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In a Quiet Land

An old colonial saying makes a simple but insightful depiction of Indochina:

“The Vietnamese plant the rice,
the Khmer (of Cambodia) guard the rice,
the people of Laos listen to it grow.”

In the 40’s these countries achieved independence from France. Since then, Cambodia made news due to the atrocious Khmer Rouge genocide while an extensive gallery of infamous Hollywood movies portrayed Vietnam and the war in a questionable way. As for Laos, little has been known.  Has the country been asleep in a half-century long siesta?  The answer is yes -and no.

Kuang Si Waterfall

As in the neighboring countries, equally tragic events have plagued it’s recent history, but in Laos –to everyone’s amazement – nothing seems to separate the Laotians from peaceful and unpretentious lives. In the last several years it’s peculiar socialist government has loosened the restrictions on outsiders and heaps of travelers and backpackers have begun to cross the border from Thailand, China and Vietnam. 

The Islands of Southern Laos
The geography of land-locked Laos is dominated by the great Mekong river which is born in the Tibetan plateaus and crosses the country north to south. Nearing the Cambodian border, the river widens, flooding an extensive area called Si Phan Don -The Four Thousand Islands. Just like the name says, hundreds of small islands of different sizes form a unique aquatic ecosystem. The largest islands are inhabited year-around, even during the monsoons. One of them, Don Det, is reached zig-zagging through a labyrinth of interlinked canals in a narrow motorized canoe. Clusters of palm leaf-roofed huts are the most conspicuous accomodations for visitors. The rhythm of life is set by the languid movement of the river that seems to impose a state of collective napping. There are no cars, no electricity (and therefore, no internet), just enough hammocks that make for total relaxation. Nobody seems to be in a hurry. The villagers are always eager to exchange a smile.  If you can drag yourself out of your hammock you can visit one of the nearby fair-sized waterfalls or check out some of the few remaining Irrawaddy dolphins.

Luang Nam Tha

The 4 Thousand Islands is the place to experience total calm. Early in the morning, the canoes head for the market, loaded with fresh vegetables and river fruits. At dusk, the men wade waist-deep in the river, throwing nets into a shallow pool with sleepy fish. Wrapped in their colourful sarongs, the women chat warmly while descending to the river for the afternoon bath. The day comes to a close with a walk through the rice paddies accompanied by a bunch of curious urchins, leaving one with a deep sense of well-being. 

Besides the Si Phan Don area, there are other interesting spots in southern Laos. The Champasak ruins are a scenic archaeological Khmer complex of the eleventh century, where thousands of pilgrims gather annually for solemn religious ceremonies. The Bolaven is a plateau with close-to-perfect conditions for agriculture. The fairly well-known Paksong coffee is grown in the Bolaven. Numerous villages of minorities are scattered throughout the valleys and along rivers that descend from the plateau. The traditional huts are surrounded by animistic altars. It’s not uncommon to witness a water buffalo sacrifice. In these rural areas, the villagers still maintain their ancestral ways of life.

The legacy of war
During the Vietnam war, the communist troops moved massively into and through Laos, in order to avoid the US airplane bombings. This was the infamous military route known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”.  More than 600 thousand men were mobilized through an underground network of tunnels. Both parts involved in the conflict used Laos territory as a lawless battlefield, ignoring all international conventions. With time, this shameful chapter was dubbed “the secret war of Laos”. 

Tadio Waterfall

The numbers speak for themselves. Between 1964 and 1973, more than two million tons of ammunition were dropped upon Laos. That is, 1 airplane-load each 8 hours during 9 continous years. Laos holds the dubious record as the most bombarded country in the world. The story doesn’t end there. About 30% of the ammunition did not detonate after hiting the ground. International agencies and NGO’s work in the deactivation and removal of the war’s undetonated ordinance. Despite their efforts, these still account for several accidental deaths each year.

In the south it’s possible to visit the remains of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An aerial view shows the immense craters left by the bombs. Burnt tank skeletons and assorted war debris are scattered throughout the land. A local guide is advised if you choose to explore these parts. 

Following the falang route
The important urban centers and the most visited areas are located in the central part of the country. Across the Mekong from Thailand is the capital, Vientiane, a tranquil city that still preserves a great deal of its colonial atmosphere. Actually, it seems more like a provincial town with wide streets and exuberant vegetation. A visit to some of the major wats (buddhist temples) is a must. Each April, the Pi-Mai Lao or Buddhist New Year is conmemorated. The date curiously coincides with the Catholic Holy Week. The wats get jammed and overcrowded with devotees that bathe the statues of the Buddha with holy water and cover them with yellow and orange flower offerings. Buddhism is an essential part of everyday life for the inhabitants of Laos. Simultaneously, the entire population transforms the streets into a massive water battle. Gangs of kids raid the parks with huge colourful plastic rifles. Pickup trucks manned by youths, assault pedestrians with an array of water-filled balloons and large buckets. The street stalls offer crunchy baguettes and plenty lao-lao, the local rice-distilled alcohol. The festival goes on for more than three days and nobody stays dry. It’s also the best way to deal with the warmest month of the year.

Truck in Nong Kiaw

Farther to the north is Vang Vieng, a small town that has suffered a transformation in recent years. The arrival of the larger-scale tourism has resulted in sprawling guesthouses and restaurants aimed at the falang, as Lao people call foreigners. In the surroundings, impressive limestone cliffs offer a unique panoramic view. Excursions to caves can be arranged, as well as bike excursions or river descents in inflatable rubber tubes. And, of course, it’s the place for hanging out with the backpacker community while sharing a few rounds of Beerlao. There’s plenty of entertainment, but for those more interested in the local culture and customs, it’s better to avoid Vang Vieng. 

Edged into a premium location of the Mekong river is Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of  the Lane Xang (Million of Elephants) Empire and doubtless, the most scenic city of the country. Dozens of imposing wats in perfect state of conservation are spread throughout the old quarter. But Luang Prabang is not a museum; the city is alive. Every morning hundreds of orange-robbed monks walk the streets collecting donations from the people and, at dusk, the air resounds with buddhist hymns backed by the pounding beat of metallic drums.  The monks are always anxious to be your local tourist guide in exchange for a few minutes of language practicing with the English-speaking falang. Luang Prabang is the place to appreciate and acquire samples of the local art such as handmade crafts, sculptures, shawls and traditional textiles. Nearby are the well-known Kuang Si waterfalls, a series of eight pools, that well deserve a visit. 

Muang Ngoi: a village in northern Laos
Travel in Laos requires patience. The ideal way is to move around using the river system, but that means lots of time to spare. The roads are, not uncommonly, tracks abandoned to the elements of nature. The overland transport is done in small pickup trucks, buses and passenger trucks. A relatively short trip in theory, can end up being an uncomfortable, dusty and endless ordeal. Such is the case in the north of the country, a rather mountainous area of villages of ethnic minorities that, like the far south of Laos, receives few foreigners.  Muang Ngoi is the typical village.  It takes an hour winding up the Nam river to arrive at this village, a world apart from modernity. Metallic bomb-shells have become small bridges over ditches or fences in shacks. The people are friendly and there is not a great deal going on, which is ideal.

Vang Vieng

Boupha is the owner of one of the guesthouses. One of the elders of Muang Ngoi, he is our guide in an excursion a few kilometers up-river.  Through a spectacular landscape of steep hills with solid vegetation and primary forest we arrive at the site of two caves. Armed with a couple of precarious flashlights, we enter the darkness. Enormous inner chambers with collapsed stalactites, the invisible presence of bats and mysterious cold air currents help create an ominous atmosphere. Boupha sighs with wonder. The dark labyrinth is immense and disorienting. We soon decide to return to the outside world. Later in the day, we have lunch upon flat rocks at the edge of the river. The menu includes smoked fish, giant cucumbers, sticky rice and spices. Boupha recalls it’s his first visit to the cave in more than 20 years, “since the war finished”. He tells us how, during nine years, the people of the nearby villages lived in the caves to avoid the bombs. His father was killed by one of them: “America airplane, no good!” he says smiling. When the bombings became continous, some three thousand people took refuge in the cave during the day. Even schools went underground.

Like Muang Ngoi, there’s dozens of villages that offer great chances to interact with the locals. In the northwest corner of Laos, flat on the Golden Triangle, is Muang Sing, which enjoys an incipient and sad recognition as the opium den of the falang. Also popular is the boat trip from Huay Xai (in the border with Thailand) to Luang Prabang, an area inhabited by the Mekong Catfish, the largest freshwater fish in the world, weighing up to 650 pounds. 

Future projections
Laos is just recently becoming a tourist destination and the opportunities to venture beyond what the books (or this article) say are numerous. Travel is cheap and the people of Laos guarantee a pleasent and enjoyable visit. Will the country withstand the invasion of tourists? What will be the effects of the arrival of satellite-television on the local traditions? What will happen with the proposed projects that China has to build several dams in the Mekong, just above the border with Laos? This could eventually cause an ecological shift that would transform the ways of life in a country that has relied for hundreds of years on the magnificent river, the key supplier of natural resources for all Southeast Asia.

Laos of present times remains an extremely rural and peaceful place. Despite the tragedy of war, the people do not harbour long-lasting hatred. Amazingly, they’ve endured the up-and-downs of a precarious political history and continue with their bucolic lives. Hope remains that the same thing will happen with the encroachment of mass tourism and globalization.

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