Shy and hidden between the Mekong River and the limestone mountains, Laos is one of the most humble countries I ever visited. The challenging geographical position and the harsh history didn’t help too much this country to have an encouraging economical growth. However, Laos is simply beautiful, exactly how it’s presented in their tourism board tagline – a definition for inner beauty in all this land and people.
Laos is predominantly a rural country, having the village as an important cell in its organism. 67% of a little bit more than 7 million people are living in rural areas, but you need to visit the country to realize that many cities of Laos are actually bigger villages. Laos countryside’s landscape consists of seeing traditional houses made of wood or bamboo, jumping roads and endless fields of rice.
Lao houses are built on wooden piles with the floor from one to two-and-one-half meters above the ground. The reason behind this construction style is to maintain the living area above the water during the rainy season and to provide a shady area to work or rest during the dry season. At the same time, this way to build allows the house to catch breezes for natural cooling.
You feel the time has a different rhythm in rural life… People are more connected with each other and with themselves. You see in front of their houses hammocks or places to relax outside close to the road to see their neighbors and the other people passing by. Once and a while you hear passing an “Iron Buffalo” – the two-wheel tractor used by the Lao villagers in agriculture. I was grateful to eat and talk with them using my poor Lao vocabulary: Saibaidee, Khop Chai (Thank you), Doi (yes / indeed), Khaw Toot (Excuse-me).
Besides all these beautiful experiences, the journey to Laos made me feel also ignorant. One UN report presented in march 2019 says: “Almost a quarter of the Lao population lives in poverty, and an estimated 80 percent of the country lives on less than $2.50 per day. Eighty-eight per cent of children experience some form of deprivation, and women face widespread marginalisation and discrimination. The poverty rate in rural areas is four times higher than urban ones, and many people lack roads, water and electricity.” https://www.ohchr.org
Street shop driving through villages
In order to understand better the current situation in Laos, it’s important to explain a little bit the geopolitical context of this country. Laos is the only landlocked country of South-East Asia with a landscape consisting of mountains, hills and some plains and plateaus. That’s why in the matter of trade, Laos is depending a lot on its neighbours Thailand, Vietnam and China, almost importing everything. These three countries are also the biggest investors in Laos’ economy.
Lao barbecue – sweet chili gizzards
The relief and the climate of Laos are not very helpful for the country’s agriculture because there are not so many plains and the water, during the rainy season, is not reaching all the cultures equally. About 80% of the Laotian population practises subsistence agriculture centred on rice cultivation. Their rural daily activities are organized around the rice production, most of the time paddy rice which provides higher and more stable yields for less work but in some cases where the terrain is not adequate, they plant swidden rice which is less efficient to cultivate. They try also to cultivate other vegetables in order to diversify their menu and have enough food during the year.
Salads garden along the Mekong river
Besides the geographical position, the historical context played an important role in the actual situation of Laos. After the First Indochina War that ended the 60 years French protectorate, Laos was involved in the Vietnam War as well. In order to support the Royal Lao Government against the communism and to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians and the consequences are crucial even today. Up to 80 million bombs remained unexploded all over Laos, after the war, mostly in rural areas. Approximately 25% of the villages in Laos are still contaminated with UXO (unexploded ordnance). More than 20.000 people were killed or injured in the post-war period, after 1974. Out of these, 40% were children. Today, approximately 100 new casualties still occur annually. I was able to learn about these facts by visiting the COPE centre (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane.
I totally recommend visiting this centre because there are much data about the consequences of the war in Laos. I took some time to reflect after this visit because the victim’s stories are tragic. The infrastructure of Laos and poverty are other factors that contribute to their sad stories. If a kid is hurt by a bombie in a small village, the chances to be saved are really small because the family could have no transportation to the hospital or the closest hospital could be unprepared with blood or oxygen.
Despite poverty, war, and our ignorance, Laos is still waiting for us to visit it with a shy smile, authentic experiences, fairytale mountains, the most romantic sunsets on the Mekong river, the mysterious caves, the shiny Buddhist temples, funny warm-hearted people and a lot of sticky rice.