Archive for ‘Travel guide to Laos’

April 22, 2014

The subtle challenges in grasping a culture like our own: Laos

The subtle challenges in grasping a culture like our own: Laos

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With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) becoming operational next year, it is imperative for Thais to develop a better and deeper understanding of their neighbours.

Three AEC members have cultures similar to Thailand, namely Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Of these, the Thai and Lao cultures and languages are the most similar, which ironically poses special challenges.

There are numerous examples of countries that are similar culturally but are different at the same time, such as the US and Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan and Korea, Germany and Austria, and Australia and New Zealand.

With respect to the US-Canada relationship, there are many rather amazing parallels with the Thai-Lao situation. Often when Thais arrive for the first time in Laos, it is common for them to say they feel like they are in Thailand, say for example, in a major regional city like Khon Kaen.

They think this is a compliment, but instead the Lao frequently feel hurt because there is no recognition that Laos has anything special or distinctive. The same thing often happens when Americans visit Canada, and like the Lao, the Canadians feel hurt by such remarks.

I recently visited Toronto for the first time, and the experience inspired this article and its central theme: “Thailand is to Laos as the United States is to Canada”.

A number of years ago I took a group of Thai students on a two-month study program in Laos with students from Cambodia, Japan, the US and Vietnam.

At first the Thai students were rather skeptical about the idea of spending two months in Laos. Numerous Thais have visited Laos for a day and don’t even stay the night.

My students echoed a common theme about Laos among Thais, namely, Laos “mai mii arai” (Laos doesn’t have anything.) Interestingly, towards the end of the program, the Thais were asking about the possibility of extending their stay. Obviously, there was much in Laos to learn and enjoy.

I have identified nine areas in which the Thai-Lao situation mirrors the Canadian-US situation:

1) The demographics are remarkably similar. The Thai population is 9.96 times larger than the Lao population and the US population is 9.15 times larger than the Canadian population. Also both Canada and Laos, in contrast to the US and Thailand, are sparsely populated with many natural resources. Laos has been referred to as the potential “battery of Southeast Asia”.

2) Both Laos and Canada are members of the International Organisation of Francophone nations. French is an official language of Canada, and the French culture and language is still an influence in its former Southeast Asian colony.

French signage is commonly seen, while France’s influence on the Lao language is especially noticeable with respect to technical terms in geography and mathematics. Even in common language, the Lao word for ice cream is “galaem”, which is clearly derived from French.

These examples show how the Lao and Isaan languages, though very similar, are not as similar as many think.

3) During the Soviet era, many Lao studied languages such as Bulgarian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish (related to study in Cuba), Russian, and Vietnamese in preparation for studying abroad. Some 45 per cent of the Lao population have a mother tongue other than Lao.

Moving into the AEC era, it is important for Thailand to expand and improve its teaching of other languages, not just English, but the important languages of Asian neighbours.

4) In terms of the media, the Lao love to watch Thai TV, and similarly the Canadians watch much US television. However, Thais never watch Lao TV, and Americans don’t watch Canadian TV.

5) With respect to financial matters, the baht is readily accepted in Laos, and similarly Canada will accept US currency, but it is impossible to use the Lao kip in Thailand or Canadian currency in the US.

6) This also relates to economic issues. Thailand is one of the most unequal middle income countries, and the US is becoming one of the most unequal advanced capitalist countries.

The Gini coefficient is a good index of a nation’s income inequality. Thailand’s Gini is 46 per cent higher than that of Laos, and the US’ Gini is 40 per cent higher than that of Canada.

7) Both Laos and Canada have seen a large influx of Chinese migrants. Only 55 per cent of people residing in Laos are ethnically Lao, and over 50 per cent of people living in Toronto were born outside Canada.

8) In terms of higher education, most universities in both Canada and Laos are public and tuition costs are reasonable, while both Thailand and the US have many private universities with higher costs.

9) Finally, in terms of the political economy, both Thailand and the US (unlike Laos and Canada) face policy gridlock. Both Thailand and the US need high-speed train systems but face all kinds of political obstacles in trying to implement such badly needed infrastructure. Laos has already signed an agreement with China to have a high-speed train service to China.

It is, thus, imperative that Thais and Americans make a greater effort to know more about their important neighbour to the north and lessen their feelings of superiority.

Many Thais like to think of the Lao as brothers and sisters. The problem with this concept is that it is inherently hierarchical with one side having to be the elder sibling.

Thus, as we move into the AEC era, the Thai and Lao should think of each other simply as friendly neighbours eager to learn more about each other’s rich cultures, languages, and histories.

Gerald W Fry

Distinguished International Professor, Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota;

January 6, 2013

Land of Apocalypse Now

The Vietnamese planted the rice, the Cambodians watched it grow and the Lao listened to it grow

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.

About Author

Richard Fenning 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.

September 7, 2012

Travel to Laos: Lives on the line in river revelry

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By Belinda Merhab

5:30 AM Thursday Sep 6, 2012

Boozy fun in Laos comes laced with danger, writes Belinda Merhab.

Travellers stop at bars to knock back free shots of potent Lao whisky while tubing down the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng. Photo / Thomas Bishop

There were several ways I could have died while travelling through Laos – or at least got into a decent amount of trouble.

There was the night I was frisked at gunpoint by authorities on the street and almost arrested for being out past the communist Government’s midnight curfew.

Or the day I took a hot-air balloon ride with a pilot who didn’t know how to land. We eventually disembarked in a small village where 10 Laotian men tried unsuccessfully to hold the balloon down before our pilot continued floating into a mountain range.

We never did find out what happened to him.

And then there was the day I went “tubing” – floating down the Nam Song River on a tube, stopping at bars along the way to drink booze by the bucketload – an entertaining but highly dangerous pastime that claimed the lives of two Australians earlier this year.

They died just weeks after I had returned from my trip, having raved about how much fun tubing was and how it had been the highlight of my Southeast Asian adventure.

Having said that, it was never a secret to any of us that tubing was a risky business.

While our tour allowed a day in Vang Vieng for tubing – there’s not much else to do there except for lounging in a bar drinking sangria and watching re-runs of either Friends or Family Guy – it was considered free time as our tour company was unwilling to bear the risk.

Our tour guide – who warned us several times that people regularly died on the river – was forbidden by the company from tubing himself.

From about midday in Vang Vieng, hundreds of travellers from all over the world converge on the riverside bars. Some get to bars on foot while others rent a tube and float along the river from bar to bar, amid stunning mountainous scenery.

Each bar has a person whose job it is to throw a rope into the water for revellers to grab on to, so they can be reeled in to the next party.

Once you’re there, you’re offered/forced to drink free shots of potent Lao whisky – the same whisky that almost killed Australian teenager Annika Morris, whose heart stopped several times after drinking it. Sometimes there is free food.

You can jump from podiums, swing from trapezes over the water or slip down water slides – all of which I avoided.

Inhibitions are completely lost as strangers drink from communal bottles of booze and buckets of cocktails, decorate each other with marker pens and spraypaint, and sing and dance.

By about 5pm, most of us headed back to return our tubes before nightfall to get our deposits back. At this point my fellow travellers and I grew concerned about how to get off the river.

We made a human chain by grabbing each other’s tubes and floated until we saw a clearing on the river’s edge. We helped each other climb up the bank, and even took a victorious “we survived tubing” photo once we found a tuk-tuk to get us back to town, where we rewarded our survival with deep-fried Nutella pancakes from a street-side vendor.

Things did get a little hairy there and it was lucky that a group of us stuck together for support. But then flirting with danger was rather the point of the exercise.

Indeed, Dr David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism, points out that it has always been a rite of passage for young Antipodeans to engage in risky behaviour when travelling overseas.

“You always find there are a certain number of people who feel it’s sort of a rite of passage to do something really dumb, particularly if it’s the first trip away for a young person – young people think they’re bulletproof,” said Beirman.

“Years ago it was going to the running of the bulls in Pamplona. In Laos, they just get a rubber tube, jump into the rapids and hope for the best.”


By Belinda Merhab

May 30, 2012

Vientiane: Laos’ sleepy capital

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May 29, 2012, 12:16 pm, Stephen Johnson

A woman is sleeping next to a cash register at Laos’ capital city airport.

After a bit of gentle prodding from tourists, she wakes up and drowsily accepts 10,000 kip, or a little more than one Australian dollar, for some locally-brewed national beer.

The name of the Laotian currency is an apt description for an afternoon kip in a nation where sweaty, tropical temperatures are enough to induce a siesta as the dry season winds down.

In recent decades, though, this small, landlocked Southeast Asian nation with five neighbours has had anything but a sleepy history.

During the Vietnam War, US forces bombed the countryside hoping to destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units hiding in the hills.

The Lao capital Vientiane (which the locals pronounce Vien-Jun), on the northern banks of the Mekong River, is the city which my mother Pon fled in July 1975.

Five months later, the Pathet Lao came to power.

Mum was 23 when the 600-year-old monarchy was displaced by force in favour of authoritarian communist rule.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic now stands alongside Vietnam, North Korea, China and Cuba as among the world’s few remaining one-party states.

Across Laos, red and yellow hammer and sickle flags fly prominently next to the national red, blue and white flag wherever government buildings and market stalls are to be found.

Standing near a 16th century gold temple in Vientiane, our tour guide says a 1976 lightning strike on Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos, was a good political omen.

“One year after the revolution, it finished the bad luck,” he said, overlooking a big empty square, interrupted only by ice-cream vendors and a woman attempting to sell sparrows in bamboo cages.

But almost four decades after communism came to Laos, many people are still living in poverty.

Three-wheeled tuk tuks powered by motorcycle engines are a common mode of transport, a sign that Laos is still a poor country.

On the city’s dusty outskirts, it’s not unusual to see a motorbike rider without a helmet covering his mouth with one hand and controlling the handlebars with the other.

While shiny new Toyota HiLux utes and Hyundai Elantra sedans are a common sight, so too are wooden huts on the side of the road with dirt floors selling barbecued chicken on skewers.

People are more likely to be seen walking a cow with a rope than walking a dog, which all roam the streets along with chickens and ducklings.

Tangled bundles of overhead wires dominate the scape of the city with a small-town feel.

When it comes to its architecture, Laos appears to have embraced its French heritage, at least in the embassy quarter.

A Parisian style boulevard with glass-ball lights on short black poles lines the route to the Presidential Palace.

Laos may have became an independent nation in 1953, but nine years after the departure of its European colonial rulers the locals built Patuxai, an eastern version of France’s famous Arc de Triomphe monument garnished with Buddhist figurines.

Its Lao name means Victory Gate.

Still, the history of Vientiane certainly hasn’t been one of victory, with neighbouring Thailand invading it in 1828 from across the Mekong River.

Wat Si Saket, then a decade-old Buddhist temple filled with statues, was the only building left standing as the city was burnt to the ground.

In modern times, Laos and Thailand are cultural allies connected by the Australian-funded Friendship Bridge, which former prime minister Paul Keating opened in 1994.

Laos opened its tourism up to the rest of the world in the mid-1990s, a decade after introducing some market-based economic reforms.

But unlike Vietnam and Thailand, where crossing the road is often an ordeal, this nation of less than seven million people has retained its unique, sleepy vibe.


GETTING THERE: Budget carrier Air Asia flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast daily to Kuala Lumpur, with daily connecting flights to Vientiane from May 27.

STAYING THERE: Rashmi’s Plaza Hotel, described as Vientiane’s first modern luxury hotel, has a roof-top pool. It is situated near the city centre, a short walk from the Australian.

  • The writer was a guest of Air Asia and stayed at Rashmi’s Plaza Hotel in Vientiane.
May 8, 2012

In Laos, ‘bamboo curtain’ yields to pro golf

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By Talek Harris (AFP)

Laos is one of the world’s poorest countries where a quarter of the 6.5 mn inhabitants lives below the poverty line (AFP/File, Roslan Rahman)

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — It’s 7:00 am in Luang Prabang and beneath a jagged line of mountain peaks, high-ranking communist party officials are among a small but powerful crowd gathered silently at the first tee.

One swish of the driver and a white ball fizzes down the fairway, prompting warm applause as professional golf finally arrives in secluded, poverty-stricken Laos, long isolated behind the “bamboo curtain”.

It’s a small but important step for the Southeast Asian backwater, which has watched as growing neighbours China, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and even Cambodia embraced the game.

Last week’s Luang Prabang Laos Open, at a UNESCO world heritage site on the banks of the Mekong, offered total prize money of $80,000, loose change in a sport where the best players can command $1 million just to turn up and play.

But such a purse had never been offered for any sport in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a one-party state whose only other big sporting event, the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, was held in reduced form due to lack of facilities.

While golf has penetrated nearly every corner of upwardly mobile Asia, it had barely registered in land-locked, hilly Laos, where a bloody civil war ended in 1975 but left it behind the “bamboo curtain” dividing Communist and free-market parts of the continent.

Even military-run Myanmar enjoys a healthy golf scene inherited from British colonialists. North Korea’s affinity with the game is underlined by its claim that the late Kim Jong-Il shot 11 holes-in-one on his first round.

However, times change and with Laos’s gradual introduction of free-market economics in the 1980s, and the arrival of its two-company stock exchange last year, golf was an inevitable consequence of the drive for prosperity — at least for the elite.

“Golf is necessary for the country, and also the high-ranking people play golf,” says Khampeng Vongkhanty, vice chairman of the Lao National Golf Federation (LNGF), a body overseen by the Ministry of Education and Sport.

“Because when they have meetings outside the country, everybody plays golf. So now most of our staff or our high-ranking people play.”

Laos’s embryonic golfing community so far consists of only one professional, eight courses — five in the capital, Vientiane — no coaches and almost no pro shops, meaning clubs and other equipment have to be bought in Thailand.

Despite this, Khampeng says golf is now “booming” in aid-dependent Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries where roughly a quarter of the 6.5 million, mainly rural, inhabitants lives below the poverty line.

For decades Laos was known primarily for its “golden triangle” opium trade, and it remains deeply agricultural, with low scores on many development indicators.

But Luang Prabang Golf Club, the South Korean-funded resort venture which hosted the tournament in Laos, opened the doors on its marbled clubhouse last year, while Vietnamese money is behind a plush course being built in Vientiane.

While golf is plainly in the sights of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the national federation says money for tournaments, new courses, coaching and equipment must all come from sponsors and investors.

“We have no golf school. We have no PGA (professional golf association) in Lao PDR. So our players must be trained by pros from neighbouring countries,” says Khampeng.

“The policy of our government is waiting for investors to build golf courses,” he adds.

This strategy has paid off in Luang Prabang, where tuna tycoon Lee Gang-Pil has gambled $30 million on a 7,443-yard course minutes from the provincial city’s elegant French colonial architecture and Buddhist temples.

Tourism officials were quick to see the marketing potential of a televised golf tournament, and the LNGF is already eyeing a spot on the bigger, richer Asian Tour.

“Golf can take off — it will be led by the tourism,” says Chris Jordan, senior vice-president, golf, at World Sport Group, which runs the ASEAN PGA Tour.

“Your middle and upper middle class will see this on the TV and think, it’s a decent-looking golf course, it’s in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site, let’s go up there for the weekend.”

Although this approach may work for Luang Prabang, success appears much more distant for Laos’s players, whose shortcomings were brutally laid bare at their first national open.

Spearheaded by Daliya Saidara, the country’s lone professional and a regular on Thailand’s domestic tour, all 16 Laotian players missed the cut in an inauspicious outing for the home contingent.

“I’ve played on the Thai tour for many years but playing in Laos, everybody is looking at me and looking up to me,” complained Daliya, 22, an archery enthusiast who has also played tennis for Laos.

“I’m the only pro, there’s so much pressure on me. It’s very tough.”

With just a handful of serious teenage players, all with well-to-do parents who can fund their training abroad, there is little reason to think Laos can soon make inroads even on Southeast Asian golf, let alone bigger tours.

“Most of the kids that are up and coming come from above-average families, where they send them to study overseas,” says Jason Lim, a Singaporean businessman who doubles as team manager for the LNGF.

“After high school, they go to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the US and there they pick up sports… Very few kids can have this kind of luxury in Laos.”

Daliya said he was supported “100 percent” by his father, while 14-year-old amateur Vasin Manibanseng, who also struggled on the long, challenging Luang Prabang course, knows just two or three players his age in Vientiane.

This general indifference to golf is clear among local people at Luang Prabang — a bumpy eight-hour drive or a 30-minute flight from the capital — and bemusement has greeted the sport’s arrival in the Laotian hinterland.

As the hot sun dipped behind the mountains on day one, virtually the only spectators at the Laos Open were a rural family who appeared incongruously from bushes on the back nine and offered a smiling Buddhist greeting.

And as Nike-clad Daliya lined up his par putt on the 16th green, traditional life continued unhindered just yards away on the Mekong, as fishermen standing in the water cast their nets or puttered along in long, narrow boats.

Ask Laotian people what they think of golf, and the answer is either a shrug or a smile. Jordan admits the sport has “zero penetration” on the dusty, often unpaved streets where shaven-headed boys in Buddhist robes jostle with motorised rickshaws.

“I think they’ll be more intrigued than anything else. There’s never been a golf tournament here before, so there’ll be a level of ‘what’s golf?'” says the World Sport Group executive.

For anyone who was paying attention, it was Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant, the Laos Open’s biggest drawcard and the man who opened the tournament with that very first drive, who won by eight shots.

The 45-year-old veteran picked up a modest $13,000 for his efforts — 104 million kip in the local currency, or nearly 13 years’ income for the average Laotian.


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