Wednesday, 16 January 2013


I read somewhere that if you scrunched up a sheet of newspaper and set it on a table you would be looking at the topography of Laos. We have travelled 12 hours across the country, covered under 400km and seen flat terrain for perhaps 10 minutes.
Travel here is hard - for everybody. Roads are under construction or under annual repair after the wet season. Dust makes its way into all vehicles through broken windows or vents; locals traveling by scooter or pushbike wear masks (when they can get them). Just last month a bus toppled off the road killing 16. For a country amongst the poorest in the world, fuel is expensive at $1.25 per litre.
Work starts early. I'm sitting on the verandah of our guest house at 5:30am. It's pitch dark but I can hear a fishing boat on the water. There are faint shots every 5-10 seconds and it smells like cap guns. I have no idea how he is catching fish. Against the backdrop of frogs and roosters I hear pots and pans being readied for breakfast.
We are in Nong Khiaw, a large village mostly populated by two ethnic groups. There are 47 ethnic minority groups each with their own language; only one is written. Although there is some geographic division for these tribes it is not defined; as we drive by their villages one is Hmong, the next Akha, the next
Khmu. Only in cities do they integrate. We hear such villages exist peacefully alongside each other - but from time to time each minority group has its differences with the Lao government. In recent decades these differences stem mostly from the opium trade but there is still retribution for the Hmong providing ground troops to the US during the Vietnam War. (America dropped the equivalent of one plane load of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years down the eastern border of Laos. Weapons destined for southern Vietnam were trafficked down this corridor.)

Most of these minority groups live a very hard life. Most of the day is spent cooking, growing or foraging in the jungle for food. Some search for plants or animals to sell to the Chinese. After dinner the women commence spinning or weaving. Last year they got electricity (Lao cities got it ten years ago).
Educated locals predict that in ten years Laos will not exist like this. With its humble people, poverty, sparse population, fertile pesticide-free land and proximity to China it presents easy pickings for an opportunist nation. This year China commences building a railway through Laos to open up its trading corridor down to Bangkok and Singapore; the railway will be built solely by Chinese labourers. It initially pressed for 5km of land either side of the railway (there is gold here, plus other mineral deposits). It will take the fill from that corridor back to China. China is renting land from private Lao land-owners to grow vegetables for China; the labourers in those field are solely Chinese. A new city is being built near the existing capital Vientiane; it is being constructed by Chinese labourers and will be populated only by Chinese. Change is coming through like a juggernaut, we see it everywhere.
It is called the People's Democratic Republic of Laos. We have observed democracy only in the ethnic villages we have visited.

Shane, Helen, Rosie and Tom

Location:Nong Khiaw, Laos

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