Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Edited by Lynne
Laos is such a chill country that one would never suspect it of having a communist government…but it does. An overnight train from Thailand and a ten-minute border crossing via the Friendship Train (an ironic name indeed, as major animosity, stemming from historical events exists between the Thai and Lao peoples to this very day) brought us to Laos. As we turned in the applications for on-arrival visas, the customs officer allowed the woman in front of us to enter the country not only for free, but also without a picture, because she was just sooo pretty. That’s when we knew we weren’t in “Kansas” anymore.
Short on historical sites (because Thailand stole them all…allegedly) but big on fun, Laos is certainly a cool little country.
When we first arrived in Vientiane, a sleepy little Mekong-riverside town that happens to be Laos’ capitol city, we were not sure how we would fill up a few days. Upon further exploring the city, however, we discovered some exciting little cultural nuggets, such as a vibrant riverside night market, municipal outdoor aerobics classes, an Arc de Triomph rip-off and Makphet Modern Lao Food, a restaurant staffed by rehabilitated street kids serving up the best food we found in Asia.
The deep-fried banana spring rolls with coconut ice cream topped with hibiscus sauce were, to say the least, not at all Laosy. A peek at Wat Sisakat constituted our obligatory temple visit, and the helpful attendants provided Mom, whose shorts did not extend below the knee, with a sarong…for decency’s sake. The temple has the distinction of being the only one not destroyed by invading Siam (Thai) armies. There was a fine selection of Buddhas, and one with a particularly large abdomen that Mom and Dad named “ascites Buddha” (bad joke for you medical types). Despite our initial misgivings, exploring Vientiane turned out to be a rewarding adventure indeed.
What a strange place! The contrast of the physical beauty with the “every day is Spring Break” atmosphere was bamboozling. As we lugged our suitcases through dusty streets, we beheld indoor/outdoor restaurant after indoor/outdoor restaurant filled with lethargic (stoned?) mostly 20-something tourists watching reruns of Family Guy and Friends at full volume.
Vang Vieng’s main industry is sending tourists down the Namsong River on kayaks and tubes. We signed on with Wonderful Tours and kayaked down the river, then switched to inner tubes to float around inside undeveloped caves. They weren’t exactly pitch black, because we were provided with head lamps.
The battery supply for my lamp consisted of a car battery with some wires sticking out of it hooked to a headlamp–it even came with yarn…ehem, I mean, a state-of-the-art shoulder strap! It definitely was the brightest light of the group, and I [somehow] wasn’t even electrocuted, so all was well in the end. After pulling ourselves through the caves using a rope bolted to the cave wall, checking out the stalactites and riding the current out of the cave, we kayaked to the next exciting locale: a set of riverside bars serving up booze by the bucketfull to loud, obnoxious tourists. The proprietors of these dives toss ropes to passing tubers and kayakers, pull them in, offer a complementary shot of some sort of distilled beverage (we didn’t partake), and then it is on to drinking games, earsplitting music, body paint, beach volleyball, ziplines, etc. We got out of there as soon as we could drag the guides away (they drink for free); I think I could see the revelers’ I.Q’.s slipping away as we watched, and it was somewhat painful. As we kayaked down the river, Team Nate & Eric hit a submerged rock, capsized (for their second time of the day) and had to be rescued by the guides–how embarrassing! Team Travis & Lynne, however, made the entire journey with no major mishaps.
Vang Vieng is also home to some “dry”caves. Firmly opposed to booking a cave visit with an established tour company (what fun would that be?), Dad spent the morning on the Internet and found a local map listing caves
and how to get to ‘em–can you hear the foreboding music playing? We hiked out to the other end of town, paid a toll to cross a wooden bridge, traversed a stunning rice paddy flanked by mountains on a raised dirt path and arrived at the entrance to one of the caves.
By the light of our headlamps, (leftovers from our Florida Hurricane Survival Kit), we descended into the muddy depths of a cave. It was slimy, muddy, and wet, but was exciting after the more sanitized, touristy caves we had been to already. Despite the rickety bamboo ladders, missing rungs, slick clay floors, waist-deep water requiring us to stow our shoes on a ledge, and creepy cave-dwelling spiders, everyone had a grand ol’ time. Even though we rinsed off in a nearby stream after the cave, our clothes continued to leach cave mud for several more sink washings.
We traveled to our next destination on a 7-hour van ride through a windy mountain pass–which was an experience in an of itself. Our driver was much less…daring…than the individual who ferried us from Cambodia to Thailand, for which we were extremely grateful.
The scenery on the drive was beautiful, and driving through mountain towns we observed many hill people in colorful dress, adorable uniformed school children, and the ever-present assortment of pigs, cows, goats, dogs, and chickens. Since we were at altitude, the air was cool, which was a most refreshing change from the rest of our time in Asia. As we perused the menu at a small, cliffside restaurant, we were impressed by the selection of unique entrees. We decided against the deer entrails cooked in liquid feces.
LPb has a few notable features that make it a worthwhile city to visit. This riverside town has a large population of Buddhist monks. These guys are only allowed to eat food that is offered to them, and they are only allowed to collect and consume this food between dawn and noon. Therefore, they have to get a pretty early start; every morning around 5:00 a.m., the monks parade silently through the streets collecting alms from Luang Prabangians. The presentation of alms is made more complicated by the stipulations surrounding the treatment of monks by laypeople, so the whole ordeal is very ritualistic. We managed to drag ourselves out of bed at this early hour, catch the monk parade, hike up Phu Si Hill to catch the sunrise at the site of a 24-meter gilded stupa called That Chomsi, and then check out the morning market–oh boy, what a market! Nestled among the more familiar foodstuffs were versions of vegetables that resembled something familiar, herbs, exotic fruits, dried, flattened squid, live frogs sewn together to prevent escape, crabs, still-gasping fish, ducks, chickens, guinea pigs, songbirds and squirrels all destined for an unfortunate end and… don’t forget the cockroaches and crickets.
In another stroke of not-so-brilliant planning, a boat festival was scheduled to take place just after we planned to leave Luang Prabang. Oh, what timing! Though we missed the main event, which I believe involves both races on the river and burning boat models, we saw many groups of novice monks and non-monks alike busily building bamboo boats (say that five times fast!) on our many strolls and bicycle rides about town.
Aside from being home to loads of French Colonial architecture and a whole lotta monks, Laos is home to some delicious chow, including French bread and pastries. Cheese was also back on the menu! When we came across a restaurant with an entire page of tofu dishes, I was in Vegetarian Heaven. Some of our favorite Lao plates were fried rice with cashews, fried tofu with ginger and fried morning glory (a sort of spinachey vegetable even better than chard).
Laos was an extremely pleasant surprise. This country was not part of our original “plan”–as if we actually have one of those–but we had some wonderful experiences, ate some delicious food, and met some awfully friendly folks. Our lovely, informative host at our guesthouse even took us to the airport, where we had the best coconut smoothie ever.
Next stop, Thailand: Round 2!
History of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos
by N. Smith
edited by L. Morris
So them Laotians, pretty chill people. You’d never know they were communist, except for the fact that the official name of their country contains the words “People’s” and “Democratic”: dead giveaway. Anyway, politics is a discussion for another time.
The Laotian people originally migrated into what is Laos today from southern China. (look at that, the Chinese even invented the Laotians, what’s next?!). Initially they were Khmer, like the Cambodians. Six hundred (so they weren’t exactly quick about it) years later in the 14th century the Laotians formed their first state, the Lan Xang, which means “million elephants”. The Lan Xang state lasted until 1713, when it broke up into 3 different kingdoms. Within the next 100 years the Laotians came under Siamese (Thai) control. In 1893, Laos became a French “protectorate” (meaning France was controlling it). Of course Japan invaded during World War II. A nationalist movement then began, because in Laos, as in most countries, people don’t like people 6,152 miles away telling them how to run their country. In 1946 the French put an end to the situation and made the King of Luang Prabang the constitutional monarch of all of Laos. By 1951 the Laotians decided they’d had enough and organized the Pathet Lao communist movement in Northern Vietnam (Pathet was short for Pathetic I think). This movement was organized by Prince Souphanouvong. Pretty soon the Viet Minh (actual Vietnamese communists, no Laotian Vietnamese communists) and the Pathetics invaded central Laos, starting a civil war. By 1945, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and gave the commies two northern provinces, and the rest to the royal dudes. In 1957 the two separate groups began negotiations to merge the territories to form one Laos, but this broke down by 1959 and they just decided to slug it out. It turned into a 3 way slug fest when another rich prince brat named Boun Oum set up a pro-western revolutionary government because he just wanted to feel important. In 1961 the 3 groups settled their dispute and formed a coalition government lead by Royal Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma. However in 1973 the Pathetics decided they didn’t like sharing control (even though sharing is what communisms all about; I’m sure the irony made Stalin roll in his grave) and seized complete control of Laos. Souphanouvong installed himself as the leader of the new government. The U.S. was heavily involved in the Vietnam War, and unsuccessfully supported the royals against the communists. About 250,000 Laotians who backed the wrong side in this fight were considered political refugees and were granted asylum in the U.S. Half of them are ethnic Hmong. On December 2, 1975 the communists abolished the monarchy once and for all. In August 1991 the Supreme People’s’ Assembly of Laos passed a law that pushed them away from a socialist government and just let them keep a one-party state (so they’re pretty much a dictatorship). Even with them not being overtly communist, people in Laos still complain of rampant corruption in the government, (not that I’m suggesting corruption and communism are somehow related… I’d never say something like that).
p.s. Since Laos isn’t as familiar to us Americans as, say, Canada, I thought I would include some facts about Laos. It is a landlocked country about the size of Utah located in Southeast Asia and is bordered by China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. The Mekong River runs through it. The population is about 7 million, and more than 90% of people are subsistence farmers, with the primary crop being, you guessed it, rice. The literacy rate is about 53% The unit of currency is the kip, which is fun to say, and since a dollar is worth about 8,000 kip, it is easy to be a millionaire in Laos!