Laos is sparsely populated, with roughly six and a half million people scattered across a wet, mountainous north and marshy south. It covers an only slightly smaller area than the United Kingdom, but compared to its closest neighbours – Thailand, which squeezes 68 million people into a slightly larger space, and Vietnam, which packs in almost 78 million – it is all but empty. Even the single Chinese province of Yunnan, on Laos’ northern border, has a population seven times larger than its neighbour’s.
The economic conditions that define China’s push into Africa are not unlike conditions in Laos. It shares a place with African nations on the United Nations’ list of the world’s least developed countries. It has timber and precious metals, but without bought expertise and borrowed capital, it can’t connect mine to market or even dig its copper, gold and tin out of the ground. Its roads have been improved over the last decade – mostly by Chinese and Japanese contractors – but the journey from the capital to Luang Prabang, Laos’ third largest city – which is, as the crow flies, only 218 kilometres away – still takes eleven hours by bus. On the overnight buses that crawl along Laos’ single-lane thoroughfares, conductors hand out plastic bags to collect passengers’ vomit; at corners, the buses inch up to rock walls blasted out of the mountainside, and it can seem as if there is nowhere else to go but forward, gradually but inevitably into the rock face, until at the last moment they swing to the right or left and the potholed asphalt, wedged impossibly between mountain, thicket and the occasional wooden home, continues along its narrow course.
Vientiane is the capital of a country that has been independent for 57 years, but its scruffy shop-houses, open air markets and cafés, with baguettes lined-up in their windows and tables straddling the pavement, still give it the feeling of a slow-moving county town in France. Tax concessions on utility vehicles have encouraged residents to buy long-bodied, four wheel drive bakkies and expats at the Hare and Hound, where Claire and I drank, bemoaned witnessing their first Laotian traffic jam, but Vientiane’s roads remained quiet, especially by Southeast Asia’s frenzied standards. The city’s population is growing slowly: almost 73,000 people moved in between 1995 and 2005, but 14,500 moved away during the same period and there are few signs of the kind of urbanisation that is changing the shape of other parts of Asia. In 2005, when the last census was taken, 92 percent of Laotians were counted in exactly the same district they were in ten years before and only 26 percent lived in urban areas.
In the lead up to the Secret War, which gave Laos the terrible distinction of being most bombed country per capita on earth, the American journalist Stanley Karnow visited the country for Life Magazine. He described an unchanging, peaceful idyll that was being sucked into the Cold War against its will. Laos, he wrote, “is an improbable little landlocked country of affable, gentle, easygoing people who would like nothing better than to be left alone.” Karnow was careful to explain, listing examples of an idealised Laotian backwardness. “Foreigners in Laos may be exasperated by primitive inefficiency and shattering inertia,” he wrote, “but as Crown Prince Savang Vatthana once told an American reporter, no Laotian has ever suffered a nervous breakdown.”
Karnow went on: “Language is a key to behaviour. The most common phrase in the local idiom, delivered with a nod of the head, is bo pen nyan. It means anything from ‘It doesn’t matter’ to ‘Who cares?’”
And on: “In Laos it is downright bad taste to work more than is absolutely necessary. The acquisition of wealth is considered both pointless and sinful. A man cultivates only as much land as he needs to feed everyone in his family, dividing the property into one strip for each member of the household. If a baby is born, he clears an additional strip and works it. If grandmother dies, he promptly abandons the parcel of soil that provided her food.”
He even thought the French had been bewitched by lazy Laos: “The French, when they controlled the country, barely made their presence felt. Most of them were thoroughly delighted by the Laotian way of life. So deeply enamoured with Laos was one French administrator, it is said, that when the Japanese occupied Indochina in 1941 he assembled his 31 Laotian concubines in his bungalow, applied a torch and carried himself and his harem to Nirvana in a blaze of glory.” Continue reading The Chinese of Vientiane»
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