It occurs to me that most of you probably haven’t the foggiest where Laos is, so I thought I’d provide some background:
Laos is in the center of Southeast Asia, surrounded by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. Very poor country, very little infrastructure, no coastline–so dependent on its neighbors for trade. Laos’s existence as an independent country is relatively recent–only since 1954. In ancient history, it was a single kingdom, then split into three kingdoms, each of which fell under foreign domination. Then Thailand took over for a century or two, until the French wrested it away from Thailand. Then the Japanese took it from the French in WWII, it went back to the French after the war, and after an independence movement France granted independence in 1954 (there really wasn’t anything there anyway).
During the Vietnam War, despite a nominal government, various powers functionally divvied up Laos: China dominated the north, Vietnam the east, Thailand (aka the U.S.) the west, and the Khmer Rouge (Cambodia) the south. Because the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through part of Laos, it got bombed/defoliated during the Vietnam war; in fact, it’s estimated that the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War than were dropped over all of Europe in WWII (!). There’s still a lot of unexploded ordnance, which makes the eastern portions dangerous. Fortunately it’s limited to the areas bordering Vietnam.
If all this gives you the idea that Laos has been a political football for most of its history, you’re basically right.
Anyway, after the Vietnam War the Pathet Lao (sponsored by the Communist Vietnamese) took over, isolated the entire country, and didn’t reopen it until about ten years ago. Culturally, it’s very similar to northern Thailand (except without the Westerners), but politically, it’s closer to Vietnam and China (Communists stick together).
At any rate, what’s left is basically a mostly rural, very sparsely populated country–Vientiane is the biggest city, and it’s only got 150,000 people or so. It feels rather like a small provincial town, which is wonderful…wide boulevards, big old trees, light traffic…if you close your eyes and squint really hard, you might mistake it for an East Coast suburb. At any rate, you can cross the street using the standard Western method (i.e. not stepping directly in front of oncoming traffic), not risking life and limb–which is a major relief. There is also a definite expat presence here, although not nearly as much as in Thailand.
There isn’t much to see in Vientiane; the Thai razed most of the city in 1837 (?) during a short-lived rebellion, so the old temples, etc. are basically gone. There are a scattering of wats (temples), but I haven’t gone to look at them; after Angkor Wat, I’m sort of watted out. (Wat’s that? 😉 )
Mostly, it’s a great place to kick back and relax. Two days ago I had dinner by the Mekong River, which was wonderful–a little candlelit table, sipping a coconut while watching the sun set and the moon rise over the water. Last night I got a full-body massage and a half-hour foot massage for $4.50–so, as you can see, I am clearly suffering. 😉
Temperature-wise, it’s about 70 degrees, and not at all humid–absolutely perfect IMO. I may rent a bike today, it’s perfect for cycling. There’s even a little cafe that’s straight out of santa cruz–menu written on a blackboard, in colored chalk, cappucino, latte, fresh-baked gingersnaps and peanut butter cookies, decaf herbal teas (and chai!), croissants, and (wonder of wonders) cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese. Not, you understand, that I’ve been hanging out there or anything. 😉 They even have English-language newspapers, although it’s the Bangkok Post, not the Merc or Chronicle.
Okay, they don’t have decaf. But I’ll forgive them. 😉
Mind you, Laos is not Westernized, just certain areas of it. There are certain areas where Westerners are encouraged to congregate–Vientiane, Vangvieng, and Luang Prabang–but outside of those areas, travel is apparently discouraged and you can run into problems with authorities (there’s also trouble with banditry, and attacks are not uncommon). I’m not planning to go into odd places in Laos (unless I have a native guide), so I doubt this will be an issue.
Yesterday was really interesting–I was wandering around the city and came upon Lao Textiles, which is run by Carol Cassidy. She’s an American who’s been living in Laos for fourteen years–arrived with the U.N., and is credited with singlehandedly reviving the art of weaving in Laos. Lao weaving was very much part of their culture until the Pathet Lao took over–during the wars, etc. weaving was pretty much suppressed, and was in serious danger of dying out (in favor of polyester fabrics et al). Once cheap machine-woven fabric and clothing became available, people weren’t interested in weaving their own clothes anymore, because it was more convenient (and politically encouraged) not to, so the art almost died out–the only textiles left were antiques stored away in jars.
Anyway, Carol started a weaving studio to create Lao-inspired designs, and in the process introduced the idea of commercial weaving. This was not something that had occurred to the Lao before, because weaving was done strictly for oneself, and never sold. Thanks to her efforts and some U.N. programs, weaving has revived a bit as a commercial form, although the quality is decreasing as weavers shift from personal expression/art to commercial production.
At any rate, I learned a good bit about the various Lao textiles from talking to the staff (I’m going back there later today), and managed to get a very short conversation with Carol herself. Unfortunately the shop was busy, she was flying out the following morning for a three-week trip to see her dying sister in Boston, and about half the town dropped by during the visit, but I did manage to get a short overview from her and may be hooking back up with her in Bangkok in early February.
Carol is very interesting–personality-wise, she’s the archetypical Silicon Valley exec, high-energy, to the point, and a tireless networker. (We were interrupted four times by friends dropping by–I think she is the Connector for the entire expat community in Vientiane, which wouldn’t be surprising if she really did have the first business here).
This personality is surprising–this is almost exactly opposite the culture in Laos, and very unlike most Western expats in Asia. She spent eight years working for the U.N. in Africa and in Asia, but quit working for them because she felt they’d lost sight of the main goal. She wanted to help villagers, the U.N. was tied up in politics. So after working for the U.N. in Laos for awhile, she quit, took her life savings, and started Lao Textiles.
This involved both doing a lot of the work herself (she used to dye all the threads used for weaving, and personally built five of the looms), building collateral industries (worked with a missionary to set up silk farms to her with silk thread), training the weavers, redesigning the looms, and so on. On top of everything else, Lao Textiles was the first foreign firm permitted in Laos, so she had to work out a lot of the business rules (and negotiate with the government) herself–and figure out how to work within the Lao culture.
But the end result is a very successful textile business–she sells to top designers at top prices–and she’s very happy with the social aspects, too–she feels she’s improved more lives than she did during her entire time with the U.N. She’s introduced some Western ideas into the area with the business–things like health insurance (which has saved several of her workers’ lives), benefits, and good pay. (One of the weavers actually makes more money than her husband, who’s a university professor). And the shop is like a family–she says she hasn’t had any turnover in fourteen years, and while they mostly operate on Lao time (not unlike Thai time–lazy, laid-back), when she needs a result fast, they get it done for her. It seems like a nice integration of East and West, all told.
She also knows an incredible number of people and a lot about the hilltribes–if I manage to catch up with her in Bangkok, I’m sure it’ll be a very interesting conversation. I want to ask her how she got into all this, and also how to get up and talk to the hilltribes.
Meanwhile, she’s headed out to Boston to be with her sister, who’s dying of leukemia–so I’m going to spend some more time in her shop, talking to the staff. They’re mostly expats, and they know all about the ethnography of the hilltribes and the weaving techniques used–woo! So I’m going to do some WEstern-style networking, and see if I can get some interesting referrals/suggestions. It would be really neat if I could con one of them into taking me off to see some of the hilltribes, I’m going to give it a try.