By John S. Hamalian
The Land That Time Forgot
People say that going to Laos is like stepping back in time. It is one of the more undeveloped countries in the world and remains quite poor. Still a relatively reclusive state, it has not been many years since Laos opened its shy doors to the outside world. As such, it is still largely unknown and unappreciated throughout the world, as evidenced by remarks I received prior to my departure, such as, “Laos? I think I’ve heard of that before – where is it?” Its entire population of seven million inhabitants would rank it merely as the size of a medium city in some other Asian countries. Small in stature, yes, but I was to discover that Laos is a giant in terms of the richness of its culture.
The people here are known to be extremely friendly, and I was surely not disappointed. I never failed to see a bright, wide smile on the faces of these perpetually warm people. Sealed off for so many decades due to war, mayhem and self-insulation, Laos is still relatively untarnished by mass tourism. It must be one of the last bastions of pristine innocence left in the world. You can see it on the faces of the people – that curious, almost bewildered look in their eyes when they take you in. Normally reclusive monks, not wanting any part of hordes of disrespectful tourists with intrusive cameras clicking away, are remarkably accessible here – some even willing to get close to me at times. Vientiane city is a reflection of the modesty of the country, being among the smallest, most unobtrusive and low-key capitals you will ever behold. Lacking the hustle, bustle and sheer chaos of nearby countries’ seats of government, it sometimes feels more like a large town than a city.
The Kingdom of One Million Elephants
The history of Laos harks back to another city, now called Luang Prabang. The first Lao kingdom dates back to 1353 and was originally called Lan Xang, or ‘One Million Elephants’. The King once received from the Khmer government a gift of a nearly pure gold Buddha image, called Pha Bang, that was so highly cherished they changed the entire name of their principal city to it. The capital of the kingdom was later moved to Vientiane, but Luang Prabang remains to this day the historical and cultural heart of the country. The city is infused with magnificently decorated temples, many of them rebuilt after devastating invasions from Siam and Burma. In 1995, UNESCO recognized the entire city of Luang Prabang as a World Heritage site. For a leisurely stroll down quiet, quaint streets, or a journey back into the palatial serenity of an ancient kingdom, no trip to Laos should be without a visit to this exceptional and wonderful city.
Although through civil war, insurrection and occupation, the monarchy based in Luang Prabang was eventually reduced to symbolic rule, a king still resided there even after 1975, when communist forces officially overthrew the Kingdom of Laos and installed a red state. Yet one mystery remains: the last King and Queen disappeared sometime in the late 1970s, probably sent to a ‘reeducation’ camp. The exact nature and timing of their deaths remains unknown. It is a topic that does not seem to be discussed much in public here, as my guide Saiyasit explained the situation to me almost in a whisper. He shifted around uncomfortably when I asked him for more details on the issue. It seems that Laos is still not ready to clear away all the skeletons in its closets.
Betwixt and Between the Enemy
The name Laos comes from the name of the majority people who reside there, though in reality the country is comprised of dozens of ethnic groups, each proudly wearing their own unique dress, speaking their distinct tongues and following their particular customs. The Lao themselves are ethnic cousins of the Thais, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the culture and language are similar (to the outsider’s eye, anyway). Consequently, if you have ever been to Thailand, especially the eastern regions, you will have quite a familiar feeling in Laos. The fact that Laos to this day still exists as a nation is something of a miracle, and is testament to the people’s courage and stamina. A small, landlocked country that has always been bordered by larger and more powerful entities such as mammoth China, the once dominant Khmer Empire (now Cambodia), the mighty Burmese (Myanmar), Siam (now Thailand), and Vietnam. At one time or another, nearly all these neighbors attacked, occupied or heavily interfered with Laos. Add to this nearly a century of strict French colonial rule, a bitter occupation by the Japanese, relentless bombings by the Americans as part of the CIA’s ‘secret war’ during the Vietnam War era, and civil war between pro- and anti-Communist forces, and it is not difficult to understand why Laos seems stuck in time. They just have not had much of a breather. But the good people of this land can finally exhale the past and inhale their future.
“Something Lost, Something Gained”
Today, the people of Laos are facing the brave new world of global inter-connectivity. Like many developing countries, Laos is finding that economic reforms bring about social changes, and some not always transpiring as expected. During my stay, I had some great conversations with Saiyasit. He spoke surprisingly good English – usually only guides have this capability – and was very direct and insightful. I asked him “How are all the changes affecting the country?” Saiyasit told me that sometimes positive change brings negative impact. “Something lost, something gained”, was how he profoundly described it. I could see and feel this myself, especially in the urban areas. Colorful silk wraps slowly being replaced by generic blue jeans. Warm bamboo gives way to cold concrete. Soothing strings supplanted by generic pop. Traditional customs, music and the like are beginning their slow and inevitable transition to the cultural oblivion of globalization. Although Laos has largely managed to avoid this phenomenon, particularly in the countryside, there are few corners of this ever-smaller Earth that have not yet succumbed to some of the trappings of the developed world. But who are we to judge this? It is all too easy to let one’s selfish desire to time-encapsulate an old-world ‘quaint’ civilization overtake the local people’s real desire to upgrade to modern electricity and a thatchless roof that does not leak every time it rains. I only hope that the gain is greater than the loss.
At the Crossroads of History
Laos is a country at a crossroads of its own legacy, and the enduringly warm and friendly people here are yearning for a new life. The question is, how can Laos balance the new with the old? How can it yet hold on to the best of its traditions, customs and culture that have so indelibly made such a unique mark on this place? Those same qualities that make this the perfect locale for anyone wanting a serene, authentic, uncommercialized destination.
And suddenly, the answer emerges in a simple yet revealing vision from the collective imagination of a nation. In the wake of a slow yet purposeful line of Buddhist monks chanting their morning prayers, a small child appears. In her wide and innocent eyes is a reflection of the future. On her left is a tarnished old temple, on her right a glistening new bank. She pauses for just a moment, glancing deliberately at each side. Then, wearing an optimistic smile, she heads straight ahead, confidently striding right between the two on her inexorable path towards a bold new world. One million elephants and seven million souls… walking again, eyes wide open… proudly into the sun.
Direct flights from Changi International Airport to both Vientiane and Luang Prabang depart daily.