Laos – the Rising Gentry

The well-known Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami recently published his travel notes titled “What is There to Do in Laos?”, bringing Laos fame and popularity. Although his book was named after the mysterious landlocked country of Laos, only one chapter was spent on recording Haruki’s travel experience in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, which are the two most popular travel destinations known to the world nowadays.

Landlocked

The countries bordering with Laos include China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, rendering it a landlocked country with contact to neither the Andaman Sea nor the South China Sea. The country is not, however, completely contactless with water. The mighty Mekong River flows through the Laotian territory and fertilizes the Laotian soil.

Although Laos has a territory of nearly the same size of the United Kingdom, it has only a population of 7 million, i.e. similar to that of Hong Kong. This makes Laos the most sparsely populated country in the Mekong region.

The socialist government in Laos, established in 1975, is one of the several remaining over the globe. A market economy with Laotian characteristic (that means “under socialist one-party rule” with no doubt) was advocated by the government since 1986. With a human development index of only 0.586, Lao People’s Democratic Republic ranked 138th out of 188 countries in Human Development Report 2016. Three decades of market reform on, although Laotian economy does not perform well with flying colors, it in fact has a satisfactory GDP per capita, US $1818 in 2015, especially when compared with some of its neighbors (e.g. Cambodia with only US$1158 and Myanmar with only US$1161).

The predominant religion of Laos is Buddhism, which constitutes 66 percent of the country’s population. Photo taken in Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture park located southeast from Vientiane.

The predominant religion of Laos is Buddhism, Buddhists constitute 66 percent of the country’s total population. Photo taken in Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), a sculpture park located southeast from Vientiane.

Fed by Mekong River- beyond the fisheries

Being close to Mekong River which is rich in seafood supply, the Laotian cuisine is characterized by dishes of prepared and preserved fish. More than 75% of the population are still earning a living on fishery in Mekong River nowadays. The total consumption of fish is approximately US$150 million per year, the fishing industry does not only guarantee food security in the country, it also generates additional income and employment to support the Laotian economy.

The Lao people rely on Mekong River more than just its aquatic life, but also on its attractiveness. Only in 2015, the River attracted more than 4.5 million international visitors to the countries, with a 5% direct contribution to the Laotian GDP.

Although in terms of both average expenditure and contribution to employment, Laos seems to be benefitting less from tourism than neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia, it is unquestionable that the number of tourists entering the landlocked country by land is skyrocketing in recent years. The tourism growth in the other Mekong countries turn out to bring collateral benefit to Laos, the European tourists are willing to spend a day or two in Laos after visiting the nearby Cambodia or Myanmar.

Vientiane

On a bend of the Mekong River, Vientiane has been the country’s capital since the 16th century, but it only has a short history of urbanization. A country’s culture and level of civilization is best observed in its capital (sometimes one or two most economically advanced cities if the capital is just an administrative center of the country), Laos is no exception.

If the Germans are the most intellectually hungry people, who believe that one who has not finished reading Nietzsche and Kant is unforgivable, the Lao people are perhaps the complete opposite. The Vientiane Social Survey 1998 reveals that up to 61 percent of the Vientiane population did not read even a book in the preceding year. However, it does not necessarily mean that the Lao do not value knowledge, they just do it in a different way than western people. Instead of endeavoring in inventing and discovering new knowledge, the common Lao people are deeply impressed by the religious tradition preserved by the monks and the elders.

However, given the tourism bloom in recent years, the previously sleepy city is under transformation. Even the Presidential Palace is having an extension constructed, and a new convention center has been opened recently.

That Luang, a gold-covered Buddhist stupa in Central Vientiane, destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions, is the monument of national pride.

That Luang, a gold-covered Buddhist stupa in Central Vientiane, destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions, is the monument of national pride.

 

The golden reclining Buddha in the That Luang represents the serenity in his final hours before passing. Such statutes are also commonly found in other wats among Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

The golden reclining Buddha in the That Luang represents the serenity in his final hours before passing. Such statutes are also commonly found in other wats among Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is situated in northern Laos. Its rich religious history is reflected by the alms-giving event held every dawn. The monks form a queue and walk on a procession on the streets, whereby the locals and tourists respectfully kneel on the roadside to place the food into the ports they carry.

The alms-giving ceremony in the UNESCO-listed heritage town of Luang Prabang became a ‘must-see’ attraction for tourists. At the same time, it creates controversy, for the inconsiderate tourists often disrupt the event by blocking the way of the monks, just to take photos with flashlight.

The alms-giving ceremony in the UNESCO-listed heritage town of Luang Prabang became a ‘must-see’ attraction for tourists. Controversially, inconsiderate tourists often disrupt the event by blocking the way of the monks, just to take photos with flashlight.

It is in this peaceful town Haruki described that a sense of ceremonial serenity is present. There is certainly a great load of things you can do in Laos, under such untroubled calmness.

The Author

Yvonne is a law student at the University of Hong Kong. She is obsessed with travelling alone, and believes that learning the history and language is the best way to explore a place.

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