Crossing the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos for a two-day trip downriver in a small boat, we didn’t really know what we would encounter. What we found was an isolated, little-known and seldom-visited country whose name could well have been the Kingdom of Contradictions.
To begin with, there is the name. Historically called the Kingdom of One Million Elephants and the White Umbrella, Laos is not a kingdom and has few elephants.
Moreover, no one seems able to agree on whether the country should be called Lao or Laos. Even the Laotian Embassy in Washington, D.C., uses both names. Europeans and Asians invariably refer to the country as Lao, whereas Americans like to put an “s” on the name. One story is that the plural version dates to French colonial days. When France invaded the country in the 19th century, Laos was split between northern and southern kingdoms. France unified them in a single colony made up of the two Laos.
Sharing a long border with Vietnam, Laos for millennia remained isolated from and distrustful of its larger neighbor—until the past half century. Geographically and demographically as different from its neighbor as it could be, it nevertheless shares Vietnam’s Communist ideology, collective system of government and its patterns of politics and administration. If there is any people in the world ill suited for a rigid Communist dictatorship, however, it is the easygoing, idiosyncratic, ethnically diverse Buddhists of Laos who for centuries have shown themselves averse to ideology and conflict.
Laos has followed in lockstep with Vietnam in recent decades, changing abruptly and dramatically every time its neighbor did—in defeating the French in 1954, the U.S. in 1975 and China in 1979, reacting to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and moving closer to both the U.S. and China. But the country, like Vietnam, has most recently had serious problems with the Chinese. Vietnam is on the verge of a naval war with China over some rocks in the South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the South Sea). In Laos three explosions have targeted a Chinese construction project in the center of the country; the most recent at the end of January killed two Chinese workers and seriously injured a third.
All of this is of particular interest to the United States, which has become a close trade partner and virtual military ally of Vietnam—and thus indirectly of Laos, Vietnam’s closest ally and needy dependent.
Another contradiction is that Luang Prabang, for centuries the capital and the residence of the king, is both the most and least Laotian city in the country. Unlike almost all other Laotian villages, towns and cities, it was not destroyed by U.S.bombers, so almost alone among Laotian cities it is intact. Nineteenth century wooden houses and shops and 16th, 17th and 18th century Buddhist pagodas fill the narrow streets and even narrower brick alleys in the old quarter, divided from the newer neighborhoods by two rivers and steep hills.
However, all the ancient splendor of palaces and pagodas, all the human diversity of red-robed monks and vividly costumed indigenous peoples, the romance of traditional weddings and the color of tiny guesthouses hidden away in old mansions—all the things that make Luang Prabang a thoroughly Laotian city also make it a tourist mecca, really the only one anywhere in the country. Many tourists in fact visit just this one city and then head on to Vietnam or Thailand or anywhere with a more developed tourist infrastructure. It is, in fact, one of the few cities in Asia in which you can get a Vietnam visa.
The tiny streets are chockablock with tourists, probably several hundred while we were there, which, in Laos, seems like a multitude. Shops and galleries and cafes and fine restaurants satisfy their needs. Quality clothing is made to order. Tours along the rivers, to ride the few remaining domesticated elephants and to stay in nearby indigenous villages are on offer at every corner.
Yet somehow this tourist economy does not ruin the appeal of the real Laos, the old Laos; it merely adds another layer, a depth, a complexity and, yes, a contradiction. If you want things to be simple, don’t come to Laos.
The final and greatest contradiction is that although Laos is a landlocked country, it is dominated by water. It has 10 navigable rivers, one of them the mighty Mekong, another the Nam Ou, which flows through Laos for 750 miles. The lower Mekong includes an area known as the 4,000 Islands and in the monsoon season can expand to a width of 10 miles. Fish is a staple of the diet and is cheaper and more available than meat. The impoverished country’s main export today is hydroelectric power from a rapidly expanding series of dams built by China, with the power exported to the Chinese grid and then repurchased by Laos at relatively high rates.
With 70 percent of its land still covered by forests, Laos is the least developed country we visited but, in some ways, the happiest. The people, we found, are universally charming, gentle and welcoming. Despite the initial hostility of the theoretically atheist Communist regime, Buddhism has managed to survive and prosper, and the Buddhist spirit of accumulating merit by being kind and doing good deeds is part of the Laotian way of life.
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Almost no one goes to the most famous place in Laos, the Plain of Jars, where thousands of mysterious funerary urns, some thought to be 2,000 years old and weighing several tons, cluster across a vast valley hemmed in by high mountains. No one knows what civilization created them, why or how. The mystery, the desolation, the awesomeness and loneliness of the plain create an apt symbol of the spirit of Laos.
With fewer than 7 million people, 70 percent of its land covered by forests and no large cities, this string bean of a country feels tightly squeezed between the Mekong River and Thailand to the west and the Annamite Mountains and Vietnam to the east. To the north is a sometimes tense border with China and to the south a nearly closed border (with only one legal crossing) with devastated and even poorer Cambodia.
These neighbors, a vertiginous geography of high mountains and deep canyons, and nearly unparalleled environmental threats from Chinese dams and logging, make life harsh and tourism difficult. But the Laotian people themselves manifest a charming and gentle joyousness, and my wife and I, in common with the few foreigners who do make it here, found the country unforgettable.
Not the least of the obstacles the Laotians face is their government, which, like all the governments in Southeast Asia, is unworthy of its people. In the case of Laos, it is a secretive, hardline and remote Communist leadership whose decisions, let alone the process by which they are reached, are impenetrable and often destructive of their country.
The most famous place in Laos is the Plain of Jars, the focus of an American air campaign during which more bombs were dropped on Laos than on all the countries of Europe combined during World War II. It is the most bombed piece of real estate in the world, and Laotians are still suffering and dying from these bombs, which continue to explode with unsettling regularity. Ever-inventive Laotians have salvaged the metal from bomb casings and fashioned it into all manner of things, including trinkets for the tourist trade. We bought our son a keyring made from such a salvaged silver sliver.
All over Laos but especially on the storied Plain of Jars, signs warn tourists not to wander off established trails. Of the hundreds of archeological sites on and around the vast plain, only three are readily accessible.
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Laos is a country that moves slowly, in more ways than one. Bus trips of a hundred miles took us a full day, boat trips down the many rivers took us two days to cover about the same distance. Roads are narrow, steep and by and large in poor condition. Potholes and ruts are more common than not.
The mountains are high and steep, the valleys deep, carved by rushing streams that pour out of the rain-soaked mountains. Tiny villages cling to narrow ridges with steep drop-offs on both sides. The roads are so precipitous than many of our Laotian bus companions spent their time moaning and vomiting.
Riding by bus and boat through the Laotian countryside, we saw no city, no modern life. Much of the time, we felt as if we could have been in the 19th or the 15th century.
The Laotian government, too, seems stuck in the past—in this case a Soviet past. Its anonymous collective leadership is about as opaque as a government can get. Its self-destructive exploitation of its only resources, rivers and forests, is a policy taken from the playbook of 19th and 20th century dictators all over the world.
Yet, strangely, this is also a country that seems at peace. It is a country that has been used to muddling through for centuries, with a domestic talent for compromise and an international penchant for being ignored. By and large it has been ruled by more powerful countries, whether neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam or Westerners from France and the United States.
Foreigners came and conquered, invaded and bombed, but once they found what Laos was truly like, they proceeded to ignore it almost entirely. Thus when the French were chased out in 1954 and the Americans two decades later, Laos had changed little from its centuries-old (there is growing evidence of millennia-old) lassitude.
The Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist party which came to power in 1974, was hell bent on changing all that, and doing so in a hurry. It dethroned the king (and reportedly starved him to death in a remote cave), more or less abolished Buddhism, jailed the entire governing elite with a cover story of re-education, abolished most private property, outlawed capitalism, moved the capital from its historic center in Luang Prabang to the small city of Vientiane and even tried (and failed) to build a new capital from scratch near the Vietnamese border.
In the late 1980s, however, Laos followed the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam in abandoning the effort (idealistic or cynical, depending on your point of view) to revolutionize society and improve on human nature. The Pathet Lao accommodated itself to the stubborn Laotian reality. Buddhism revived, private property returned, the elites were freed and Laos returned to what, for it, was near normality.
Today, for one of the few times in its long and tumultuous history, Laos is at peace with all of its neighbors, growing steadily if unspectacularly, and opening itself to foreigners, be they businessmen, construction workers or tourists like my wife and myself. It just goes to show you don’t need either a king or a million elephants to prosper in the modern world.