Sunday, October 25, 2015


Years ago, I worked at a Japanese camp in northern Minnesota (part of the Concordia Language Villages). One summer, there was a girl who worked with me—I forget her name—who told me that she was Hmong. I had no idea what that meant. She explained that her family originally came from Laos and came to Minnesota to live. While attending high school there, she took Japanese classes. (Because of refugee movements during the middle of the 20th century, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest concentration of Hmong communities in the US, outside of California.) And of course, she taught me all the bad words in Hmong that I’ve completely forgotten by now. 

The country’s name refers to the Lao kingdoms. There were three kingdoms that were unified by the French. The French added the final “s” to the name based on French spelling rules. Many English speakers pronounce the “s” which is not pronounced in French. So, technically the country is pronounced as “Lao.” 

Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It’s surrounded by China and Myanmar to the north; Vietnam to the east; Cambodia to the south; and Thailand to the west. The Mekong River, an important river system in this region, makes up much of the border between Laos and Thailand. Much of the land is forested and mountainous with some plains here and there. The weather is tropical throughout the year and experiences a definite monsoon season. Laos is home to hundreds of species of tropical plants, birds, animals, insects, and marine life—including the rare Irrawaddy river dolphin. They’re known for their characteristic small heads that look like they’re smiling. 

French Indochina
Humans have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years: a human skull was found in northern Laos that dated back 46,000 years. Archaeologists have found iron tools and other objects indicating there was a complex society. There were actually many kingdoms established in this area. The early prince Fa Ngum established Theravada Buddhism as the official religion. He was also the founder of the Lan Xang kingdom. Laos suffered many conflicts with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam up until the 1800s. During the late 1800s, the French took control of this area and made it a French Protectorate. During WWII several groups occupied Laos (known as French Indochina at that time). After the war, the country briefly enjoyed a period of independence. Briefly. Like for about a month. Then Japanese forces moved in and occupied it. But by the next year, the French took back Laos as a Protectorate. The Laos rebelled several times during the French occupancy. During the Vietnam War, Laos was the recipient of many bomb attacks by US forces. In fact, it is often considered “the most heavily bombed country on earth.” I saw a news program several years ago where journalists were walking through Laos and could still find unexploded ordinances lying around in fields. The highest point in the country, called Phou Bia (looks like the word “phobia,” which may be pretty telling of the area), can’t even be visited by tourists because of the vast number of unexploded bombs there. The Pathet Lao was a communist group that is the Lao version of the Khmer Rouge or the Viet Cong. In 1975, they took over the government and turned the country into one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. Numerous genocide and human rights violations, especially to the Hmong, have been documented after the take-over. And because of this, hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees have fled the country to the China, Vietnam, US, Thailand, France, and a number of other countries. 

The capital city of Vientiane is located in the northern part of Laos along the Thai border. The name comes from the Pali language, and if you’ve studied any Buddhism like I have, you’ll know that Pali is a very important in ancient Buddhist texts. The name Vientiane literally means “city of sandalwood.” I happen to really like the smell of sandalwood (I have a vanilla-sandalwood candle in my living room). However, others argue it means “city of the moon.” (I’m sure the moon doesn’t smell as great.) Regardless, this is the largest city in the country and is the center for government, finance, and commerce. Even though the city has about 783,000 people (a little smaller than the size of Indianapolis, IN). The spelling of the city is also based off of the French spelling: it was originally called Viangchan. 

The Laotian economy heavily depends on trade with its neighbors, and although the country is still a communist country, the US has lifted some of its trade embargoes against it. About half of their economy is based on subsistence farming. Roughly 80% of the people work in this field with the majority of the crops being rice. Investment is also an important part of their economy as well. Luckily, this country is also rich in mineral resources, and mining has become an industry that many foreign countries invest in. Laos has two main exports: hydroelectric energy and their own beer brand called Beerlao (which is supposed to be pretty tasty). They also have a large number of exports in coffee as well. Tourism continues to grow in the country, especially from France, even though much of the country is lacking in basic infrastructure. The interesting thing about Laos is that many businesses not only accept their own currency, but many also accept payment in Thai bahts and US dollars as well. 

About 2/3 of Laotians are Buddhist, and more specifically Theravada Buddhist. Although Buddhism has been established here for many centuries, there are also many Laotians who practice pantheism/polytheism or animism. However, there are a small number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other religions found here and there. 

The official language of the country is Lao and is closely related to Thai. Because of their history, French is still used for certain government and business functions. In fact, French is still taught in schools in Laos. Many students also go on to study English because of its status as an international language. 

Laos has a sense of mystery about it, and there are many things about this country that seems extraordinary. England has Stonehenge, but Laos has the Plain of Jars. For an unknown reason and created by unknown peoples, hundreds of stone urns—some large enough to hold a person—are spread in groups of five across a region of northern Laos. And here’s a travel tip: apparently fees are only collected at attractions if you enter through the main entrance. If you enter through side entrances, it’s free. (Well, uh, some people kind of know that’s true for just about any place, if you have access to the building codes, which are considered public records…). And unlike the US and most other countries, the highest officials in Laos only get paid $10/month. Even my Netflix bill is higher than that. But I have a feeling that the food is going to be extraordinary and have me smiling like an Irrawaddy dolphin. 

Up next: art and literature

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