Lost in Laos (Observer Life. 1996)

©Dan White. No repro without permission.

Sitting on the veranda of the large two story wooden building that serves as a hotel in the village of Pakbeng in Northern Laos, you could pick your era. It could be any time in the last 150 years. The only light is from the candles supplied by the old woman with betel stained teeth who fills the water jar every morning at dawn. There is virtually no traffic. The people get up when it is light and go to bed when it gets dark.

In many parts of northern Laos there is no electricity, only one generator powering a television between 6pm and 8pm. People will gather round in the early evening to get a fix of the high tech world – often English premier league football or Thai boxing – before the generator is switched off and they go to bed in their candle-lit wooden homes. From many parts of the country one can see Thailand only half a mile across the river. Thailand is the Twentieth Century, draped in neon with 7/11, bad satellite TV, hatchback Japanese cars, surly adolescents and Burger king. Lao people sit in their crumbling old French colonial towns staring across at a future era.

Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has remained unaffected by the mass tourism that has consumed Thailand and is in danger of poisoning Vietnam. There are no large groups of Scandinavian teenagers or just de-mobbed Israeli soldiers trekking through the hills gawping at the hill tribe people who have taken off their Moschino T-shirts for the day and got togged up in granny’s old ethnic gear. There are few serious American students earnestly touring old sixties battle grounds in air conditioned mini buses, buying up fake dog tags and naff lighters engraved with slogans lifted from second rate eighties war films. Only in the cultural capital of Luang Phabang does one see the queues of European tour groups in their practical zippered functional trousers with water bottles attached to useful belts around their ample middles. They tend to be choppered in and choppered out again in a couple of days on their grand two-week tour of Indochina.

History has conspired to pass Laos by. For the French occupiers it was simply a buffer between British influenced Siam and the lucrative territories of Tonkin and Cochin Indochina. During the regional conflicts of the 50s and 60s Laos was ravaged by war and massive American bombing. Since the communist take-over in 1975 the paralysis of a socialist planned economy has hindered development and ensured a minimum of outside investment. Even now, outside of the main towns, visitors must expect basic accommodation, a limited choice of food, terrible roads and a great deal of interference from officialdom. In the north foreign visitors are rare and the local children look boiled with shock to see a ‘big nose’. Travel is not made easy by the police. You must get your passport stamped at every state border. In some places, in true totalitarian style, the police will do anything to avoid giving you the stamp on arrival so that on departure you are required to pay the ‘fine’ of $5 a day for every day you have stayed without authorisation. A nice little earner.

The real pleasure of travel in northern Laos is the river. In fact one is left with little choice as the area is so mountainous and sparsely populated that the roads are just rain rutted dirt tracks and the river is the main highway. If you are in a hurry the quickest way to move is by Lao ‘speed boat’ – a narrow flat bottomed skiff with an outsize car engine bolted to the back that skims the surface of the water at 50mph, shooting rapids and narrowly missing boulders. The Lao government insists that passengers wear crash helmets after a foreigner was flung to his death, smashing his head on one of the many viciously sharp rocks that stick up through the water. It is, at turns, both exhilarating and terrifying. In a 4 hour trip I had, in my mind, already converted to Catholicism and made my peace with God as I imagined the bottom of the boat being ripped out and myself disemboweled by the needle sharp points just below the surface.

Another, more peaceful, way to go is on the slow boat that acts as a local bus piled with people, live stock and contraband. The boat passes through spectacular, jungle lined mountain scenery stopping every now and then to unload pigs or pick up cement.
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The cultural heart of Laos lies in the town of Luang Phabang. It is an atmospheric place built in a bend of the river. It was, until 1975, the royal capital. It still retains a sleepy elegance born of the combination of the 40 or so monasteries and temples that litter the town and the old colonial French architecture of the main municipal buildings. The road along the river front must have served, at some point, as the set for an old black and white Humphrey Bogart film. There are still old men riding by in berets on their pushbikes, passed the stalls selling freshly baked baguette. Rush hour in Luang Phabang is when school finishes and the streets are full of mopeds and bicycles, sometimes carrying as many as four people, taking the children home. Because of the number of monasteries, there are huge numbers of monks. They are everywhere, wandering about under large yellow umbrellas to keep the sun from burning their closely shaved heads. Luang Phabang would have to be relatively prosperous because all these monks live on hand outs from the townspeople. You see them coming by and leaving their little mettle pots outside restaurants and houses.

Northern Laos is so close to Thailand that in time it will inevitably be swamped by pop-Thai culture. Up to now a totalitarian regime and an appalling infrastructure have deterred mass tourism. Given what has happened in northern Thailand, and what is underway in the northern hills of Vietnam, one can only hope the Lao government sees the long term advantage and prevents this small and underpopulated region from becoming yet another South-East Asian, ethnic theme park.

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