Saturday, December 16, 2006

Love thy (Laos) neighbour

Perhaps the best summary of the Thai attitude to Laos can be given from a social science textbook I read in a respected school just last week:
"Thiland buys its hydroelectric power from Laos, this is a big help to the Laos people........." was the very first line in the chapter. It struck me as a little bias, so I read on ....."The people of Laos descend from many different Asian races, including the little people of Thailand...." was the next line.

Let me stress this was an English language textbook, not a bad or choice translation from yours truly. And let me repeat, this is an official social science textbook of a respected school.

This is not an isolated attitude. Indeed, to call someone "Laos" in Thailand is equivalent to calling someone "backward" or possibly even "stupid" in English. A Thai comedy movie due to be released three months ago had to be delayed and revamped after complaints. The movie was about a Thai soccer coach taking over the Laos national team and taking them to the Asian cup final. Of course, the comedy was in the poor performance and stupidity of the players. The Laos government - under pressure from its people - reluctantly made a public complaint and the movie was given a new title, and the team's nationality was changed to a fictional country.

I know, every country has its rivals. The English make jokes about the Irish - but they are aware the Irish reciprocate in kind, Canadians tend to be fiercely partisan and dislike being mistaken for American, but it could be argued that there are some forms of envy mixed in to that feeling. It seems to me though, that these other rivalries don't have the pedantic, almost malicious line of humour that the Thais have to their northern neighbours. Why?

The cynic in me feels that perhaps the Thais - coming from a country that still has its own problems with poverty and development, and lacks the world importance that it would like - wish to take out those insecurities on their sleepy neighbour. Another possible reason is that the target of the Thai humour is also a great part of what makes Laos so charming.............

Even if you were to visit Laos without a hint of the nation's history, it would be a matter of minutes before you realised this was a former French colony and a minor player on any region of the map. Any international airport that has cows grazing less than half a kilometre from the runway is hardly going to be a superpower. As travellers move towards the centre of Vientiane (the capital city, pronounced "wieng - chan") bakeries, crepe restaurants and sandwich bars begin to spring up. Small guesthouses - a growing business - adorn most side streets.

Yes, Laos has charm. Even its busiest city almost feels like a French village. A travel writer once wrote: "not only is the fast life unpopular in is neigh on impossible" and it's true. In Laos, there is simply nothing to rush for (unless you are late for your trip to your national embassy). Laos has no main roads, no train rails, no shopping malls, not even an international ATM. There are a few bars with attractive young ladies, but nothing atall on the scale of Thailand.

What Laos does offer is some beautiful scenery. Vientiane itself has many beautiful temples scattered on its outskirts. These can be seen over a couple of days with many a stop on the way to take in some beer Laos. Beer Laos is a beer drinker's dream: strong, well made and unbelievably cheap. It works out at a dollar for a large bottle.

That Luang temple, Vientiane

Further afield lies Luang Prabang, with Laos' own version of Stonehenge , and even closer to Vientiane lies VanVieng, where I had huge fun drifting down the river on a large tube whilst stopping at will to check out the small islands and the temples and caves within. These places are difficult to get to but paradoxically this is their charm, they lack the masses of tourists that flock to sites in Thailand. While tubing in Van Vieng, my partner and I were often the only people on the island. It's like making your own Indiana Jones movie.

The people of Laos reflect their environment. They are often laid back and gentle minded. Tuk tuk drivers will bargain and barter like their Thai counterparts, but unless you give them good reason to anger, it's all good fun. Laos people have a very similar language to Thai, and their exposure to Thai TV and reading is such that a Bangkokian and Laotian can talk their own language to the other and be mutually intelligible. Thais from Isaan or Chang Mai come even closer to being identical. My Thai friends often find parts of the Laos language amusing and giggle at certain words. The Laos don't seem to bothered by this.

Officially , only Laos kip is legal tender. In reality the country has a tri-currency system. Even government banks happily dish out Laos kip, Thai Baht and of course the US dollar. In Vientiane especially, you'll be hard pressed to find a place that doesn't accept all three currencies, although change is usually given in local tender.

A few more tips: Laos has a lot of jungle and there are still communist insurgents hiding within. Strikes have been made in the last few years and two tourists were tragically killed about three years ago. The attackers opened fire on a bus and the tourists were cycling on the other side of the bus. Whilst tragic, attacks on tourists have never been deliberate and any kind of attack is extremely rare now. The Laos government has issues with some of its tribal minorities and often deports them or puts them up for imaginary criminal charges at will. It should also be noticed that technically, sexual relations between unmarried Laotians and foreigners is illegal. I'll leave it up to you to decide how often and how keenly this rule is enforced.

In summary, Laos is a beautiful, friendly place that is undeserving but uncaring of it's jibes from its southern neighbours. Whilst I think it would get dull to live there, it makes a charming break from the fast life of Bangkok.


Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge.

I've just done a little research on the ongoing efforts to try the Kymer Rouge and some details of previous support offered to them by western nations. I'll put it on my political website soon.

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