The Kingdom Smaller Than An Insect

Trip Start Aug 25, 2010
Trip End Aug 15, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, March 18, 2011

Any nation that must be mispronounced incorrectly even to attract any sort of public recognition is most surely deserving of just that. Most commonly known as 'Layoss' as JFK suggested (the idea of a country sharing a name with an insect apparently being too confusing), the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos (actually pronounced without the s), has had a somewhat tumultuous passage to the twenty first century. Tossed around like flotsam during various dynastic struggles in the distant past, then similarly utilized as a pawn in the Vietnam War, once the country of Laos emerged as we know it today, deep scars blighted the nascent nation. This is not an over literalisation - Laos is the most bombed country in the world per square mile, due to American airstrikes on troops approaching the Ho Chi Minh trial in the south of Laos. And even today, Laos remains among the poorest nations in the world, ranking among sub Saharan Africa in terms of adult literacy, annual income and general living standards.

         Bearing this bleak history in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking that Laos would consequently be a bleak, war torn backwater with nothing but its history and an endemic drug problem. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Exaggerations aside, Laos is a perfect demonstration of what human nature should always look like.  

        South East Asia can be an odd place at times-often meters of water can change the feel of a place quite profoundly. Crossing the Mekong by a long boat powered by a car engine from Chiang Kong on the Thai bank on the river and arriving in the small Laotian town of HouayXai, several things stood out to me immediately. Most noticeably, it felt as though I had stepped back in time. Instead of brash, colorful advertisements, small shops pedaling small goods and fantastic French style baguettes (unheard of across the water) flanked the road into town. Even the demographic was significantly different- rounder faced people of the hills beamed from shop fronts, wearing more traditional dress than the hot pants and tanktop look that is so popular in Thailand.

   Although the instability of the national currency (the kip) is such that baht and dollars are accepted for larger purchases, I went to exchange some of my Thai money for kip. The money bearing the face of the revolution leader Kaysone, came back to me in hundreds of thousands. I was the closest I will probably ever be to being a millionaire. What surprised me however, was the lady I exchanged the money with. Without even considering I spoke Thai to her, and as she counted out my millions (?!) she commented in passing "you speak Thai well!". This took me aback “But, this is Laos”, I replied in jest. “You speak Laos, you can speak Thai”. I hate to say it but sometimes clichés hold true-at times South East Asia is best described by the old Khaosan Road favourite- everything is “same same, but different”.

   Once visas and currencies were arranged, we wasted no time in catching our boat that would take us along the Mekong, stopping one night in a small town called Pakbeng, then onto the historic capital Luang Prabang. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular to travel to the city by longboat on the Mekong river ,as apposed to a nine hour journey on a minibus on dusty roads.  And quite soon ,it became apparent why this was.

   Beginning on the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong is Asia’s tenth largest river splitting running  through seven (Tibet is an independent nation in my book) countries in all: China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam, sustaining all manner of  life along the way.  In fact, only the Amazon can lay claim to a higher level of biodiversity.  Unfortunately, a river pivotal to so many countries fledgling economies is bound to be divisive. In April this year it emerged that work on a new dam in Xayaban in southern Laos had begun, without the approval of the UN development program. This was particularly contentious, as the Mekong River Commission had already warned that not only would a dam threaten the 850 various species of fish resident in the river (29 of which were only recently discovered in 2009), but would compromise the livelihoods of twenty million farmers in Vietnam who rely on the river to support fifty percent of their rice output. Similar claims have been made about the impact on livelihoods in Cambodia.  Predictably however, less criticism has been voiced about the numerous dams planned in China’s Yunnan province from behind the heavy veil  of censorship. 

   And yet, gently stuttering along in a longboat (I believe was powered by a bus engine this time), the river betrays none of this political turmoil. The water itself is fast flowing and incredibly clean-the only waste evident was a few discarded bamboo shoots that we passed. Flanking the banks of the river are sheer hills and rainforest, and thus it became easy to see how large swathes of Laos remained relatively unscathed by the onslaught of the 21st century.

  Interestingly, the term in both Thai and Laotian language for river is mair nahm-literally translating as “mother water” ,and in sort of poetic sense, this is fitting. The people who live abreast with the river rely on it to provide almost every aspect of their exsistence. We passed men in small boats casting nets, women washing clothes and children playing with infantile relish in the water, all living a kind of reverie like lifestyle compared with the modern world.  As we passed, all these faces turned to grin and wave at the aliens who in turn have come to ogle, photograph, then return anon to their lives of space age complexity. I sometimes wonder if we misconstrue their smiles of perceived welcome, when they are in fact those born of pity.

  After a leisurely day onboard the boat consuming Laotian baguettes (one of the few things to thank the French colonialists for) and enjoying the view, we were to spend the night in the small town of Pakbeng as  it is treacherous to navigate the Mekong at night. Rapids and irregular shallows are said to be able to run ships aground and even break them if they are dragged over rocks. Despite hearing some malign things about the town, a healthy selection of hotels/guesthouses have sprung up in the town to accommodate those taking the longboat to Luang Prabang. After docking we found a decent enough guesthouse owned by an incredibly charismatic Laotian lady named Pontip. In fact I doubt we would have stayed therer if we hadn’t liked her so much. After taking our orders for breakfast, she casually inquired: ‘how about tonight, do you want some weed…..or opium?’. We took this as a joke initially, but it emerged that she was quite earnest in her offer-it seems the golden triangle still glitters yet...

  Next day was spent in much the same way, reading, chatting with the other people on the boat and generally kicking back. We arrived at about 5pm in Luang Prabang as the sun set. Initially I couldn’t actually believe this was the city. I had been expecting some kind of port (or at least something of scale) yet, all that marked this out from all the other settlements was that twenty to thirty other boats and houseboats were docked down the river, with families onboard beginning to prepare their evening meal together. Walking up into the concrete verge to the main town, it was immediately obvious that urban Laos and urban Thailand are intensely different beasts….

By Euan Raffle
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kakakaabroad on

More interesting photos to come, the uploader is being a pain!

englishmum on

Looking forward to the photos -any chance they could be the right way up this time???
I want to go to Laos now! next year?
See I've changed my pic - happy days at Doi Suthep xxxx

englishmum on

Dunno what's happened to this pic -it won't let me select a part of it. So I have temporarily become a tree! xx

kakakaabroad on

No I thought I would help everyones chiropractor a bit ,by making everyone strain their neck! You have seen them all already anyway!

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