Richard Fenning, Contributor. A view on the challenges and opportunities facing global organizations
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When the French governed Indo-China they had a saying that the Vietnamese planted the rice, the Cambodians watched it grow and the Lao listened to it grow. After a week in northern Laos I have a sense of how slow and remote life might have been in colonial times. Even today, arriving from the bustle of Bangkok, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that life here moves at a different pace.
It is easier and more comfortable to explore northern Laos by boat than by road, The Mekong River runs like a major artery for the length of the country and its vast network of tributaries remains the best way to visit the remote interior. Having watched the movie Apocalypse Now more times than is good for my psychological well-being, I was initially disorientated that a journey along the Mekong did not involve musical accompaniment from The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Wagner.
But thank goodness it did not. The country north of the city of Luang Prabang is stunning. Leaving behind this city of Buddhist temples and delicious French pastries (one of the few reminders of the colonial era) the river winds its way through a landscape dominated by forested sugar-loaf mountains that in places rise vertiginously from the river. The cliffs soar above the long narrow boats that transport goods and people to the outlying settlements along the river, the boatmen navigating treacherous looking rapids with nonchalant ease.
You can travel for hours though pristine terrain and only occasionally be jolted from your reverie by turning a bend in the river to be confronted by the raw scar of a Chinese-financed dam under construction. In the main, it is green, lush and fertile and as the morning mist rises off the water it is hard not to lose yourself in this beautiful land.
But it is also the most bombed country in the world. The Lao government claims that between 1964 and 1973, 260 million bombs fell on Laos making the country on a per capita basis the most heavily bombed civilian population ever. Of these, some 80 million bombs failed to explode; most villages you visit have unexploded ordnance on display salvaged from the forest and rice fields.
The contrast between the bucolic tranquillity of modern Laos and its recent bloody past is stark. Passing through such a quiet corner of the world, you have to remind yourself how super-power rivalries ended up being played out so viciously in such a quiet and forgotten backwater (literally).
Strangely, it is hard to reconcile the close historical proximity of war with peace. This does not feel like a country gripped by the trauma of its recent past. People died here and hundreds of thousands left the country as refugees, first to Thailand and then for many onwards to the United States. For those that remained they endured not only the bombing but the upheaval of revolution and years of subsequent seclusion.
When you imagine the scale of what occurred, you feel as if you should get that profound sense of the past walking in step with you. But it does not feel that way. I remember a few years ago walking across the battlefield at Gettysburg. There was a vivid and intense sense of being in a place where great loss had occurred, even though on the surface it looked like a beautiful summer’s day in rural Pennsylvania.
Perhaps it is the somnolent pace of Lao life or the discreet charm of the Lao people but it is hard to feel any strong sense of what went on here. Even on the way to northern Vietnam, deep inside the cliff caves at Nong Khiaw where hundreds of people lived to avoid the bombing, it is hard to get a real visceral sense of all that happened. It is as if Laos has pulled a translucent veil over its past – as if the jungle has grown up over it – and that life has moved on. This is what makes it such a beguiling place to visit.
Richard Fenning Contributor
Richard Fenning is CEO of Control Risks, the leading global business risk consultancy advising corporations and governments on a wide range of political, integrity and security risks. During his 18 years with the company, Richard has gained a deep understanding of the reality of operating successfully in frontier markets and how to implement the highest standards of risk management and corporate governance. Prior to joining Control Risks, Richard worked in the accounting and management consulting profession. He has an honours degree in Modern History from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Richard is a well-respected speaker on how geo-political risk can impact on a company’s operations and on the role of the private sector in fragile and post-conflict state. He is an ambassador of emergency medical relief charity, Merlin and sits on the Advisory Panel for Durham University’s Global Security Institute.