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.
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