Friday, January 22, 2010

Vientiane, Laos

Upon arriving in Laos I made an ATM withdrawal and was impressed to see my nine-digit account balance! Nice! Except that it was in Lao kip, and there are more than 8,000 kip to the U.S. dollar. Due to continual inflation, the zeros on the bills are hard to count, and coins are completely obsolete. However, Thai bhat and U.S. dollars are often acceptable.

Our first stop in Laos was Vientiane, a sleepy capital on the Mekong River with only 200,000 inhabitants, some of them monks dressed in bright orange or saffron robes.

Allison and I took an evening walk past the Lao cultural center, where a Japanese taiko drumming performance was letting out. A Lao high school girl, inspired by the performance, was saying in Japanese to her friends "My name is ...." I answered her back in my basic Japanese, but she just giggled shyly. Her friend, not so shy, picked up the conversation with me in English, and I was surprised by the level of English spoken by high school students. But I don't think that kids in rural Laos get such a good education.

During our first day in Laos we brushed up on our Lao vocabulary, which consisted of the Lao for hello, sorry, thank you, how much, yes, no, vegetarian (for Allison), please, good luck, and no ice please.

We took a bicycle tour in Vientiane, riding on a small track along the Mekong River, past shacks and nice houses and tiny local stores.

I exchanged greetings of "sa bai di" with the locals we passed, and everyone was happy to let me take their picture. Some people even ran to gather more family members so that I could take pictures of all of them!

Above is a family in their home, and below is an extension of the same home, built onto the bank of the Mekong. Every meal on this balcony is a picnic over the Mekong.

We saw people grilling bananas and we tried a sweet cassava and rice treat which was wrapped in banana leaves and grilled. Our guide said that when he was a kid everything was wrapped in biodegradable banana leaves, but now, like most everywhere in the world, the country is littered with plastic bags.

We veered from the Mekong and rode next to a very active irrigation ditch, passing rice paddies, lots of people, goats and water buffalo.

Our guide spoke English well because he grew up in Hawaii. His close relative was prime minister of Laos before the communist takeover in 1975. When the government changed, the entire family had to flee the country. Our guide and his parents went to Hawaii. In 1992 they were able to return to Laos, but they remain careful not to get involved in politics.

As far as I can tell, Laos is like Vietnam in that it is a communist country that doesn't feel communist but for the party propaganda in the National Museum in Vientiane, and the ubiquitous communist flags. Here, the main post office displays the communist flag as well as the Lao flag.

Everywhere, people are engaging in small businesses. The internet is available and the Buddhist religion is thriving.

But it seems Laos has abandoned the communist ideals of caring for its people. The state fails to provide basic necessities such as a free education for all children. On the other hand, education was not available in rural Laos when it was a French colony or when it was under the Royal Lao government. And in the cities I visited I didn't see people begging, or homeless people, although I heard that many young Lao migrate to Thailand to work in the sex industry or at other undesirable jobs. The Lao government has tried hard but without success to stop this, and to eliminate prostitution. In fact, it is illegal for a foreigner to have sex with a Lao citizen if they are not married.

It seems that the Communist Party rules Laos in name, but that its leaders have largely abandoned communist ideals, save repression of dissent, which sporadically continues. Some of the Lao and Hmong exiles who fled ethnic cleansing and other horrors during the early days of the communist regime have returned.

According to "A Short History of Laos, the Land in Between," by Grant Evans, there has been an effort to "re-traditionalize" and Laos has in many ways reverted to a situation similar to that which existed under the pre-communist Royal Lao Government. Laos continues to be economically weak and dependent on outside suport. Its people, outside of the few small cities, are largely subsistence farmers, and produce little or no tax base. The minority populations, which together make up more than half the population of Laos, continue to struggle in the face of poverty and discrimination. Foreign forces, now in the form of NGOs, continue to weild influence in Laos.

Our guide pointed out that many Asian countries have had a one-party system for years, and that this has helped them develop economic strength, so that in some ways having a one-party government is good for a country. Laos, however, still has a long way to go before it builds any kind of economic strength.

In the past it seems that Laos was not very open to tourists. Tourists were only allowed to see certain parts of the country. Now, that has changed, but still my guide book warns me not to take any pictures of government workers, government buildings or even bridges as it could result in confiscation of my camera.

The Mekong River was low, and much of it seemed to be a sand bar. Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos have an agreement about management of the river, but China, which is upstream, is not a party to that agreement and is diverting much of the water.

We stopped for drinks at a hotel on the Mekong funded by Hmong refugees who now live in the U.S. The Hmong like to stay at this hotel when they return to Laos for a visit. Here, Allison enjoys fresh coconut milk.

Although the Hmong live in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China, the Hmong who have immigrated to the U.S. come primarily from Laos. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand and later to the U.S. and other western countries after cooperating with the U.S. to fight a losing battle against the Pathet Lao during the Secret War in Laos. About 8,000 Hmong refugees remain in Thailand.

Finishing up our bicycle tour, we ate lunch at a fabulous vegetarian buffet restaurant. Our waitress was MTF transgender, known in Southeast Asia as a lady boy. She was completely decked out in heels and a dress, fancy hair and lots of make-up in the middle of the day, and nobody seemed to mind at all. Our guide told us that in Laos, as in Thailand, nobody cares if you are gay. There is no problem, no need to hide anything, and families are fine with it. He said it's sad that some countries are not as accepting. We saw several transgender people in Vientiane, and nobody seemed to give them a second glance. Laos and Thailand seem to be the most queer-friendly places I've ever been, and I saw openly queer folks in every city and town I visited there.

In the evening we went to a Lao cultural show. On the way, we got lost and asked directions from a group of foreigners, who turned out to be men from Peru, Panama and the U.S. who were working on an agricultural project involving cassava in Laos. In Spanish and English, they helped us find the hall where we watched a beautiful cultural dance show and ate a Lao vegetarian feast.

(Sorry, I cannot turn this photo right side up for some reason).

Lao food is usually eaten with the hands using sticky rice, which comes in a basket for keeping it warm. Roll the sticky rice into a tightly packed ball and use it like a tortilla chip to scoop up the food.

Also in Vientiane we visited a nursery for rare wild orchids, which Allison, as a botanist, fully appreciated but which I just thought were pretty cool.

Later, I stopped at an internet cafe where I was invited to a behind-the-shop party to down a few Lao-whiskey cokes with some locals and Polish residents of Vientiane. Like everywhere I've been in Southeast Asia, the locals were friendly and generous and not just after my kip.

We were sad to leave Vientiane because the people were so nice there, and the friendly manager of our guesthouse spoiled us by giving us rides to places such as the orchid nursery, providing free purified water and answering all our many questions in excellent English. But we wanted to see Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos.

No comments: