[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome of you wonderful people may be asking yourself, “so why Laos?” Well I have good news for those people, I will answer that briefly today and hopefully you will come away with a better understanding of just where in the world I am and what Laos is all about. Of course I know that some of you may have already visited as a stop off destination between the 3 bigger and more well known countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but this is more to do with the history and modern day.
So where is Laos?
Good question. If you look to the map below, you will get a rough idea of what part of the world we are talking about.
As you can see, it is nestled between 5 countries all to together, China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam.
The red marker indicates my location in relation to the rest of the map. It is on Luang Prabang and I will write a post about this fantastic city as soon as I get round to it.
As the smallest in both land area, population and economy, it is easy to miss Laos. However, do so and you miss a great opportunity to see one of the lest Westernized and most original Southeast Asian countries that still exists.
Known in the past as Lan Xang (Lao: ລ້ານຊ້າງ) [footnote]I will be writing some posts about the Lao language. Now I am in no way fluent and actually I can only speak a small amount. However, I am learning and so I hope that these posts will help me to embed it into my long term memory![/footnote] [icon name=”arrow-left” class=””] (Click here to read a bit extra) or in English: The Land of a Million Elephants.
Founded in the 14th century, by a Lao prince Fa Ngum who conquered Vientiane, the Largest city, with 10,000 Khmer troops. Fa Ngum was descended from a long line of Lao kings and had royal blood in him from very ancient times.
He enacted several reforms that shaped the way we see Laos today. For example, he made Theravada Buddhism the main state religion as well as creating an economy that helped Lan Xang prosper. However within 20 years of its formation, Lan Xang expanded eastward towards the mountains that border Vietnam and along the way became highly unstable and unable to handle his power benevolently. The elites in his inner circle did not want to tolerate his ruthlessness and forced him into exile to the present-day Thai province of Nan in 1373 where he lived out the rest of his life.
In the late 19th century, Luang Prabang was was sacked by the Chinese Black Flag Army and France, with its burgeoning Indochinese empire, offered to rescue King Oun Kham. They added Luang Prabang as a ‘Protectorate’ of French Indochina. However as with all of these kinds of things, France slowly added the Kingdom of Champasak and the territory of Vientiane to the protectorate.
Laos was never really an important part of the French empire, but it did serve a necessary use as a buffer state between British-influenced Thailand and the more economically important regions of Vietnam. The French tended to classify the Lao as “gentle, amiable, childlike, naive and lazy”, regarding them with what one writer called “a mixture of affection and exasperation.”[footnote]I will also write an article about this soon enough. I love Laos and Lao people, but there is certainly some truth in the exasperation description. (And I have no doubt they feel the same about foreigners!)[/footnote]
Laos declared independence on 12 October 1945, but the French under Charles de Gaulle re-asserted control. France remained in de facto control until 22 October 1953, when Laos gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy.
Independence & war
In 1955, the USA saw an increasing communist influence overtaking the region and acted to try and quell it. They replaced French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the US containment policy.
In 1960 with rebellions raging, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao. A second Provisional Government was formed in 1962, but was unsuccessful. The situation steadily deteriorated into civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao were backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.
In 1975 the Pathet Lao (Pathet meaning government), along with the Vietnam People’s Army and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing King Savang Vatthana to abdicate and thus ending the monarchy of Laos and its royal bloodline. Between 20,000 and 70,000 Laotians died during the Civil War; many from the American governments ‘secret war’. [footnote]The secret war was a massive Ariel bombardment of Northeastern Laos. Meant to deny the Vietcong access to the Ho Chi Minh trail which could have been used to attack US interests in South Vietnam, it only really had the affect of killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians and littering the landscape with UXO or unexploded ordinance. My wife is from a province called Xieng Khouong which was greatly scarred. Just visiting the province you can see a difference in landscape as you drive. The forests get steadily thinner the further in you get, until you reach clear plains devoid of vegetation except grass.[/footnote]
After taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government directed by Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. They signed agreements with Vietnam giving them the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country.
Today Laos has somewhat liberalized. It remains as one the last 5 Communist countries in the world[footnote]Along with Cuba, China, Vietnam & North Korea[/footnote] and still has a single party government in full control of affairs.
However, since opening its doors to the world some 15-20 years ago, Laos has welcomed a massive increase in its GDP and status in the region. Welcoming hydro power projects from both governments and private companies from around the world, Laos has a desire to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”.
Its abundant natural resources in both timber and precious metals, as well as its strategic location as a crossroads between major economies, has made the Lao government set itself a powerful target of leaving its Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020.
In other articles I will write all about how this sudden economic wealth has impacted on the lives of ordinary Laotians and brought many into contact with some of the less savory aspects of globalization. However for the most part, it is working out well enough, with the government really trying hard to keep the best parts of Lao culture intact.
This is huge part of the Lao economy and for good reason. As a recent entry on the tourism path, Laos has retained its fantastic attitude and friendly nature. With gorgeous temples and breathtaking landscape, Laos has a somewhat ‘untouched’ feeling about it.
Of course there are exceptions. For example where I live, Luang Prabang during the high season (October – March), gets absolutely full of both high end tourists spending hundreds of dollars per night, and backpackers looking for the cheapest rates possible. This has created a situation where tour companies clamor for guests and the roads clog up with large people carrier type vehicles. It is also an odd situation for me because on one hand I really love this place and want as many people to come and experience it as possible, but on the other I am afraid that Luang Prabang and Laos will sell its soul to the highest bidder. However, done properly and with an ethical bent, tourism is still a great way for people to see this wonderful place, and a good way for the locals to earn a decent wage.
It is also one of the few places left where many male Buddhists [footnote]Not every male is involved in Buddhism in Laos as there are many whose families still practice their animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism in the entire region of Southeast Asia, and is usually practiced alongside Buddhism. In fact if you ask many Lao people what their religion is, you will most likely get a complicated answer about an intertwining of different religions![/footnote] still go about becoming monks for a period of time in their youths.
In the countryside this is done for religious and social reasons, but a lot of times in the larger cities, it is usually a means to an education. That is not to say that they are taking advantage of anything, but there are ulterior motives at play. Social reasons are also very important. I have spoken to several Lao men who were monks for just a week or less in order to gain merit for their families or to perform certain ceremonies!
There is much, much more to Laos than these few meager words I have written, but there is no way I can write much more in 1 sitting! However I will continue to update posts about Laos, including many different things from the food, to the language. I will try to link the content to the Mediation and Spirituality sections. There are so many aspects of this country that link to one another. I hope that by reading all the posts on Tansamai, you will get a full picture of how these things are all connected to each other.
If anyone has been to Laos or is looking to travel here, please use the comments below and hopefully there is some advice or recommendations that either me or other readers can give 🙂
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