The Lao “People’s Democratic” Republic
When you look at Laos on Google Maps, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that compared to the tangled net of roads that crisscrosses neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has only a scant sprinkling of little yellow lines connecting vast swaths of land. At first you’ll presume that Google Maps is missing some data, perhaps out of date. But you’ll be wrong; Laos actually does have only a handful of paved roads tying together entire districts.
Normally this is my least favorite kind of road: high traffic, straight cut highways linking population centers, likely in desperate need of resurfacing. However after one, then two, then three days of riding on smooth, clean asphalt with less traffic than most countries’ secondary roads, I realized that there’s so few roads in Laos simply because there’s so few people.
The capital Vientiane has less than two hundred thousand inhabitants and the next largest town has less than half of that. The Laotian population is broadly distributed throughout the country and with an overall population density of just 82 people per square mile, it feels nearly empty of people. In comparison, Vietnam’s population density is 813 people per square mile.
The Dark Side
It took about one day of riding through the hill tribe villages to realize that this country is poor to a level I hadn’t seen before. The first indication was widespread and absolute ecological devastation. The deforestation that has taken place in the mountainous northern regions of Laos is absolute. The forests that still stand are meager second growth (logged in the past) but even they are often dwarfed in area by scorched-earth-policy clearcutting. And what the villagers don’t log and burn for the planting of palm or banana plantations, they eat or sell on the pet market. I rarely heard wild bird calls let alone saw evidence of the deer, monkeys, bears, rabbits,and much more that used to roam these slopes.
Many Laotians have very little more than their tiny, dusty wooden or brick house and some hand tools to scratch a living from the land. It was strange crossing the border and feeling like I had wound the clock back by a couple hundred years. Why then – if Vietnam is sprinting into the twenty first century and Thailand is a fully modernized economic powerhouse even with its corrupt and restrictive military regime – is Laos wallowing in poverty? In answer, I’ll quote independent watchdog organization Freedom House:
The government views civil society as a threat to its monopoly on power and citizens have only minimal access to government information or consultation mechanisms. Restrictions on freedom of expression are severe. The government controls the local media and slander of the state is proscribed through harsh penalties.
The state violates most international human rights standards. Violations have included restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Hmong. Laos has few functioning institutional safeguards against state abuse.
State corruption in Laos is pervasive, impeding reform. The politically powerful engage in a wide range of corrupt behavior, and the regulatory environment to protect against this is virtually nonexistent.
Laos is a one-party Communist state that has been governed continuously by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) since 1975. The 1991 constitution enshrines the LPRP as the sole legal political party; thus there is no opportunity for rotation of power or alternative political activism.
When the Pathet Lao forces were crowned victorious in the civil war against the French and in the Second Indochina War against the Americans, this is the government they placed in power and it is by their hand that the Lao people continue to be squeezed for every penny they can scratch up while most other Southeast Asian economies enjoy an economic boom and a rapidly expanding free market.
When The Bombs Don’t Fade Away
Many Americans don’t know the extent of our ongoing legacy in Laos. In the largest covert CIA operation to date which took place over nine years, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos throughout 580,000 bombing missions making it the most bombed country in the world per square mile. For perspective, this is roughly the same amount of ordnance the USAF dropped in all of WWII combined.
There remains an estimated 80 million unexploded cluster bombs (similar in design to grenades) alone and only 0.5% of the country has been cleared of UXOs. UXOs (unexploded ordnance) account for around 50 casualties per year, 60% of which are fatal. At the current rate of UXO clearing, it will take over 600 more years to make the entire country safe.
The Plain of Jars
Little is known about the people who crafted the jars that gave this region of the Xiangkhouang Plateau its name. Scattered around the plateau on hills with commanding views of the dry plains, 2000 year old stone receptacles and a few round stones are all that’s left of what is believed to be a complex ceremonial burial practice. The jars may have been used to distill bodies before burial or as cremation chambers. Large round cut stones were found to be grave stones of those buried near the jars.
So far, there are over a hundred jar sites, each with between one and four hundred jars. Currently, only seven of the sites have been cleared of UXOs and opened to the public. The Xiangkhouang Plateau was one of the most aggressively bombed regions of Laos due to its geographic, topographic, and strategic importance. The entirety of Northern Laos (north of Vientiane) is rugged and mountainous with almost no significant open regions. This Plateau is the one exception, making it the place to control in a wartime scenario.
Even though there are seven open sites, most tourists take a guided tour – usually just of Jar Site 1. I went here first, arriving at opening time to beat the crowds. A German guy had the same idea and we teamed up to see the three sites together. Site 1 is located around a grassy knoll with open views of the plain and a small limestone cave. It features the largest jar and the most jars of the cleared sites. However, after visiting the other two, it felt obvious that the locals take the tourists to Site 1 in part to preserve the other two, much nicer sites.
Site 2 and 3 contain tighter groupings of larger, longer, and generally more impressive jars gathered on hills overlooking the plateau and shaded by massive trees that carpeted the ground with beautiful golden leaves. At Site 2, two of the trees had sprouted inside jars centuries ago and slowly grown large enough to split their 4 ton stone pots and have now mostly engulfed the shards in a dramatic display of tenacity.
A Slightly More Savory Legacy
Despite having thrown off the French colonial yoke just 45 years ago, French styles and imagery remain popular in Lao architecture, cuisine, and entertainment. Likewise, the tourists in Laos seem to be predominantly French. Just as any social tourist environment will almost surely split into a group of French people talking amongst themselves and a group of everybody else, it seems that they also choose destinations based on how much the place reminds the French of themselves.
The 4000 Islands
Laos’ corner of the Mekong Delta has long been a laidback waypoint on the Banana Pancake Trail. Time consuming to get to from Laos’ northerly tourist hotspots, it attracts the travelers moving slow and taking it all in. While Don Det – the island with most of the tourist infrastructure – has become a bit overcrowded and mainstream for “authentic cultural experience” seekers, it retains the same chilled out charm and natural beauty that made made the Thai islands one of the most popular destinations on Earth.
Here, travelers can rent kayaks, bicycles, or motorbikes or take guided riverboat trips, fishing expeditions, and sunset tours. The Mekong River Delta is also home to some of the few remaining Irrawaddy Dolphins, though sightings are rare.
Lao or Laos?
Before being annexed by France, the country that is now named the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was known as Lao. The majority ethnic group in Laos is the Lao people, though the country contains over a hundred other ethnic groups as well. The term Laos is the French romanization of the word – how French linguists decided to translate the sounds from the Lao alphabet to the Latin alphabet. Therefore, Laos remains a “correct” spelling in English for describing the country, but would not be used to describe the Lao ethnic group, as that classification came about after the French romanization had been amended. The language of Laos is also referred to as “Lao”. Regardless of which spelling is used, any Laotian (a person who is from Laos – interchangeable with the term Lao) will tell you that the correct pronunciation is made with a silent “s”.
For me, Laos has been a depressing yet educational country to travel through. While the Government throttles the country’s economy, access to information, and many of the modern freedoms we take for granted, the culture of conforming to the demands and proclamations of authority makes the prospect of positive change for the lives of the Laotian people appear even more grim.
However, one thing that every traveler I met there and myself loved about Laos was that the speed of life is still incredibly laid back and down to Earth. The Laos of today is often compared to how travelers found Vietnam 20 years ago. Not somewhere I plan on returning to, but certainly worth having gone once.