Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5h-6tOZ6AwDnYymSO-BW5_8A2vnbQ?docId=CNG.3a81d43933e045ff4dc46ca86c7bb6b3.a71
By Talek Harris (AFP)
LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Ask Sang Phet what he thinks of golf, and the answer is a dismissive snort. “Golf? I like football and boxing,” he says, leaning against his simple village home. “But golf? No.”
For years, the greying family man farmed a teak plantation in the picture-perfect hills near Luang Prabang, deep in the Laotian countryside and flanked by the meandering Mekong River.
But Sang’s home and livelihood, and those of hundreds of others, were swept away as Asia’s great modernising drive finally reached this serene, socialist corner of Southeast Asia, in the form of an ambitious new golf resort.
Now Sang, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their inquisitive dog live just outside the high fence enclosing what was once their land, in a rudimentary settlement of mud roads and no running water.
As expensive cars carrying senior politicians, businessmen and players arrived for last week’s Luang Prabang Laos Open, the small, backward country’s first ever professional golf tournament, Sang was unimpressed.
“The golf club is not good for here. People control it — you need special permission to go inside,” he says.
“Three years ago I had a big farm of teak trees but now I don’t work. I have to buy food in the market, I don’t have a farm. Now it’s quite difficult.”
Displacement is a familiar story in Laos, where the People’s Revolutionary Party has forced the mass migration of rural, often ethnic, villagers to more accessible areas, to make it easier to provide services and, it is suspected, to keep them under control.
Olivier Evrard, a Thai-based Laos expert with France’s Institute of Research for Development, says 60-70 percent of ethnic villages have disappeared over the past 20 years.
But people are now being forced to make way for rich new developments, including a Chinese-funded casino that has caused controversy at the “Golden Triangle” border between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
Former residents of the Luang Prabang golf course say they were paid five to seven million kip ($625-875) compensation to leave their bamboo homes, and more for lost land. It’s likely they had little choice but to accept.
However, some say conditions are better in their new village, where many houses are part-concrete and are wired for electricity. During a visit last week, UN agency UNICEF was carrying out a vaccination programme.
Mother-of-three Nit, 30, once farmed Laos’s signature sticky rice in the hills. Now she works as a cleaner at the new course for $100 a month, about the same as she earned through farming, while her husband has become a builder.
“We used to work on the land, but the land in this village is being used by many people already,” she says. “Now I work in the golf course.”
The course’s South Korean managers, led by its owner, tuna tycoon Lee Gang-Pil, say there were no complaints or protests from the 800 villagers cleared from the large site before construction started in early 2009.
Sitting in their air-conditioned new clubhouse, an impressive building with a marble stairway and French chef, they say compensation money was paid to the authorities, who distributed it among local people to build new homes.
“These people were on the mountain, but we moved them to good areas and moved them all together,” says operations director Bruce Kim.
“So we gave them new possibilities and their life is better than before. Now one village is better than a city or town. The villages are outside the golf course but better than a city.”
Lee noticed the potential of the area — next to a UNESCO world heritage city with an international airport — while on holiday, and has so far risked $30 million on the venture in one of the world’s poorest countries.
As well as the 18-hole championship course, Lee is planning a hotel with conference facilities, holiday villas and another nine holes of golf, all spread over 900 hectares (2,225 acres) of the Laotian countryside.
“This is only the beginning,” Lee said during last week’s Luang Prabang Laos Open, whose $80,000 purse was a record for the country.
As the last group of golfers completed their first rounds, a small army of local women cleaners wearing traditional hats and skirts followed behind, picking up litter and repairing divots.
But because golf is new to Luang Prabang, Laos Open organisers had to bus in 50 female caddies on the bumpy, eight-hour journey from the capital Vientiane, which has five courses.
Chris Jordan, a senior official with World Sport Group, which runs the ASEAN PGA Tour, says much of the personnel and equipment had to be sourced from scratch, and was often brought in from outside.
“Doing an event for a first time in a country that’s never done an event before is quite an amazing challenge,” he admits.
“We say we need some A-boards, scoreboards, direction boards, where are we going to find them? And we say, ‘Well, there’s a guy in Thailand who can bring them in’. And we go through the whole list.”
He adds: “Obviously it’s been a little bit difficult at times, because of a) language; and b) they haven’t got a clue what we’re talking about. But they smile and we work it out between us. We use sign language and get on with it.”
Meanwhile nearby villagers, known for their love of loud music, were told to keep their radios down during the four-day tournament to avoid disturbing players.
In Ban Hoi Pai village, outside the fenced-off course, Chant Peng, who guesses her age at between 65 and 70, is oblivious to the big event nearby. She has little idea about this new, foreign sport.
“I don’t know anything about it,” says Chant, weaving clothes on a loom in her dirt yard, while a plump chicken sits under an upturned basket. “The ball looks like an egg.”
Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved. More »