Laos behind the headlines (sorry, it’s not a Full Moon party on steroids)
Nicole Frisina writes: Laos hit the headlines recently after three Australians died in the space of a month in the tourist towns of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. But there is plenty more to say about this little landlocked country than these tragic reports suggested.
My first trip to Laos was in 2007. The twin propeller airplane wobbled and stuttered its way over the Mekong River when the woman next to me asked, “Do you know what the ‘PDR’in Lao PDR stands for?” “People’s Democratic Republic,” I replied hastily, more concerned with the cabin’s full throttle rattling and the obscure angle at which we were approaching the runway. She shook her head and with the dry note of a seasoned development worker, said, “Lao PDR. Please. Don’t. Rush.” The plane skidded to a halt on the tarmac.
For the next three and a half years, I lived and worked in Laos. I never saw that woman again (an accomplishment in a suffocatingly small expat community) but her mock acronym was right on the money. Reclining alongside the Mekong River, opposite Thailand, was Vientiane — the small town capital city, somewhere between what it once was and what it was yet to be.
Makeshift restaurants served bing bpa (barbequed fish) and Beer Lao to more locals than tourists under swaying tamarind trees along the foreshore. Markets were wooden labyrinths filled with mountains of seasonal produce grown in the giant wetlands behind the city. The tallest building was Don Chan Palace, a gaudy fourteen-storey hotel on the bank of the Mekong, which sat in lonely juxtaposition to the maze of street food vendors and ramshackle dwellings sprawled out beneath it.
My first encounter with local culture was meeting my Nyai Ban or Village Chief, Sangphet. He threw my housemates and I a Baci – an animist ceremony performed around a candlelit, flower alter where well-wishes are chanted while white cotton string is tied around your wrists. After the Baci, we presented Sangphet with a ceremonial bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label, as instructed by local friends. He cracked the top and we spent the night finishing the bottle, not a common language spoken between us. From that day forward, we never locked our doors, and we were never robbed.
This depiction isn’t intended to romanticise the country’s state of affairs. Laos is second only to Myanmar, which until recently was a pariah state, as the least developed country in the Greater Mekong region. Around 30% of Laos’ six million people live under the US$1 per day poverty line. Against its UN Millennium Development Goals, the discrimination of women, the persecution of ethic minorities, illiteracy and malnutrition are all at critical levels. In a familiar story for the region, political corruption and nepotism are ingrained cultural problems that ultimately hamper sustained growth and positive change.
It did also turn out that Sangphet wasn’t actually the Village Chief, but the 2IC. And the bananas and mangoes he was selling to us from his stand across the street were, in actual fact, plucked from our backyard.
When compared to the frenetic industry of its neighbours in China, Vietnam and Thailand (Cambodia and Myanmar to lesser extents), Laos is considerably more relaxed. People are generally not out to rip you off (in Sengphet’s position I might have done the same), but nor are they out to forge ahead with any great sense of urgency.
One of the first and possibly most useful phrases I learnt was bor pen nyang, loosely meaning ‘no worries’. A bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. People pile off. The bus driver starts cooking dinner on the bus’ overheated radiator. They don’t get the bus going for another two days. Bor pen nyang. Tenable to most circumstances regardless of their gravity or proximity to death, it pretty much encapsulates the Lao people’s laidback approach to life.
This relaxed and accepting spirit, in particular of foreigners, is more meaningful given the country’s recent bloody history. Laos is the most bombed country on earth. An estimated 260 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. An unforgivable amount particularly given Laos was not at war with anyone at the time.
This January I was back in Vientiane when the news broke of the second Australian tubing death in Vang Vieng. The Australian media’s coverage of these events was far from balanced. Sensationalist reports implied Laos had developed into, as one friend put it, a Full Moon party on steroids. It has not.
Vang Vieng sits beneath epic limestone mountains alongside the Nam Song River, three hours from the nearest major town. It is precisely what backpackers on gap years yearn to discover. You hire a tube and drift downriver, past jungle and mountains, stopping in at bars and dropping off flying fox swings along the way.
“Tubing” is fun and it can be risky. But that is the point. It is no secret that Laos is a developing country. Safety standards and medical facilities are third world. Locals cater to the growing ‘tubing’ market by building more bars and more river swings, but no one is forcing anyone to get blind drunk and take obvious risks.
This January, one year since I’d moved home to Melbourne, I saw things in Laos had changed, but it wasn’t into a seething drug den or into a tourist death trap. What had materialised was much starker.
Floods of regional investment had transformed Vientiane dramatically. The Mekong foreshore, which once hosted eating and beer drinking under tamarind trees, was a half-built highway and utilitarian style concrete boulevard that my Lao mates called Chinatown.
Talat Sao, the main marketplace, had been bulldozed and rebuilt by a Malaysian company into a concrete shopping mall, which was largely empty because local traders couldn’t afford the rent.
The Lao government purchased Muammar Gaddafi’s fleet of jets — the world’s only entirely lime-green leather upholstered jets. It will soon take just 20 minutes to fly from Vientiane to Luang Prabang; this in a country where roads and potholes are synonymous infrastructure features.
The first Mekong River mainstream hydropower dam, backed by the Lao Government and opposed for its catastrophic social and environmental impacts, is poised for construction by a Thai developer. Ten others just like it are planned in Laos with equally devastating effects and backing from similar power hungry investors, such as China.
On the other hand, many of my local friends had built their own houses. More of them drove around in cars instead of piling the family onto one motorbike. Some could afford health insurance and better education for their kids. Three of my female colleagues had won scholarships to study for their Masters at European universities.
When I asked my friends how they felt about the development of their country, they were spilt. Half said they saw the development as good, as helping to relieve poverty, and half worried about how the influence of so much foreign investment would change the Lao way of life. A way of life, as I was lucky enough to discover in the years that I lived there, that is far richer and more poignant than the recent reports by the Australian media have bothered to suggest.
Nicole Frisina is a self-confessed globetrotter and food lover. A Melbourne-based television producer by day and a freelance writer by night, she is currently working on the next series of Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong on SBS. Follow her on Twitter @Nicfrisina