Understanding Laos

October 13, 2013

Laos has the highest ethnic population I’ve came across yet. It is very pure with so many customs that cities like Luang Prabang make you think: should we infiltrate places like this? Being one of the poorer nations, I do recognize how our presence is helping expedite their economy. There’s a Catch 22. Monks and temples rest in the mountainous small town of Luang Prabang. In the morning at 5:30am, nearly thousands of monks walk down the street collecting alms, or their daily food, from the people of the town. The city has a peaceful feeling and quickly climbed to one of my favorites this trip. Not to mentions, at night when the city shuts down at 11:30pm, a bowling alley (yes, bowling) opens up for all the backpackers from 11:30pm onwards. I had a couple great nights there meeting fellow travelers from around the world. Great conversations always arise. Some of the few customs we asked to acknowledge are to dress appropriately with a shirt on (preferably shoulders covered), refrain from public affection, refrain from touching someone’s head including children, ask before taking a photo, take off your shoes when entering a home, for the women to not physically touch the monks, never point or touch anyone with your foot and to refrain from shouting bc it may startle the Lao as they tend to speak soft and avoid confrontation. I took a photo of the sign at immigration for reference. Thinking this may be a strict society, it was interesting to note I haven’t visited a more laid back country yet. Quick for a smile, they’re a very joyous population. Makes sense since geographically they are near Northern Thailand who also has this trait. However, Laos tends to have less influence from the West and more of a primitive nature. In Laos, I’ve observed people come up to you and initiate conversation out of mere interest, often without trying to sell anything. They are as curious about you as you are of them. I have had a handful of Lao men/women in Luang Prabang say “Excuse me, can I practice English with you?” Or ask to go to the Internet cafe and practice using a computer with them or answer questions. They aren’t shy to ask for help and I can’t think of a more rewarding thing I can do now than to help them. I consider Laos as a forgotten country in Southeast Asia. During the American/Vietnam War, bombs were dropped on the Vietnamese, actually in proper Laos. Around 30% of these bombs failed to detonate leaving Laos riddled with unexplored ordnance (UXO). At a current rate of clearance it will take more than 100 years to make the country “safe”. Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world as of 2008 (Wikipedia). After the American/Vietnam war, Laos was not given much restitution as Vietnam for damages. When looking around you rarely see elderly people. The two main reasons for this are the the elderly tend to stay indoors and Lao individuals have a short life span. There is nearly no health care available in the country. As a backpacker, that means you hope your health holds up, no time for accidents or malaria/dengue because there is no where to go besides Thailand/Vietnam. As for the Lao, this means you hope your health holds up because if not, there may not be anything you can do. A young man told me “no medicine in Laos” when I inquired. Therefore if you get severely sick, need emergency surgery or have an accident you are kinda out of luck… and of course we are doing a lot of things outside. I’ve been tubing (floating!) down the river in Vang Vieng the past few days. Bars line up on the shore. It got dark before we got back and I thought I was a going to have to sleep on the shore. But eventually someone found me. Maybe the most scared I’ve been all trip. The day after we went kayaking with trips to caves. We went tubing again out of need for redemption after the first take. It’s been fun to let loose but it’s time to leave the party and head to Vientiene, the capital of Laos, tomorrow. Hope everyone is well!

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