The Land of a Million Elephants, the Land of a Million Irrelevants

Elephants

You are sitting on the banks of the Mekong River, next to a small fishing village. The haphazard collection of open-air, bamboo shacks have no electricity, no running water. You are eating spicy green papaya salad and breathing in hot, humid air. Even in the shade the temperature hovers around 35 C and you welcome the slightest breeze. The river is a pale shade of blue, diamonds and dolphins dance on the surface. The sky is a perfect blue dotted with perfect white clouds, the sun is above you, you are surrounded by more green than you thought possible. You are in a postcard.

The Mekong does not appear to move and it is a perfect metaphor for the passage of time. What day is it? You realize with a start that you haven't the faintest clue. You haven't known since you arrived. It doesn't matter, the marking of time is unimportant; Laos is attuned to the changes of Nature.

Look behind you, onto the dusty, unpaved road. A dozen school girls ride by on old, rusty bicycles, holding colorful umbrellas to protect themselves from the heat of the noon sun. They are wearing standard Laos uniforms; white button down shirts and dark blue, silk skirts, embroidered at the hem. They swerve to miss the fattest pig that you have ever seen in your life. It's approximate dimensions are 1m by 1m by 1m, and its swinging belly nearly scraps the ground as it sluggishly walks forward, head to the earth. It is followed by a family of ducks and almost runs into an aimlessly wandering cow. In the distance behind this scene of rural wildlife, you see rice fields, glistening. They are a vibrant green and thick like an astro turf carpet.

Take your attention back to the river, a boat is pulling in. It is built for a maximum capacity of about 25, but you stop your head count at around 45. Take a closer look and you're sure to see the pre-requisite rice sack It's an unwritten rule: every transport in Laos must contain at least one sack of rice before it can go anywhere.

To your right you watch a group of small girls hauling water up the steep hill back to the village. Their bodies bend and strain under the weight, but they still smile and wave. On your left is standing an older, wrinkled man wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs T-shirt. He is smoking tobacco rolled in a banana leaf and chances are, he has never seen a hockey game. A group of women appear from behind you, their mouths bright red from the betel nut they chew, and descend upon the boat. They are carrying bar-b-que sticks of rats, bats, beetles and frogs. And something that might have once been chicken, but you can't be sure. Yum Yum! Do you want to try some chicken hearts? How about some cockroaches. No? Are you sure? OK, we continue.

You've been sitting for about 10 minutes, lost in reverie and contentment, but I have left out something vital. Ah, here they are, the kids. About 2 dozen of them surround you, daring each other to touch you. They are wide eyed with amazement at your paleness and point to your arm hairs (the Laos have little body hair and all foreigners are hairy beasts) with merry disbelief. Your eyes are blue and that makes you a complete freak. You say "sabay-dee" a million times. They laugh. You laugh. Everyone laughs and you give airplane rides to all.

This is Laos, the nation that calms and embraces you. It is under your skin and you don't remember when you changed, but you are a completly different person than when you arrived. You body is unaffected, unencumbered by the weight and concerns you carry around with you in the "developed" world. Laos has cradled you, settled you and made you aware of the things you normally overlook: like smiles. Everyone smiles here. You smile, they smile back. Easy. You want to remain on this island of simplicity and contentment forever and wish you had more time on your visa. You want to remain out of reach, you hate Nike more than ever and a mobile phone smashing party is something that you think might solve a lot of world problems.

But you have to leave paradise behind. You are in one of the few places in the world where people are still satisfied with what they have, where the children are more happy playing outside, rather then fighting over who gets more time on the gameboy. Where in over a month you have not heard one person raise their voice in anger or frustration. You know when you return in a few years time, it will be gone. Progress will move in and consumerism will become the new idol. It's partly your fault but you have to learn to live with that.

Irrelevants

In the early 70's Laos was more bombed than any country in the world in the entire history of warfare. Half a tonne of explosives were dropped for every man, woman and child. The people most affected by the continual bombings, rural farmers and peasants, had little or no understanding of concepts such as "nation", "communism" and "new world order". Millions of UXO's remain to be found by unwitting villagers and children. We all know what happens when you try to play baseball with a mortar ball.

The majority of the UXO's that litter the country side were deposited there by the overzealous American airforce, who still claim that there was never a war in Laos. NGO's like MAG (Mines Advisory Group, England) and CMAC (Canadian Mines Action Council, Canada), with the sponsorship of international donors are doing their best to clean them up. Not one dollar for mine removal comes from the USA, whose army willingly spends 2 million dollars to remove the remains of 1 MIA. Furthermore, the USArmy sends only the most obsolete information on the hundreds of models of bombs, landmines and bomblets, because most of them were prototypes at the time and are in use today to dismember children and innocents in other parts of the world. The men and women today who work in the field are often left with little information on the things they find. This makes their job doubly more difficult and dangerous. Imagine trying to defuse a 500 pound bomb, that is rusty with no information on how it is put together.

In the press Laos has been referred to by its second name, the Land of the Million Irrelevants, since there has been little international attention to this small, landlocked and very impoverished nation and its plight apparently seems forgotten by those that created it.

Overview

Laos, or the Lao People's Democratic Republic is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. At present Laos adheres to the communist ideology. The total land area of Laos is 236,000 sq km (92,040 sq m) and the nation contains roughly 5.5 million people.

Laos is one of the world's poorest nations, as its GDP is only 9.7 billion, which equates to about $1700US per person. The annual economic growth is rather low at 4% and well below inflation, which is currently at 6%.

Laos, being a landlocked nation is bordered on all sides; by China on the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Myanmar and Thailand to the west. The country is divided into 16 provinces and the capital and largest city is Vientiane. Along with Vientiane, major cities include Luang Phabang, Pakse and Savannaket.

Though the Mekong River is generally thought of as the border of Thailand and Myanmar, it flows completely within the territory of Laos in two areas, one being more than 300 miles of river within the border. Except for the lowlands bordering the Mekong and for three large plateaus, the land of Laos is exceptionally rugged, mountainous and heavily forested. Peaks in some places are well in excess of 9000 feet.

The lands of Laos are one of the freest areas from modern civilization in Southeast Asia. No railroads exist within the nation and roads and trails are extremely limited. The main form of travel is along the Mekong River, but even that is impeded by many falls and rapids along the river’s course. Much of the population lives through subsistence farming; though a small class of elite exists, generally being families left over from the French colonial days of Laos. Health care is poor and in many places non-existent and the illiteracy rate is extremely high throughout the nation.

As well as being one of the least modern nations in Southeast Asia, Laos is also one of the world’s poorest nations. Most of the Laotian workforce is employed in agriculture, which makes of over 50% of the Laotian gross domestic product. Rice is the chief crop, with corn, sweet potatoes and myriad vegetables also being grown within the region. Opium is produced in northwest Laos, as well as cannabis being grown in this region. Fishing along the Mekong River helps to supplement the diet of Laotians and plays no part in trade. Though Laos is covered with thick forests and has limited tin mines and vast mineral resources, which include gypsum, gold and gemstones, these resources, are almost untapped because of the extreme lack of any transportation infrastructure within Laos.

Oddly enough, one of Laos’ prime exports is the electricity. Laos has an incredibly massive hydroelectric potential. Other exports are wood products, tin, textiles, clothing, and coffee. Unfortunately, since almost all manufactured products need to be imported into Laos, there is a continuing trade deficit. A foreign investment law passed in 1989 was an attempt to expand the nation’s economy. The law would be further improved in 1994.

Culture

Nearly two thirds of Laos’ population is of the Lao Loum, a peoples who are ethnically related to the Thai. This group primarily lives along the Mekong River Valley. About 22% of the population is made up of the Lao Theung, or Mountain Mon Khmer, who generally reside in the upland valleys of Laos. Within the extreme highlands are many disparate groups including, the Hmong, Yao, Black Thai, Dao and Tibeto-Burman. There are also significant minorities of Chinese and Vietnamese people within Laos.

Somewhere around 60% of Lao are Theravada Buddhists. The main non-Buddhist religion is illegal. It is called phii worship and is a form of a spirit worship cult. Among the Hmong/Mien tribes, the majority practice animism and ancestral worship. A very small amount of Lao people, typically the elite, are Christian, with the rest of the small Christian population being part of the Cargo Cult, a group that believes that Jesus will arrive in a Jeep wearing combat fatigues.

Laos’ official language is Lao, or the version that is written and spoken in Vientiane. Though there are five main dialects, though they all bear close resemblances to the languages of Thailand, parts of Myanmar and Yunnan Province in southern China.

The culture itself in Laos has been heavily influenced by their longtime southern neighbors the Khmer (present Cambodia) and their eastern neighbors Vietnam. The lowland peoples are generally of the same ancestry as the Thai people. This helps to draw the similarities between the Lao people and those of Thailand into very close parallels indeed. Lao sculptures, music, dramas and cuisine are affected by this parallel. Music in Lao to this day retains its folk roots with traditional instruments and crafts. Gold smithing and silver smithing are steadily declining arts among the Laos.

The mainstay of Lao food, as in most places of East Asia, is rice. Vegetables and many types of meat are most often added to the rice, along with such things as lemon grass and coriander to give the food its distinctive taste. Food is often served with greens used many times to mix together in lettuce wraps to give each person his or her own distinctive food.

History

The first human beings are said to have entered Laos more than 10,000 years ago. Stone tools, jars and significant settlements attest to existence of such groups during this time. These early inhabitants were skilled at river navigation and established trade routes both through the rivers and the mountains through which they traded for many products including cardamom, gum benzoic and foods.

The first real kingdoms developed in the region during the first century AD. These small kingdoms extended rather loose control over their neighbors and expanded via marriages, commerce and warfare. The kingdoms first occupied the Mekong Valley during the first centuries AD. Many of these kingdoms (mandala) expanded the borders of Laos independently of each other, taking pieces out of nearby Champa and central Laos Some rudimentary royalty and nobility formed during this time, with a few of the manadalas having rather well formed hierarchies.

Over the next few centuries, a large scale migration of Thai people toward the northwest bridged the gap between Southeast Asia and eastern India. This state would have great influence on the later form of Indochina as it transmitted many new ideas into the region including Buddhism and formed the first real nation state within the region. Over the period, the Mekong Valley continued to have shifting kingdoms, the many names for single towns during this period give witness to the amount of times a border may change and just how many hands these towns fell into.

Over time, one power gradually grew supreme. The mandala of Muang Sua eventually held sway over most of the Mekong Valley and established a dynasty that stretched fifteen rulers long. In the late eighth century, Muang Sua fell under the influence of another nearby mandala. During this time, the Khmers (from Cambodia) were expanding steadily northward, and actually established a large outpost near Vientiane. This group would eventually seize control of the Mekong Valley and the region would continue to fluctuate between outside rulers and internal rulers for many years.

It was in 1253 AD that the Mongols conquered the region and added it to their empire as the province of Yunnan. The rulers for the next century or so acted primarily as Mongol agents, but the territory of Laos expanded rather well during this period.

During the mid 14th century, King Fa Ngoum began the true unification movement in the region. He grouped the Muang towns into a unified kingdom whose capitol was at Xiengdong Xiengthong (present Luang Prabang). The kingdom of Lan Xang (‘a million elephants’) would from that point on maintain primarily a state of national defense and infrastructure improvements. It would be King Fa Ngoum who introduced Buddhism into Laos; this religion quickly gaining followers and becoming the primary religion of the area. The status of the Kingdom fell quickly thereafter though and the years of the 1460’s to 1570’s were years of constant defense as aggressors from all over Southeast Asia tried to move in on the lands of Lan Xang.

King Settathirath would be the next of the dynamic kings of Lan Xang. Under his guidance, the capitol was moved to the city of Vientiane and a moat surrounded rampart was built with which to defend the city. It was this rampart which gave the city its name (Vientiane meaning “the rampart of sandalwood”). During the years of Setthathirath’s reign, the shrine of Phra Kaeo, which housed the Emerald Buddha, and the That Luang Stupa, which is now one of the Lao nation’s grandest symbols, were built.

During the reign of King Souliyavongsa in the seventeenth century, the nation entered its most dazzling stage. The name of the Lan Xang nation would spread throughout much of the world during this time. European visitors, like Geritt Van Wuysthoff of the East Indian Company would write of Vientiane as one of the grandest cities in all of Asia. Its temples and works were greatly admired by a great many people.

Upon the death of King Souliyavongsa the lords of Lan Xang began to vie for control of the nation. By the year 1713, the country was split into three separate nations, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak. The division of the nation greatly weakened the Lao people and made them much maligned by invaders. The Lao people’s last great attempt at unification before the colonial era overtook it was under the banner of Vientiane. The effort was led by King Anouvong, but ended in complete failure. Vientiane was ransacked by the Siames and with the exception of That Luang and Vat Sisaket was almost completely destroyed. The great temples of the area were razed and the Emerald Buddha itself was taken to Bangkok.

The end of the 18th century would find most of Laos under the control of Siam, with Vietnam also pressuring for territory. War broke out between Laos and Siam in the 1820’s, but resulted only in all three remaining provinces falling under the control of Siam. This would continue until the late 18th century when Siam ceded the comtrolled areas of Laos to the newly formed French Indochina. France was willing to use the land simply as a protective buffer to separate Vietnam from the lands of Siam.

World War II would bring Japanese occupation of French Indochina and with it the growth of a significant resistance movement. A Lao group, Lao Issara, was formed during this time, with the express goals of resisting the return of the French to Laos. Laos was granted independence in the year 1953, by the Geneva Convention of Indochina, and almost immediately fell into conflict between royalist, communist and other independent forces. The chaos in the country was not improved by the nearby Vietnam War. In 1964 the US began bombing the Viet Cong supplies and troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This served to escalate the fighting between the Royalist forces and the Pathet Lao, a communist army that fought alongside North Vietnam. The bombings increased throughout much of the remainder of the war, leaving Laos with the legacy of being the most bombed nation in the history of the world.

When Saigon fell in 1975, most of the Royalist supporters fled Laos for France as the Pathet Lao now had a secure ally to the east and the war was officially all but lost. The Pathet Lao took peaceful control of the government and on December 2, of 1975 established the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Laos would remain closely allied with the Vietnamese government throughout the 1980s. Since 1989, there has been a small relaxation of the Communist economic rules in Laos, leading to small-scale economic recovery. Still, by the late 1990s, the economy of Laos was in a serious state. Inflation was spiraling out of control and the Kip (Laos’ currency) had depreciated over 500 percent in worth. Needing to do something to revitalize the economy, the Laos government began a ‘Visit Laos’ campaign to attract tourism. The attempt has succeeded only slightly, but it has given new life to the Laotian economy. In July of 1997, Laos was allowed to join ASEAN, and by the year 1998 its former Prime Minister Khamtai became president.

Sources
http://www.laoembassy.com/discover/intro/history.htm
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/south_east_asia/laos/history.htm
http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/section/Laos_History.asp
http://www.countryreports.org/history/laoshist.htm

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