March 2008 to October 2018
10 years of change
This is what I wrote in March 2008:
Laos is a heart-achingly fragile country with such beautiful people and landscapes. It’s just amazing to behold. But, although still Communist, the country is transitioning to a Free Market Economy. The shark businessmen and foreign aid agencies have moved in and are ruining the lives and psyche of the people, although the standard of living seems to have improved for some Lowland Lao.
I would lie in bed and feel such compassion for these innocent, simple people who only know peace, love and smiles and I would wonder what rape, pillage and sickness would be thrown at them and their country in the future. God knows they had enough destruction rained down on them by American bombers during the terrible “secret war”. If you have never heard that the USA and Laos were at war, it’s because they never were. It’s “just” that the Americans dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped on Europe in the whole of the Second World War. Yes, it’s shocking. The Americans are experts at secret wars.
The book ‘One Foot in Laos’ written by Dervla Murphy, a radical Irish 60-year-old, who walked and cycled alone through Laos, gives us a wonderful political and historical background to the country. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who wants to visit Laos.
The following example from her book struck me hard. Laos is traditionally a women-centred society and women worked (and still work) in the fields while men often stay home and look after the babies. But when the western male-centred aid agencies moved in and wanted to improve irrigation, build dams and plant new seeds etc, they only addressed the men. They ignored the women completely and as a result disastrous decisions were made as the men didn’t have a clue about the ways of their land and soil.
In Laos, work is not the be all and end all of people’s lives. You try to work as little as possible in order to cover your basic requirements. After that you spend time with your family, community and friends; laughing, playing, eating and drinking.
My friend Nel tells a wonderful tale of a group of Laotian men sitting around a fire in the daytime. It gets chilly in northern Laos in the winter season and as no homes have fireplaces, the fires are lit in the street and the villagers sit around them. Nel went up to them and asked, “why aren’t you at work?” “Because we are sitting around the fire”, they answered. This Zen response was Nel’s lightbulb moment.
Mine was the following. From December 2012 to January 2013, I spent 6 weeks working in a 5-star resort on the Mekong in southern Laos. I was teaching English to the Laotian staff and Thai managers. One of my students was the young night receptionist, who lived with his family in a small simple house right on the banks of the Mekong. I was teaching him the vocabulary of the resort’s bathrooms; double wash basin, outside and inside shower, flush toilet, taps etc. I asked him to describe his bathroom at home. It was a small hut with a bucket and squat toilet and the shower was the Mekong river itself. I asked him which bathroom he preferred; the luxury 5-star western one at the resort or his own. He didn’t hesitate. He loved his own bathroom more than anything the West could offer.
Laotians didn’t know what consumerism and materialism was until western Capitalism started to flow across the border, out of their TV sets and over the Internet.
Hoards of Chinese tourists now flood into the once-sleepy towns and once-peaceful temples, driving bumper to bumper along the newly-built highways which link China and Thailand. The Chinese have built casinos all over Laos. The Chinese and Thais are destroying the Mekong with mega dams and taking the hydro-electricity for themselves. Thousands of Laotians are still without electricity.
When I went to Laos in December 2004, there was hardly any plastic packaging and food was still wrapped in banana leaves and paper. On subsequent journeys I saw that Lays crisps and Pringles had been introduced (imported from Thailand) to satisfy the hoards of greedy western backpackers. On one slow boat journey from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng in 2008, I watched a local woman finish her packet of Lays and throw the empty bag into the Mekong. If that had been a banana leaf, the river and the life it supports would have benefited. Plastic, mega dams, deforestation, soil erosion and other pollution will eventually destroy the Mekong or, to use its Lao and Thai name, Mae Kong; Mother Kong. You see, all rivers are mothers, providers of life and wealth, until patriarchy takes over, destroys the mother and turns that wealth into golden coins.
As the native American saying goes:
“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money” (attributed to an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles north-east of Montreal)
PEOPLE OF LAOS
People from Laos are called the Laotians (the Lao refers to an ethnic group). With a population of around 6.7 million people (estimated 2012), Laos is one of the least populated and least densely-populated countries in Asia. Thailand has seven times as many people per square mile as Laos. Vietnam 14 times as many. There are almost as many people in Singapore, which is one 1000th the size.
Only about 19 percent of all Laotians live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the U.S.). The other 81 percent live mostly in small agricultural villages. The population is growing at the high rate of 1.8 percent. The average life expectancy is 61 for men and 65 for women. About 36 percent of all Laotians are under 15, and 3.7 percent are over 65.
As is the case with Vietnam, Myanmar and southern China, Laos is very ethnically diverse. There are 68 to 119 different ethnic groups found in Laos, depending on who does the counting and how various subgroups are counted. They fall into four broad groupings:
1) The lowland Lao (Lao Lum) make up 50% of the population and are based mainly on the Mekong River and other waterways; 2) the midland and highland Lao (Lao Thueng) comprise about 20% of the population, generally live at elevations from 300 to 1,200 meters and speak a Mon-Khmer language; 3) and hill tribes (Lao Soung) make up 15% of the population and generally live at elevations above 1,000 meters. 4) Thais make up remaining 15%.
Tom Fawthrop is an activist and journalist who lives in Chiang Mai and reports on the damming of the Mekong and Salween (Burma) rivers. He often gives talks in Chiang Mai, and has made documentaries, including “Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong Dam by Dam”