Laos PDR – history & heart

Travelling is so much more than seeing the sights and eating the local food and saying “hello” in the native tongue. For us it is about getting under the skin of the culture & history and understanding how the events have shaped the country, its people and their lives today. This is particularly true in IndoChina.

Journeying into Laos with like-minded travellers enabled us to delve deeply into the history and heart of Laos both through our shared experiences and many discussions. We shared our discovery of a country that exudes a wonderful cocktail of scenery, emotions and memorable experiences and our horror at the unveiling of the very real tragedy lived out here. For many hours we discussed and agonised about the plight of Laos and its future.

For the most part though Laos still remains off travellers’ radar. Westerners are often asking us, “Where exactly is Laos?”  Well, for those who don’t know or are not yet plugged in, Laos is an extremely beautiful country in the middle of South East Asia that is landlocked by China to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South and Thailand to the West. 

Initially a French colony until WWII the French imperialist fingerprint has been firmly impressed into Laos culture and is particularly evident today in the architecture and cuisine.

Laos History – struggles behind smiles

To truly understand Laos first you must understand the events that shaped it into the country it is today.

IMG_0846

Sitting Buddha destroyed by the bombing

Geographic location has played a strong role in the history of Laos initially attracting the French for mineral and monetary wealth. Subsequently though the Eastern mountainous jungle terrain provided the ideal Viet Cong route for the supply of people and weapons from Russia to Vietnam during the Vietnam/American War. This “Secret War” as it was known, was in reality an intense carpet bombing campaign along the length of Laos in order to disable this supply chain known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. Americans fought for democracy on behalf of the Laos Government alongside Hmong tribes people against the Communist ideals of the Viet Cong and Northern Pathet Lao. As the Vietnam/American War came to an end and the communists in Vietnam took power so did the Pathet Lao. Laos became Laos PDR (Peoples Democratic Republic) which welcomes democratic ideals in name only (it has only one political party) and courts the trappings of international wealth through tourism, but underneath holds communist ideals at its core.

Now three decades after the war has ended, it horrified me to learn that unexploded ordinance still litters the countryside inflicting untold devastation on civilians and severely limiting economic progress. There is a small exhibition at MAG in Vientiane, showing the extent of the bombing and the work undertaken to clear the ordinance. It is truly daunting and heartbreaking to see the sea of red dots on the map below represents all unexploded ordinance still in Laos.

_MG_8514 _MG_8518

Carpet bombing of Laos

For Laotians being surrounded by bombs and the devastation they cause has become a normal part of life. Lives are continually shattered by people just trying to make a living. Parents are regularly killed or maimed and families ruined by ordinance buried in the farmland. Despite the dangers children are driven by poverty to risk life and limb to collect scrap metal from these, often live, bombs and bombies (cluster bombs) for which they get paid a pittance. The courage Laotians show in the face of such danger amazes me, particularly those who have lost lives, loved ones or limbs at the hands of these explosive devices.

_MG_8531 _MG_8533 _MG_8529

We are certainly not the first people to have been emotionally moved by the plight those living in bomb infested countries. The enormity of the task ahead in Laos renders many with a feeling of helplessness alongside a strong motivation to do all you can to help, however, small it may appear. As part of our ongoing support we would like to voice our whole-heartedly support of the many amazing people who continue to work tirelessly to improve the lives of those affected by the bombs.

Firstly our praises go out to the men and women at MAG (Mines Action Group) who should be awarded the highest recognised for their dangerous work locating, defusing and disposing of unexploded ordinance. Teams of bomb experts risk their own lives daily to make a safe environment for the people of Laos. They plan to have cleared all ordinance in here by 2012.

_MG_8532

MAG all-female team move a bomb prior to demolition

IMG_0901 IMG_0902

Munitions deactivated by MAG

Secondly, to the people at COPE who fit artificial limbs, provide physiotherapy, psychotherapy and open doors to enable those who have lost a family members or been maimed by a bomb to find work and rebuild their lives. I feel honoured to have met a few of these amazingly brave people and my hope is that life becomes brighter, safer and more prosperous for them.

_MG_8606 _MG_8626 _MG_8635 IMG_8619 _MG_8660 IMG_0905

The amazing exhibition at COPE

To get the full picture of the continued affect of the war we highly recommend the extremely informative and exceptionally emotional exhibition at COPE, in Vientiane, that fully explains the severity and effects of the bombing and runs a selection of films showing the impact of the bombing and honouring the tireless work being done to disarm these bombs. (See also Basho’s post on “The American War”)

 

Laos Heart – Stay Another Day http://www.stayanotherday.org/

IMG_0754 _MG_8426

Luckily for us we discovered ‘Stay Another Day’ soon after arriving in Laos. Covering IndoChina this not-for-profit organisation produces insightful books, and in the case of Laos an exhibition too, highlighting “destination friendly” tourism projects to encourage people to get under the skin of the country and support the local community.

This book gave us great insight into many local enterprises initiated to help people help themselves out of poverty and enable them to lead a better quality of life. This also allowed us to focus our energies and spending power in support of Laotian people in a beneficial way. There are many enterprises throughout the country, but shown below are the places we visited and are in support of…

In Luang Prabang:

IMG_0750 IMG_0749 IMG_0756

Kopnoi (clothing), L’Etranger (books) and Tamarind (local food and cooking lessons!)

In Vientiane:

_MG_8537 _MG_8519 IMG_8611

Big Brother Mouse (children’s books), MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and COPE (prosthetics)

Our complete list of places we chose to visit and show our support for:

I hope this article goes some way to educating and empowering future visitors to this special place and encourages them to be sensitive and understanding whilst visiting this fragile country. Should you choose to visit please don’t take Laos for granted. Laotians still have a wonderfully inviting innocence behind each smiling face, despite everything they have been through. Please let’s not allow tourism to change that.

Laos is an amazing country which we feel privileged to have visited before mass tourism arrives. Through this emotional and in-depth experience our passion and love of Laos will forever be close to our hearts.

Cesca

 

Our journey through Laos – written in two posts

Post one is our boarder crossing into Northern Laos from Thailand and journeying down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, then as we re-enter the river again in the South for our adventures in the 4000 islands and post two is our journey through the cultural centres of Laos and the great fun and frolics we had along the way.

IMG_0745 IMG_0791
Along the Mekong and city life in Laos

Hope you enjoy them too!

 

Cesca

2016-10-18T18:53:20+00:00

About the Author: