It’s a land of tropical forests. Approx 70% of the country consists of mountains and highlands and plateaus. However the most dominant feature of its geography is the Mekong river. It’s the longest river in SE Asia and more than a third of this river snakes its way through from north to south of Laos before exiting into Cambodia. Expectedly it forms the backbone of its economy. In the absence of railway network, extensive roadways , it is the river which is used as means of transportation. I took a boat called the ‘slow boat’ which two days from Thailand to Laos .. a relaxing, noiseless tour, refreshing trip looking over coastal villages, limestone caves, strange rock formations and jungle.
Laos well use the river - rice and fish form the staple diet (that’s not to rule other land creatures ant eggs, cockroaches, fried rats – one with its mouth wide open as if it screamed to death, being sold in the market). Mekong is also harnessed for hydro electricity – part of it exported to Thailand.
(Well big brother China, where Mekong originates, is set to put out 20 dams much to the chagrin of Laos and other nations like Cambodia, Vietnam!)
All the country’s major townships are located on its banks. Life often revolves around the river – street stalls, bamboo guesthouses, cafes and bakeries are pletiful along the banks.
Most Laos cities are pretty small enough to be comfortably explored and savored by foot or bicycle. Laos is not made for high speed anyways .. slow motion is more like it! Luang Prabang a town set in the north is a World Heritage Site and Laos’s beauty queen. Awakened from its long slumber of war and revolution, this enchanting city is encircled by mountains and set 700 m above sea level, at the confluence of two mighty rivers – Mekong and Nam Khan. Its got a quiet, spiritual air about it (given its the 60 odd temples) Luang Prabang’s dominant features are the gleaming roofs of numerous traditional wats (Buddhist temples), saffron clad monks, bowl in hand, in search of their morning meal, French bakeries selling long and short baguettes and pastries, long neat rows of French colonial houses flanking the street ways. Luang Prabang is neat, orderly, refreshing and soulful.
The capital Vientiane which is more ‘commercial’ and ‘predictable’ housing government and official buildings while boasting of big, monstrously sized Toyotas and Hyundais now outnumber by far pedicabs and bicycles which were dominant not long ago.
Sitting in between Luang Prabang and Vientiane is Vang Vieng, a stunningly picturesque town with beautiful limestone karst terrain. It’s a backpackers delight given plenty of options to kayak, swim, tubing, rock climbing. Cave exploring is a must there and there are many to choose from. One I went to overlooks a river valley and the pool of water at the foot of the cave feeds into a river. You can literally swim about 80m in the cave! Its dark, cold and wet inside … we happily floated into the cave sitting on large circular tubes with head torches. The cave was a marvel with amazing patterns frozen by time on its limetones insides.
But why Laos isn’t an Asian Tiger may be explained by its sour history. Successive waves of invaders including Siamese, Chinese, Burmese, French, Japanese, Americans, Annamese (Vietnamese) attempted to control, use and abuse the country. The French controlled Laos for about 65 years before they granted Laos independence in 1949! No sooner the French left, Laos found itself being dragged inexorably into the affairs not only of its immediate neighbors but of the conflicting ideologies of the superpowers – China, USA and USSR which used Indochina to test their military and political theories. America embarked on a CIA backed secret war since they feared Communist integration. ‘Secret’ because the Geneva convention didn’t give permission for such a war!! (sure the Americans never need permission!). So secret was the war that the in all war related communication, Laos was never mentioned. It was given secret codes like ‘Other Theatre”. For a decade (1964 to 1973) the US were crisscrossing Laos on bombing missions in Vietnam. In order to fulfill their order to release all bombs, the B52 captains would simply empty their bomb bays over Laos on their return from Vietnamese air strikes. Before the bombing halted a total of 20 lakh tons of explosives had been dropped in Laos. To put it more clearly , a planeload of deadly ammunition was dropped every hour for 9 years!! It would take 100 years to clean away all the deadly bombs. that still exits. About 10 people die every month due to stepping over unexploded ammunition. Despite the carpet bombings, it surprising that that the Laos don’t seem to hold a grudge against the Americans – not the average tourist, not the official bodies. In the fact the Americans opened their embassy and consulate way earlier than other nations. Part of this could be attributed to the Buddhist philosophy so deeply engrained in the culture – with compassion as one its core teaching. Cant help but comparing that to the US reaction to other nations (Uncle Bush would come here to take some lessons in wisdom .. I bet the forgiving Laos would roll out a red carpet for him …).
War scars i.e leftover bombshells has well been put to use by this poor nation - fences, knives, storage pots.. I even saw a monastery bell made of one.
Laos is often less described as a nation state than a conglomeration of tribes and languages. The Lao divide themselves into 4 distinct groups Lao Thoeng, Lao Soung, Lao Loum, Lao Thai. classified basis the altitude they live and their occupation.
Despite ‘history’, Laos has retained its district and unique Lao identity. The vast number of ethnic tribes have without the benefit of written scripts have relied on orally transmitted and memorized legends to explain their origins and traditions.
Phi (spirit) worship is still strong although its officially banned. Phi is believed to inhabit all animate and inanimate forms of life – rocks, trees, fire. There is evidence of it everywhere once one observes. Keeping good relations with and appeasing the phi is crucial, without which sickness and misfortune will befall. Baci is a common ceremony held at most Lao festivals to help restore harmony and balance, both to the individual and the community. Similarly wearing of protective tattoos is still common. Even some Buddhist abiding monks have tattoos on!
All people are dressed very neatly. You wont even find anyone poorly dressed. I think this emanates from a strong sense of sanitation and hygiene which is seen everywhere so far. I have yet to come across a stinky toilet (be it a street side restaurant or a public place) or rubbish strewn on the road like back home. That was a bit of a culture shock for me.
Women are dressed in traditional long wraparound skirt (loonghi style) and a tight fitting long blouse or more often these days the usual western shirt or T-shirt. Young girls are in jeans or short skirts at times (much less than their Thai counterparts). The men have taken to international style trouser/ capris and shirt. What is cool to me is the big conical hat thats ubiquitous. Its mostly worn by street vendors .. a pleasant sight!!
Besides Lao, there are a few Christians and Muslims - mostly of Indian origin. They are typically Tamilians whose forefathers had somehow made it to Laos around the time of war. (I haven’t understood that part). Fortunately for many of them Indian restaurants (equipped with TVs playing Tamilian and Bollywood channels ) serve chai besides the usual biryanis and aloo palak kind of meals. That’s comes to me as a true blessing!! Nothing competes with strong punch of ‘Indian chai’ which I strongly missed in Thailand!!!
“Lao-ness” is defined by Buddhism (Theravada) which emphasis detachment, Thus strong emotions are taboo in Lao society. Karma (like in Indian society) determines their path in life and hence they tend not to get too worked up about their future. Their typical relaxed laid back, unhurried attitude is can be mistaken for a lack of ambition. Its quite usual to see people chill out with the all famous Lao Beer or Lao Hai (lao whisky … costing about the same price as water!).
A French saying goes “ the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow!”Lao commonly express the notion that ‘too much work’ is bad for the brain and they often would feel sorry for people who think too much. Work without an element of fun (muan) will probably lead to stress (this is the Thai thinking as well .. ‘sanook’ – which I understand as in ‘masti’ in Hindi is a vital necessary ingredient in everyday life).
Thailand has a huge influence on Laos. All TV sets I’ve seen play Thai channels .. soaps, music. While jeans and tops can pass off as daily wear, mini skirts are reserved for bars. it’s the pick up girls ‘dress code’ almost. I visited some bars here out of curiosity .. its fun. One of them was a haunt for local youth. They shy away from revealing clothes - almost all were in long skirts or jeans, long sleeved tops and jackets unlike their Thai counterparts. Different genres of music typically play – Lao, Thai, English (60s .. like Elvis, Beatles).
Lao music is gentle and so is the dance … the hands are used a lot – delicately and expressively (imagine a Meena Kumara using her hands). Each time the song ends .. everyone clears the floor .. rush back to their seats and return for the next dance. (funny!) … In seriously ‘elite’ bars, pick up girls (a la Thai style) are seen dancing with older successful moneyed men. A ‘menu’ of such girls is available at the entrance. They sit outside the bar in a row waiting to be picked up. They aren’t a loud, arrogant lot - rather shy, extremely good looking, and ultra feminine in long shiny black hair, full lips (so characteristic of Laos women) and doll like long legs. Vow!
Hope to be back here once again .. but fear it would have lost some bit of its quaint Lao-ness which is so distinct and heart-warming!