The Land of a Million Elephants
Laos, © 27.Mar.2003 gM
Photos of Laos
Introduction to Laos
The Land of a Million Elephants
What's Happening in the World?
In the 19th century, Laos was called Lan Xang, the land of a million elephants. In the 1960's, it became the land of the million irrelevants, forgotten by the world and more heavily bombed per capita than any other nation on earth. At the beginning of the 21st century, Laos is the land where a million kip, the country's quite worthless currency, will easily find its way in and out of one's pocket even during a short stay.

One of Wat Phu's worship pavilions
Plumeria trees line Wat Phu's stairway
Wat Phu's sanctuary is situated on the uppermost level
Angkor-style figure at Wat Phu
Wat Phu: one of its worship pavilions, plumeria trees line its stairway, its sanctuary is situated on the uppermost level, and an Angkor-style figure (from left to right) / © gM
Laos reminds us of Myanmar: infrastructure exists only rudimentarily, prices are quoted in several currencies (kip, US$, as well as Thai baht), and the people are welcoming, curious, and like to practice their English. Instead of a military regime, Laos is governed through a communist system, but the people are not much better off. In both countries, fighting between government and rebel troops continues, leading to closures of certain areas for travel from time to time. Most of Laos' main attractions, except for Wat Phu, lie in the north - Luang Prabang, the Plain of Jars, and hill tribes. We, however, do not make it there due to recent instabilities along the land route to the northern part of the country, particularly highway 13 just north of Vang Vieng. We still meet many travelers who ventured into this area and nothing happened to them, but we also meet others who, although nothing happened to them, had a nerve-racking bus ride being regularly stopped by men in civilian clothing holding guns, not knowing whether they were proper military or if a mugging was imminent. In hindsight, we are rather content with our decision to skip the north and head straight south from Vientiane.

Transportation standards, in general, are as low as they are in Myanmar, although there are some differences. Most of our travels in Laos take us along the newly paved highway 13 going south from Vientiane. Consequently, we do not have to deal with delays caused by either bad roads or equipment failures, but there are other ways to prolong a journey. For example, loading two 100cc motorcycles onto a full-sized bus, positioning them in the aisle, one at the very front and one at the very back, and tying them to seats with a few ropes. Who said that there could not be a motorcycle accident inside a bus? Less dangerous, but more annoying is a salesman who holds up the bus so long that even the unbelievably patient Laotian passengers start complaining. It is particularly irritating because the bus had just stopped for half an hour at a bus stop before moving about 50 meters down the road, where it then stopped for the salesman. At the bus stop we could at least watch pigs being tied to the opened tailgate of a pickup truck, after the usual 25 passengers had boarded. Did I mention the flock of ducks that was tied down to the pickup's roof?

Blossoms of Laos' national tree, the plumeria tree
Blossoms of the plumeria tree / © gM
In bigger towns, the bus is stormed by food vendors which is good since there are no scheduled snack stops, and which is not so good because one becomes suddenly a lot less hungry the moment bugs on a stick or rat on a stick are waved in front of one's face. There are other selections though, like eggs on a stick, chicken (maybe?) on a stick, sticky rice, corn on the cob, sweets, and baguette. In addition to no refreshment stops, there are also no bathroom breaks. According to the collective bladder theory, at some point during the journey too many passengers need to go to the washroom and word somehow, and for non-Laotian ears miraculously, reaches the bus driver who stops the bus at the side of the road. People file out of the bus and disperse amidst the few bushes, staying close to each other due to the risk of land mines, and as far as possible from each other for some privacy. Our bathroom break comes too late for a one to two-year old girl who had to go five minutes earlier. And she did: in the middle of the aisle, third row from the front, pulling down of pants not required. Everything dried up within minutes.

Kids play with a snake
Kids play with a snake / © gM
Despite the fact that almost everything that moves finds its way into someone's meal, we do encounter some creatures: a praying mantis lands on my chest and walks to my shoulder during dinner on Don Det, dozens of daddy longlegs scurry away from us as we descend a hill on Don Khon, water buffalo bathe in Mekong waters or in the pond in front of Wat Phu, and on Don Det kids play with a snake which is alive at the beginning and dead at the end of their game. However, we do not manage to spot the elusive freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins on Si Phan Don.

For the remainder of this century, a million challenges lie ahead of Laos and its people. As a start, the current political system requires fundamental changes and the country's infrastructure needs to be significantly developed. Because it is a question of when and not if we will return to visit the northern part of the country, we will have at least one chance to judge the progress Laos is making with our own eyes.

Introduction to Laos  /  The Land of a Million Elephants  /  What's Happening in the World?