Motorbikes outnumber cars in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but that need not limit the number of passengers. A cheap Chinese motorbike costs about $1,000 in a country where the per capita income is around $2,700 and they represent 80 percent of vehicles on the roads. With a population of about 750,000, Vientiane is the country’s largest city and sits on a bend of the Mekong river where it borders Thailand.
Laos – Long Read

Land of a million elephants

Photo by Peter Treanor

Laos – Long Read Land of a million elephants

Hello Laos, the “Land of a Million Elephants”, and now land of a million vehicles. Backed by China, it plans to turn itself from a landlocked to a land-linked nation, opening up after decades of isolation as one of the world’s last few Communist countries. Its backbone is Route 13, which runs the length of the country from south to north, bringing tourism and change is it goes.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Where does a road begin and end? Does Route 13 rise in the mountains of Laos and flow downwards, gathering in tributaries as it goes before dissolving into the coastal plains as it reaches Cambodia? Or does it start in the flat river valley, forging into the mountains like a climbing expedition with its eye on the peak, leaving supply drops behind as it reaches ever higher?

It is a question that comes to mind as I stand in Muang Khong at the southernmost tip of Laos. Here the Mekong branches into a placid and beautiful estuarine landscape known as the “Four Thousand Islands”, almost as if it had met the sea rather than the border with Cambodia. But any river traffic is heading north, against the current. Nearby, Route National 13 is a wide ribbon of smooth but dusty tar shadowing the river on a narrow strip of plain edged by highlands to the east. The trucks and buses on it also flow northward.

The road was the first highway in the country to be paved. Surrounded by five other countries, Laos has big plans to transform itself from a “landlocked to a land-linked nation”, according to Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. “We hope [to] connect to other East Asian countries and India through a regional road and rail system,” he said in a recent speech.

Muang Khong is a paradise of bamboo huts where quiet days are spent eating grilled fresh-caught fish and watching the sun set over the Mekong. Local people stop to shake my hand and say: “Sabaidee – Welcome.” Dozing in the shade here, it is hard to believe that Laos is connected anywhere but, as Route 13 heads north, it is not long before it throws a bridge across to Thailand. The sleek Lao-Nippon Bridge at Pakse opened in 2000 with help from the Japanese government and is now pictured on the Laotian currency, an everyday reminder of its importance to the country.

“Tourist numbers in Pakse have doubled since the bridge opened,” says Mr Soukbandith, my guest-house manager. “The craft market beside it began just for tour buses from Thailand.” It is the first of many changes that I see in a still-Communist country where annual growth has been averaging an incredible 8 per cent.

The least populated country in Southeast Asia

With 6.2million people, Laos is the least populated country in Southeast Asia and one where a mountainous terrain, poor infrastructure and tribal diversity have also left it one of the least unified. “When roads were untarred, every rainy season would wash them away or cut them with landslides,” says Soukbandith. “Laos is still a place where people depend on the rivers, but the new roads are changing that. Where a young man might once have been a ferryman, now he is saving up for a taxi.”

Pakse is a boom town, with construction sites everywhere and its streets rattling with scooters and overladen mini-buses. Here, traffic flows across from Thailand before heading north, bringing all the goods of the modern world into a country that only opened its borders in the 1990s. Even busier is the bridge at Savannakhet, the second largest city in Laos, where a paved road heads east to Vietnam and a new international airport is planned. The link northward to China on Route 13 is the key to understanding all this development. “The Chinese government wants to open up its Yunnan province, so it is helping pay for many road and rail improvements in Laos,” says Soukbandith. ‘With Yunnan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, we are at a crossroads for more than 500 million people.”

Thailand and Laos drive on opposite sides of the roads, so a feature of these Mekong bridges is a crossing-over point halfway where drivers make the switch. It is a useful reminder to drivers that they are entering a very different world. The goats, chicken and children who wander on the road, the constant tooting of horns, the overtaking on blind bends and the roadside wrecks that result can be seen on many other roads in the region. But in other ways, Laos remains a place apart, from the crumbling French colonial feel of the back streets of Pakse and Savannakhet, to the quiet charm of its people who are endlessly helpful and hospitable. Their kindness is manifest in touches like the free day I am offered when returning a motorbike, or the man who goes out of his way to lead me to a temple when I ask directions.

As Route 13 reaches Vientiane, the capital, I again have the feel of arriving in a French colonial backwater, an impression heightened by the number of people I see carrying baguettes. “The British left a transport network and an education system in their old colonies,” says one hotel guest at breakfast. “But the French left good food and coffee. Who had the better deal?” The excellent Laotian coffee is drunk in tall glasses, sweetened and thick with condensed milk. A bicycle ride takes me through back streets of more colonial-era villas, many now being converted into upmarket guest houses or bases for the NGOs which have flooded in during recent years.

The Patuxai is an ornate Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe that was built as a memorial to those who died in pre-Revolution wars. From its seven-story summit, I can see a wide boulevard stretching away, lined with imposing embassies, banks and government buildings, as well as the inevitable shopping mall. At night, after a meal in an upmarket French-style restaurant, I stroll along the riverside boulevard. The lights of Thailand twinkle across the Mekong and I wonder how much change in Laos, like the links to China, is being driven from outside.

7,000 Buddhas, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze

The gold-covered stupa of Pha That Luang is the symbol of the country but more impressive is Wat Si Saket. Built in 1818, this last is the oldest temple in Vientiane and holds almost 7,000 Buddhas, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. Both temples show a face of calm but the Lao National Museum is a reminder of what lies beneath the history of the country, with stark pictures showing the deadly effects of American bombing (see mini-feature).

Vientiane has its own Friendship Bridge to Thailand. Here the Mekong moves away from Route 13 to follow a quieter, longer route along the border with Myanmar as the road drives upwards towards the steep northern mountains. Losing contact with the Mekong is like parting with a friend and there is also a change in the scenery. The view is of rice paddies and misty peaks and the surface is sometimes potholed by rain and heavy trucks, alternating long stretches of high speed with sudden braking for a damaged section. Then a scattering of karst mountains pop up like a Chinese silk painting come to life, a sign I am nearing Vang Vieng.

If ever a town has seen progress at its worst, it is Vang Vieng. Sitting by the banks of the Nam Song, it has spouted bars that now attract hordes of backpackers for days and nights that merge into one long drunken party, fueled by cheap Beer Lao and Lao-Lao, the lethal local whisky. It was cheap opium that first attracted foreigners to the town but the drugs of choice now, listed on bar menus, are cannabis and magic mushrooms, with the fungi sold in all forms, including pizza topping. Hard to believe that drugs are now illegal in Laos and can attract the death penalty.

A lot of the fun also involves diving into the river, either from the banks or a series of makeshift swings and zip lines, or floating down the river on car inner tubes, beer in hand. The river’s rapids can also pose unexpected dangers. With safety regulations non-existent, at least one tourist dies here every month. “When alcohol and/or drugs mix with guys showing off in front of equally intoxicated girls, it’s a recipe for disaster,” says British visitor Geoff, here for a few days during a three-month tour of south-east Asia. “It’s a long way to come to die.”

“When people drink they do not follow any rules,” says Sanya, a local tour guide. She asks visitors to show respect for local customs but many ignore her advice. “Western women walk down the street in bikinis and men with no shirts. We Laotian women have to keep our hair long and wear traditional clothes, which are very expensive. We live in two different worlds.”

Laos still has around 2,000 elephants

The main street is now an endless parade of hotels and guest houses touting free wifi and bike rental. However, although loud hip-hop music from the riverside bars tries its best, nothing can change the beauty of the landscape outside town and peace still reigns in the karst caves there, some of which are considered sacred. Tham Sang or “Elephant Temple”, has a stalactite like the head of an elephant and the reverence shown to this, manifest in Buddha statues and offerings, is a reminder that Laos is the “Land of a Million Elephants”. This reference to their formidable military use in the 14th century might not hold true today but Laos still has around 2,000 elephants, the sixth-largest population in Asia.

Route 13 now leaves the mania of Vang Vieng behind to twist and turn through countless bends on a long climb to where it meets the Mekong again at Luang Prabang. Its smooth surface is cut in places by landslips but the view remains dramatically beautiful and ever-changing. Steep-sided valleys frame distant peaks that touch the clouds, farmers and buffalo plough muddy fields and the road is lined with picturesque villages of wood and thatch, the natural materials contrasting with the bright metal of trucks, buses and cars passing by. This is a Laos of the postcard views that have made it such a popular destination and it does not disappoint.

Luang Prabang, set back from Route 13 high in the north, was formerly the capital but is now a quiet mountain town. The only evening activity is the night market where the hill tribes sell their crafts but it is shut by 10pm. The town wakens again at dawn when booming drums summon Buddhist monks from its many temples. Padding silently on bare feet, they pass in long lines through the streets, their orange robes bright in the early morning light. Women kneel in wait, placing handfuls of rice or pieces of fruit into the copper bowls each monk carries. Such alms brings the giver merit to offset any bad one might do in daily life. The monks, who are forbidden to cook, learn humility. Both sides gain. The monks pause only to give some of the food in turn to kneeling street children: a cycle of goodness. There is little eye contact and holy silence rules.

The tranquility of this scene is broken only by the scrum of tourists whose cameras flash as they battle for the perfect shot. Although many do stand respectfully at a distance, absorbing the spirituality of the scene, others stand, a just-bought offering in one hand, camera in the other, as if this were feeding time in a zoo. The many signs saying “Protect our Culture” are impotent. The quiet ritual is in danger of becoming just a tourist attraction, with the monks mere performers on a stage.

The Lao people call Luang Prabang “Falang City”, “falang” originally meaning French but now any western foreigner. The number of travelers arriving from Europe, the US, Australia or the rest of Asia goes up every day. “There are plans for an 18-hole golf course, many large hotels and improved airport and high speed rail links,” my hotel manager says. Route 13 has started a process of change that cannot be stopped.

A special gift from our living Buddha

In Wat Chom Si, sitting atop a steep hill from where its gilded stupa dominates the town, I meet head monk Ounkham doing the accounts. He handles donations that come from all over the world to help restore the temples of the city and also sits in a committee made up of other senior monks and civic authorities to administer the funds.

“Since we were granted Unesco status, I spend more time dealing with administrative matters and sitting in meetings than praying,” he says in fluent French, a language still common in the country since those days of imperial ambition. “But we have reaped great benefits from it. Most of the temples were crumbling away, especially those at the other side of the Mekong river. With the extra funding and tourists visiting the area, we have been able to save and refurbish them, and that is a special gift from our living Buddha. He has taught me that this is my mission now, and I am exalted by this task.”

In the workshops where the monks make statues of Buddha for other temples in the region, I meet Khen, 20, who came to live in the temple as a novice at the age of 12 and has now become a fully-fledged monk. Trained by a master sculptor from Vientiane, the monks turn out an average of five pieces a day, no small feat considering the craftsmanship involved.

“We get up at 4am and meditate,” he says in a mixture of English and French. “Then we all walk through the streets collecting alms and food. After breakfast,I come to the workshop where I spend most of the day chiseling and polishing the wood along with the three novices who assist me. Sometimes I feel like I am becoming one with Lord Buddha. Having the privilege of spending so much time looking at his physical likeness is a great blessing.”

None of the monks criticize the tourists who disrupt their morning walk. “They come from many different countries and many different religions,” one says. “It is good they are interested in the way of the Lord Buddha and it makes life in the temple more interesting. I hope they go away having learned something about our religion.” The tourists are much more familiar to the monks, who see them every day, than the monks are to tourists, arriving with romantic ideas in their heads. Most of the young monks are from Luang Prabang and are working hard on their English skills which, with their Vinaya or monastic self-discipline, make a combination that will later almost guarantee them a job in tourism. A tour guide can earn more than a doctor or teacher in Laos but English is not taught in school.

People see what they choose to see

In the meantime, they enjoy the sweet taste of the cookies that are replacing the rice in their bowls. As local people are forced out of the town center by rising demand to convert houses into restaurants and guest houses, there are fewer to give alms and fewer again with time to cook. The tourists just buy their offerings from the nearest hawker. One temple has already closed because of the lack of support but perhaps, as Ounkham’s words suggest, the good will always outweigh the bad. “People see what they choose to see,” says a fellow hotel guest. “Some see spirituality. Others see men living off the hard work of women, as usual. Maybe it’s Communism meeting Buddhism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’.”

A short bicycle ride outside Luang Prabang, in a clearing near the banks of the Nam Khan (“nam” means river), is the grave of French explorer and botanist Henri Mouhot, who died of malaria here in 1861. His weathered white memorial fights to stay clear of the surrounding jungle, into which it was lost until 1990. I wonder how he would feel about the changes time has brought to Laos, Luang Prabang or to Cambodia’s Angkor, whose jungle-shrouded isolation he first broke with his writings only a year before he died.

Out here, away from the town and the road, the older way of life that makes Laos so appealing carries on. As the river flows past, I see two women using heavy wooden clubs to beat weeds laid out on a rock. They are preparing river algae for Khai Paen – “skin of the stone”. Sprinkled with tomato, shallots or sesame seeds, then sun-dried, it is a tasty local snack.

Sitting by the river, watching this scene that might be from another time, I recall some teachings of the Buddha and realize that Route 13 flows neither down, nor up. It does both. Like the rivers whose valleys it follows, it is everywhere, from mountain to plain, with no past and no future – only the present. Between its past and its future, Laos remains a place where the now is everything.

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