Sunday, January 10, 2010

Biking in Laos: Part One

My visit to Laos, or "the Lao People's Democratic Republic," was my first time in a communist country, and my first time in a third world country, to boot. Upon crossing the border, I was instantly surprised at how much poorer the country looked compared to Thailand. (The whole time I was in Thailand, I kept commenting that Thailand and Turkey seemed similarly matched in terms of development. At least, ostensibly. I don't know enough about either economies to make a sound judgment. But visually, Laos, was way behind.)

Just a little bit about the country: Laos is traced back to a kingdom which meant "The Land of a Million Elephants." (We had just come from the Ubon Province of Thailand, or the "Land of a Thousand Smiles." Good things are very plentiful in SE Asia.) The capital of Laos is located in the north, in the city of Vientiane. Most of Laos' 6.5 million people live in the north, and definitely the more prosperous. Though in this country, where the majority of people live at the subsistence level, prosperous isn't a word often used. When we crossed the border into Laos, it felt as though we had stepped back 50 years.

The French colonialist occupation could still be seen in the architecture of the larger towns: balconies with railings, the shutters on the windows, the molding, etc.. The French colonialists were present in Laos from the 18th century to 1949. However, after 1949, Laos was torn between the communist and anti-communist world powers. Northern Laos was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the Vietnam War, as the U.S. tried to eliminate North Vietnamese army troops occupying northern Laos. This ultimately started a Civil War in Laos between the US-supported Royal Laotian government and the Laotian communist political movement, the Pathet Lao. The Guardian reported that Laos was hit by an average of one U.S. bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War. Of the 260 million bombs that rained down, 80 million failed to explode, and remain a dangerous situation in the north today. Laos holds the distinction of being the most bombed country in the world [].

In 1975, the Pathet Lao overthrew the Royal Laotian government, and established the Lao People's Democratic Republic, which remains in power today. With only 35 years separating them from these turbulent times, their economoy and quality of life has barely recovered. Subsistence agriculture makes up for 80% of employment, the majority of which is rice farming. Rural housing consists of dilapidated wooden structures that have to be rebuilt after every monsoon season destroys them.

Our biking trip traveled south along the Mekong River into rural Laos, where few had seen many Western tourists, especially ones in spandex on bicycles, and where fewer and fewer cars existed on the roads.

Our tour guide, Noi, was 27 years old, unmarried, and from the town of Pakse, a larger town in the southern part of the country. She clearly loved her job, and through talking to her, we found it was a very reputable job - for a Laotian to learn English and get involved in the tourism business was highly revered- but to also ride your bike for work (and she was a raft guide in the rainy season) was extra special- to her.

We were to spend our first night on the island of Dong Daeng. It would be the nicest resort we stayed in; it was owned by a Frenchman, and situated on sandy beaches. We took the first of many ferries we would take during our journey to get to the island.

That evening we went for a sunset bikeride around the island. Upon leaving the fancy resort grounds, I felt guilty when I saw the living conditions of the Lao people on the island. Our resort boasted that all 50 of its employees were locals, and our trip boasted "responsible travel." Tourism was the number one money-generator for the country, and was on the rise. Even with all these rationalizations, it was hard for me to negotiate my feelings towards the discrepency in quality of living between the tourists and the locals. When we left, I was secretly glad to have the nicest accomodation of the trip behind us.

The next day we started with a ferry ride to the other side of the river, where we biked to Wat Phu, a Khmer (the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia) Hindu temple complex dating back to the 5th century. The Khmer religion blends elements of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, animism and ancestor-spirit worship. The predominant religion in Laos is Theravada Buddhism which, along with the common Animism practiced among the mountain tribes, coexists peacefully with spirit worship. Theravada Buddhism is the oldest branch of Buddhism and began in India.

The most wonderfully fragrant flowering tree, the national tree of Laos, Plumier, framed steep, crooked stairs leading up to a small Buddhist temple. Randy and I went inside to pay our respects, and came across a fortune-telling table. A jar held wooden sticks with numbers on them, and the number you pulled corresponded with a written fortune for the following year. Randy and I both pulled #10, and our tourguide translated that our new year would be filled with good fortune and good health because we had the equivalent of Buddhist "angels" looking over us. We both bounced down the stairs, intoxicated with the smell of Plumiers and our good fortunes.

Off on another precariously pieced together "ferry"!

That afternoon, we biked to Laos' Stonehenge, Phu Asa, a mysterious site of stone towers - time periods are questionable, but it is thought that they marked the boundary of a temple.

We crossed the Mekong AGAIN to stay on one of the biggest islands in the river, Don Khone. We ate and slept in a beautiful French colonialist-style hotel, but unfortunately, after a day of biking in the hot sun, after a warm meal, we all would crash, only to wake up early, eat breakfast, pack up, and get on the bike again! We didn't see too much of any of our hotels.

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