Are those boys are panning for gold? I learned, while kayaking on the Nam Ou River in Laos near Luang Prabang, that in fact they were. Many of the poor rural villagers in this area practice small-scale artisanal gold mining. The average family finds 24 grams of gold through panning at the river during the 4-month dry season (January-April). In Laos, where the per capita GDP is $1,776, that additional $850 represents a significant increase in income for these poor rural families. With the chance of such significant financial rewards it should not have surprised me that there are some people willing to take substantial health risks looking for it.
One of the most surprising aspects were men that walk along the riverbed using homemade “scuba” systems. I observed this firsthand while kayaking in the middle of the river, 25 meters from shore. As I paddled over a bubbly patch of river I looked over to shore and saw a bamboo raft, on top of which was an air compressor with a plastic tube running from it into the water. I asked our kayaking guide, why were the villagers putting air into the river? He told me that there was a “diver” attached to the other end of the tube and he was collecting sand for gold panning. I was at first impressed by the ingenuity while also remembering from my PADI scuba certification that air from a standard air compressor can be very dangerous. The air fed to the “diver” by these petrol-powered compressors is filled with exhaust fumes and dangerous carbon monoxide.
While most of the gold panning on the Nam Ou is done by local villagers, there is also an increasing presence of larger, more commercial efforts. These are marked by the use of heavy machinery that is able to move significant amounts of earth on the banks of the river. And while the villagers have been panning for gold on the Nam Ou for at least 25 years, these industrial scale operations are new in the last couple of years. My guide informed me that the larger scale efforts are largely Chinese, permitted by the Laos government to mine the river in exchange for building badly needed infrastructure projects such as roads and schools.
With much of rural Laos being industrialized by the Chinese, it is only a mater of time before the quiet beauty of this mountainous country is transformed forever. There is no doubt that Laos is changing fast. For those looking to experience its laid back charms, now is the time to visit. I was encouraged and inspired to travel to Laos due in part to Kathy Dragon from TravelDragon. I had the good fortune to make her acquaintance through my work at J&J and she shared with me her amazing pictures and stories from her own travels to Laos. She insisted that Laos was changing very quickly and to be sure to made it there soon. I am very glad we did.
 Source: Luang Prabang Artisanal Gold Mining and Sociological Survey, Lao PDR Final Report for UNIDO “Removal of Barriers to the Introduction of Cleaner Artisanal Gold Mining and Extraction Technologies”  Source: http://envirocenter.research.yale.edu, accessed March 27, 2010