heart. They're beginning to realise that a big tree is worth a lot more money standing then it is turned into a chair or table. I don't think they're doing enough yet, but they are trying. For example, there was a gun amnesty in 1999. The next year, the increase in the wildlife, especially birdlife, we saw was remarkable. Bigger birds like egrets, herons and raptors started to come back. It was a very quick recovery, it was amazing.
What are you currently planning?
On July 4th 2002 we're going to kick off a seven-week expedition that starts in Northern Laos and finishes in Southwest Cambodia. We did an exploratory in Cambodia last year and there are some excellent rivers there, including some good rapids. My partner and I will be doing the whole thing; other people can plug into sections or can do the full seven weeks if they want. We'll have a maximum of eight people on each section, I don't believe in big groups as they can have an adverse effect on local culture. Environmentally, small groups also make more sense. In Cambodia we're talking to the main de-mining company to plan the safest possible route and the Wildlife Conservation Society is giving us a lot of advice – there's a lot of rare wildlife still surviving there, Irrawaddy dolphins for example. The very rare Giant Ibis was recently spotted too. Northern and South-western Cambodia desperately need more visitors. Angkor Wat doesn't help the people there. No-one's ever done the trip in one continuous expedition before, so it should be a lot of fun.
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