By Patricia H. Kushlis
It may be hard to believe but there are still places in Asia that are not overrun by too many people, too many cars, too much pollution, too many tourists and too much over-consumption. Laos is one. This landlocked country bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and China has somehow managed to survive 35 years of Communism-light avoiding the political excesses and reeducation camps that befell Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia and Mao’s mad-capped eccentricities that culminated in China’s devastating Cultural Revolution.
Photo of frangipani blossom on Lao airplane tail, Savannakhet, by PHKushlis November 2009.
Yes, Laos is still a one party state run by the Communists but even the Communists have had royal connections and the country’s Buddhist, folk and hill tribe traditions are in far more evidence than its politics. Yes, the population is largely poor - the statistics place it among the poorest in the world - particularly in comparison with its more affluent Thai neighbors but to be poor anywhere in the tropics of Southeast Asia rarely means to go hungry or without shelter.Map of Laos right from Perry Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas.
Even though I worked in Thailand years ago at the end of the Vietnam War, visits to Laos were pretty much off-limits with the exception of the capital Vientiane. In fact, I only once spent a couple of hours in Vientiane when I was an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Bangkok – flying up from Bangkok and then returning across the Mekong by none too sturdy wooden speed boat with folk guitarist in tow.
From the Buddha Caves to the Irrawaddy Dolphins
Last fall, however, I spent a week touring Laos from the Pak Ou Buddha Caves north of the former royal capital of Luang Prabang where the Ou River joins the Mekong to the Cambodian border and the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins unpredictably soaring out dolphin-like of their watery habitat in the Mekong’s south.
Photo left of Buddha Caves by PHKushlis, November 2009.
Laos is foremost a land of Buddhist monks – and the gold one sees is likely to be saffron robes and Buddhist temple decorations. Laos is also a land of forests, of elephants, of the frangipani tree, of coffee and tea plantations in the Bolevan Plateau, of Khmer ruins and, of course, the wide – but shallow and muddy – Mekong River that wends its way south from China, often forming the border with Thailand and then meandering through Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the Pacific Ocean.
This is not to say, however, that the Mekong can be navigated by large ships from stem to stern. It can’t: not only is the river far too shallow but it is also broken by a landlocked inland archipelago known as Si Phan Don not far north of the Cambodian border. Part of the year, the Mekong is even too shallow for all but the smallest tourist boats to venture much north of Luang Prabang.
In a sense, Laos represents another world – although not completely. Cell phones, digital cameras and the Internet have not passed it by. Youth study English if they can although French is the country’s colonial heritage and the Chinese, of course, are looking to make inroads in a variety of ways.
The British book publishers’ presence is quite visible – but what happened to the Americans? Absent, as far as I could tell. If the US government is interested in expanding its English language training presence in this country, it’s got a long way to go. Or maybe it just doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, craters from American bombs still pockmark the south and unexploded ordinance and landmines from Vietnam War era still make farming a risky undertaking – but that doesn’t mean that the English language and Americans aren’t welcome.
Photo left of English language books on sale in market in Vientiane and right of Buddhist monk photographing friends near That Louang, by PHKushlis November 2009.
Quite the opposite.
The dollar, not the RMB, is the country’s unofficial currency. The Thai Baht is OK, too and from what I could see, much of the investment in the tourist industry can be traced to Thailand.
When I lived in Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s, the countryside looked much like Laos does today. The air there is still clear.
Touring remains an adventure. The people are helpful and hospitable, and the frenetic pace of the 21st century returns to a delightful crawl. Laos is still an unspoiled destination, popular with cyclists, hikers and others - like me - who seek adventure off well trodden paths.