Also known as "the land of a million elephants," Laos is a tiny country in southeast Asia about which most people know less than they do about any of its neighbors (China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar & Cambodia.)
Join me for a virtual tour of this fascinating nation with videos & pictures galore, and maybe a bit of history and politics too.
Buddhist 67%, Christian 1.5%, other 31.5% (mostly Animism)
Unexploded ordnance (UXO); deforestation; soil erosion; most of the population does not have access to potable water
Single-party socialist republic.
The purple asterisks (on the map @ right) can be followed as you read south to north and then counter-clockwise if you care to calibrate along with the photos and vignettes below.
The following video can serve as either your introduction to Laos or your soundtrack for this diary:
LAOS, P.D.R.: People’s Democratic Republic (or "please don’t rush")
The entire country is slightly larger than the state of Idaho but with five times the population. Yet, by southeast Asian standards, this is a very sparsely populated country. Apu from The Simpsons would call it "dangerously underpopulated" at least compared to its neighbors (China 1.3B, Vietnam 87M, Thailand 62M, Myanmar 48M).
The people of Lonely Planet seem to approve.
After years of war and isolation, Southeast Asia’s most pristine environment, intact cultures and quite possibly the most chilled-out people on earth mean destination Laos is fast earning cult status among travellers. It is developing quickly but still has much of the tradition that has sadly disappeared elsewhere in the region.
Laos gets tagged roughly thrice per year on dKos, so I imagine there's not a huge amount of interest about this small, land-locked SE Asian country. Last week, our beloved OPOL mentioned Laos in one of his rec'ed diaries. Kossack truong son traveler has wrote about UXOs in Laos a while back, as well writing a couple other items about the country. But it seems to have largely flown under the radar of late.
However, with the upswell in demonization of Socialism by the RW noise machine in the U.S. as well as an increase in political upheaval in neighboring Thailand, Laos might provide an important insight. It is currently a relatively peaceful and happy country.
The food is tremendously good. It's roughly a combination of Thai food and Vietnamese food. What more could you ask for?
Southern Laos: 4000 Islands in the Mekong & more
Islands in the Mekong were my introduction to Laos, where one can view the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin frolicking about. For $1/day I lounged in the hammock of my very own bungalow overlooking the massive river and its surreal sunsets. Then came the coffee-rich Bolovens Plateau where waterfalls plummet from over 100 meters to the lush scapes below.
The government of Laos, one of the few remaining one-party Communist states, began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. The results, starting from an extremely low base, were striking - growth averaged 6% per year from 1988-2008 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Despite this high growth rate, Laos remains a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. It has no railroads, a rudimentary road system, and limited external and internal telecommunications, though the government is sponsoring major improvements in the road system with support from Japan and China.
Anyone coming to Laos from Cambodia would take issue with the CIA here on its assessment of the roads. They are far superior to the washed out potholed dirt tracks of its southern neighbor.
The "Niagra Falls of the Mekong"
Wat Phou, an Angkor-era UNESCO world heritage site
Vientiane: A quiet, quaint capital
The only land-locked country in SE Asia also provides a rare glimpse of a sparsely populated, decentralized populace. It seems that well over half the people live outside the 5-7 bigger towns, with all of that majority cooking their meals over an open fire. These very poor people (I met a doctor who makes $20/ month) are generally some of the friendliest I’ve met in Asia.
Remnants of a cremation.
To give you an idea of the nature of the country, the capital is indeed the largest city, but its estimated population is only 200,000! Hardly your bustling metropolis like other nearby capitals Bangkok (7 Mil), Yangon (5 Mil), Hanoi (3.5 Mil), Jakarta (8.5 Mil), Dhaka(6.7 Mil), Beijing (9.5 Mil). Shall I go on?
French colonial architecture is prevalent in the capital.
I haven't a clue what these ladies are selling.
Hunky dude heads to the meat market for some (ox) tail
National Geo has the perfect photo of this giant reclining Buddha.
I don't get too excited by the work of this artist as it's so recent and made from concrete and rebar. Bit it's still pretty.
Smokers are devils a.k.a. bad pesson. Don't smoke cigars!
Fine happiness is the best kind of happiness.
Vang Vieng: Where the DFH crowd goes to play
I found the cafe that now plays (on 4 or 5 TVs) non-stop commercial-free DVDs of seasons 15-17 of The Simpsons.
Scores of tourists, many of whom come from Thailand for only a few days to renew their Thai visas, simply lounge around in hammocks watching TV, smoking various herbal remedies. In addition to The Simpsons, there is a cafe that plays Friends, and dozens which play recent Hollywood blockbusters.
The most somber note on my trip took place just minutes after my bus left the backpacker oasis of Vang Vieng. Our bus stopped when frantic people waved and shouted in Lao about an incident that had just taken place up the road. Up to 20 gunmen boarded a local bus demanding money and jewelry. They later opened fire, killing 8 locals and 2 unlucky Swiss cyclists who were passing by.
I was lucky indeed to miss this unpleasantness. I had even gone for a hike by myself just a few days earlier through the very area where the event took place. Numerous caves litter the jagged peaks nearby, some with streams flowing out allowing the swim in alternative for exploration. Or one can rent an inner tube & leisurely float down the river as the limestone cliffs slip by. It’s a shame that an isolated situation is what people will often think of when this town is mentioned now.
Hmong baby in the hills above where the attack occurred.
Phonsavan: Jars & Bombs
Craters from dropped American bombs clearly visible
The Plain of Jars is a field of, well,
jars fashioned from solid stone, most from a tertiary conglomerate known as molasse (akin to sandstone), and a few from granite. ‘Quarries’ (actually boulder fields) west of Muang Sui have been discovered containing half-finished jars. Apparently the jars were carved from solid boulders of varying sizes, which goes a long way to explain the many different sizes and shapes.
I don't know what they are for. Maybe you have a guess? They are a curious anomaly and, frankly, I like it that way.
The "Secret War" in Laos
Volumes have been written on the topic. It seems as if the CIA is still trying to cover its tracks today as internet searches are somewhat difficult for a relative luddite like me.
The gist of this American travesty is that we would drop bombs on Laos when planes were flying back to Thailand from Vietnam (they were often unable to "safely" drop them in the official war zones). The Hmong minority were trained as guerrilla forces to oppose the Pathet Lao, but were eventually abandoned by the US and face oppression in Laos still today.
The craters from dropped American bombs litters the landscape, and of course the bomb casings do as well. What is most interesting is to see some of the ingenious applications of this litter as it shows the resourcefulness of the local people.
Bomb al fresco dining ensemble
They even named the restaurant after the American legacy in Laos.
Although the casings make useful scrap metal, the UXOs themselves like this cluster bomb maim and kill scores of people each year, mainly children.
From truong son traveler's diary :
Between 1964 and 1973, US aircraft dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, a country with a population at the time of around 2.4 million people. These bombs included 277 million cluster bomblets or "bombies", as the Lao people call them. A typical failure rate is around 30 per cent and so it is estimated that some 84 million of these were left lying around on and in the ground in Laos.
It's time to end this type of warfare.
Take action HERE.
Where the war was won. The town's name means "The end of the fighting" as it's the enclave where thousands of Pathet Lao forces endured for years in caves. The American planes couldn't "smoke em out of their holes" after all. Hmmm...caves, guerrillas, war in Asia...sounds like something else...but I just can't put my finger on it.
>>>>> (Hammer & Sickle flies below the Lao flag) >>>>>
Communism: It's everywhere you want to be.
Propaganda billboard along side a Beer Lao billboard
Wide empty streets are emblematic of Communism (they are built as such so they could be used as runways for planes "just in case")
Women at the gov't telcom office playing computer solitaire at work.
This statue has some interesting elements. People are holding a hammer, a sickle, and a rifle. Underfoot there is a bomb with the clearly visible letters "USA".
Tourism is king
Girls selling tapestries to foreigners coming from Thailand on a boat on the Mekong.
GDP - composition by sector:
services: 26.6% (2008 est.)
Labor force - by occupation:
industry and services: 20%
These numbers seem to indicate that 20% of the population earns 60% of the wealth. From my experience on the ground, the cash cow is tourism. If you can work in any capacity in this field, you get more money for less physically demanding work.
Admittedly, there isn't a tremendous amount of life in the jungles of Laos because so much of the populace survives on hunting. You can attempt to see gibbons at The Gibbon Experience but bring your wallet. Three days with them would otherwise cover a thrifty 2-week budget in Laos.
This froggie was my roommate my first night in the country.
Must have been female; she liked the toilet seat down.
Busses are the method of choice for the budget traveler, and often the only choice. The local busses are usually very cheap depending on the destination, but the savings come at a cost (see: above, below). The amounts of goods piled on these vehicles exceeds anything one can imagine before seeing it. Scores of 50-kilo bags of rice are routinely piled on top of tall busses making an exciting, top-heavy load for the harrowing windy roads. Many tourists chose to take slightly cushier "tourist busses", minivans into which 15+ foreigners are crammed, but at least the ride is nonstop. They however miss much of the cultural element as a result while paying up to 10 times the cost of local transport, maybe more.
Rivers are often the "highways" where small private boats motor locals and tourists alike upstream, at least until the dry season renders such modes of travel overly precarious.
Getting around can be a bit hairy when your "bus" is also a cargo truck with dozens of 100-LB bags of rice on the roof.
And you're sitting next to a rooster.
And if you rent a scooter, bring your umbrella
Northern Mountain Region
If the 1st video is finished playing, you might enjoy watching or listening to this slice of rural life in northern Laos.
The vast majority of the people cook their meals over an open flame
Evidence of slash and burn, the source of 25% of the world's CO2 emissions.
The emissions do not include the loss of forest cover that results. That is a "separate problem" which of course is directly related in more ways than one.
Rubber is one of the preferred crops after slashing and burning. China has a huge demand for it these days. (That and any other natural resource or raw material, that is.)
The north of Laos is where most of the tribal people reside. There are large populations of Hmong & Khmou. In fact over 100 minor ethnic groups can be found in Laos.
Yi minority woman
Lantan women shave their eyebrows off completely
Akha women who are married keep one breast exposed.
Luang Prabang: UNESCO World Heritage site and more
The term "golden triangle" has come to refer to the opium production in the Thai/Burmese/Lao border region. But it also represents the trifecta of scenic gems in Indochina, the others being Angkor Wat, Cambodia and Bagan, Myanmar. For a large percentage of package tourists, Luang Prabang is the only place they will visit in Laos, often for barely 24 hours on a whirlwind trifecta tour.
There are countless temples in and around the town center.
Risque Buddhist art
Who doesn't like topless goddesses?
The Pak Ou Caves
Sometimes it’s good to be out of the news loop (i.e. far from Internet connections). If I had heard that an elephant had gone nuts and killed its mahout not 3 days earlier at the same festival I attended in India 2 years ago, that may have been the clincher one of the many times I was about to cancel.
And here I thought modern-day Republicans were the craziest elephants around!
Washing my elephant. Of course, the very next day it rained; I hate when that happens!
Sorry about that...that was a really Laos-y joke...
The surreal Kuang Si Falls is a worthy day trip just 6 K from town.
I was not expecting to come across this beautiful tiger there as a bonus.
The players of the royal ballet from the video at the top.
The players of the royal ballet playing (and getting soaked) during the Pimai parade
Buddhist New Year: Are you ready for super-soaking?
The Pimai (Lao New Year) water festival is unlike anything else. Kids & adults, locals and tourists, even friend and foe come out for a solid week with the single purpose of soaking one another from head to toe.
The party may consist of numerous traditions, but the aspect that dwarfs them all is the splashing of water to wash away the past year inviting good tidings for the new. Surely ancient methods of splashing involved bamboo & other natural water basins, but the people have adapted to modernity and embraced the luck-spreading virtues of plastic. The days before the event see truckloads of colorful weaponry hawked on the streets by clever vendors. Those in the know will arm themselves lest be a defenseless target.
I speak softly, but I carry a huge gun.
The Lao Pimai festival is the mother of all wet T-shirt contests. At least 4 days of soaking take place. The wetter you get, the luckier you’ll be in the coming year. They also smear burnt wok soot and throw tapioca flour all over your face and body. Add parades, rocket launches & a pervading sense of euphoria and you got yourself one helluva party.
Rockets are launched @ this festival on the shore of the Mekong
No fair! I have only a bucket but the kids have a frakking hose!
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