Dominated by the Mekong and its tributaries, which cut through rugged jungle-covered mountains, Laos, for so long obscured by its more powerful neighbours, is today beginning to assert itself as a must-see destination. Isolated by its terrain and its rudimentary infrastructure, Laos has retained a slow pace of life that affords the visitor a glimpse of a bygone age. In towns such as Luang Prabang, crumbling colonial shop fronts are punctuated with ornate Buddhist temples, outside which sit saffron- robed monks shading from the sun. In a country where 85 per cent of the popula- tion are subsistence farmers, life in the countryside has changed little in the last 100 years.
Landlocked and sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand and with a popu- lation comprising over 68 ethnic groups, this diminutive land hides a tragic recent history. Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being, during the Vietnam War, the most heavily bombed nation. In an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese supply routes, the USA waged an illegal and secret war in Laos in which it dropped more bombs than were dropped during the entire World War II, with catastrophic implications for Laos where today unexploded ordnance litters the land.
In 1973, the Pathet Lao came to power, establishing the Laos Peoples’ Democratic Republic and sweeping away 600 years of monarchy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, upon which Laos was heavily dependent, the country opened its borders in the early 1990s to investors and tourists.
Ethical Travel Issues and Advice
Laotians are typically friendly, private and relaxed. As well as being of the least developed nations in the region, Laos is also one of the newest on the tourist trail. Despite there being pockets with high foot-fall of westerners – as in Luang Prabang and Vientiane – some visitors may experience a lack of urgency to be served. This does not mean visitors are at all unwelcome, but the usual demands of tourists may not have been fully noticed, particularly because the Laos people are not overtly pushy or curious. It is therefore important to recognise this and always approach those providing a service with patience and of course, a smile.
At temples, sacred sites and in most towns, monks will be seen going about their daily lives devoted to the Monastery. It is not advised to approach a monk for conversation as this could cause discomfort. Similarly, monks do not make avoidable physical contact with other people, particularly women. Even in busy places be certain to be aware of this. Avoid taking their photo, particularly without asking for definite permission. In some temples a monk may encourage you to donate a dollar to light a candle or to tie thread around your wrist as a good blessing. In most Buddhist communities morning alms giving services occur, during which locals give food donations to the monks – who traditionally live without money and material goods. Luang Prabang’s daily service has become a huge tourist attraction, with visitors purchasing food from vendors to produce as alms. This practice hugely detracts from the intended symbolism of alms giving, and has made a market from donation and devotion.
It is illegal in Laos for a foreigner to spend the night with a native Laotian, and this law is made clear and enforced in most guesthouses. Pre-nuptial public affection and also intercourse is largely unheard of. This means that there is a great deal less visible sex tourism in Laos than Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However, the sex trade still operates, with Thailand hosting Laotian sex workers, and Vietnamese being trafficked or travelling into Laos for illegal prostitution. Despite the laws and the increasing recognition of such issues, underground exploitation is growing.
The communist Laos Government owns and controls all of the country’s media outputs and the internet, and the film industry is tiny. Despite there being a significant amount of material coming in unofficially from Thailand, choice and variety of cultural products is very limited. Some cafes like to please their western punters with re-runs of American sitcoms, or old pop music, but for many Laotians, experience of alternative ways of life is limited. Hence it is good to remember that your own music or visual media, dancing or conversation topic could be met with some curiosity or offence.
Being a modest nation, it is important to acknowledge the way locals conduct themselves, rather than how the other visitors are, and try to dress and act accordingly. There is a significant difference in the levels of conservativism in the city compared to smaller towns and rural communities. Light, cotton clothing that covers the knees and shoulders will be the best choice to fit in anywhere. Further to this, it is possible in markets to purchase fabric and items of traditional dress; however it is important to be aware that certain patterns and material relate to specific clans, areas or families. If you feel you cannot represent the associated group, it may be unwise to wear the items until you are home.
The Golden Triangle – where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos converge at the Mekong – is the long and well-recognised location for illegal trade. In 1998 Laos was ranked as one of the world’s largest opium producers, with tens of thousands of hectares of poppy cultivation in the Northern region. One in ten local people were opium addicts. With the Government’s late 1990s drive against the production of the drug, cultivation dropped by 94% and success was declared in 2006. Poppy farmers had to turn to less lucrative crops – namely rubber and rice – to earn their living. In the last 8 years, however, opium production, as well as the trade of the expensive and illicit methamphetamine ‘Yaba’, have increased steadily. With trade and tourism bringing Dollars and new cultural influences into the country, many young Laotians are taking Yaba as the new generation’s opium – for excitement and escape. Growing levels of serious mental health issues, violence and crime amongst young people are often attributed to the drug. Marajuana too, is illegal yet prevalent, and in the tourist spots ‘happy pizza’ or ‘happy shakes’ are even advertised on menus. If visitors buy drugs while in Laos, aside from the personal risks, their demand drives up production, costs drop and use increases – leading to devastating consequences for the population involved.
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of Monks and friendly people of Laos is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In more touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities. Here are some Responsible Photographers tips.
Laos boasts an impressive array of native flora and fauna, largely because of the dense forest that still covers much of the land. In fact, conservationists are still discovering new species in the country. However for most visitors, the jungle, UXO danger and limited infrastructure makes it difficult to see many of the animals and birds in their natural setting. Additionally, after years of hunting for food and medicine, and the destruction of natural habitat for farming, wildlife in areas of human population is very limited.
Three of the most well-known yet endangered species in Laos are the Asiatic back bear, the leopard and the elephant. The alarmingly dwindling numbers are attributed to poaching due to a high demand for their body parts in Chinese and other Asian medicine. In and near the Golden Triangle, illegal markets still trade shamelessly in all kinds of species to be smuggled or imported into surrounding countries. In some tourist markets it is possible to see more common animals on sale. One particular hobby of youngsters is to catch birds to sell to tourists in tiny cages for the buyer to set them free. Any kind of participation in the trade of mistreated animals will only serve to prop up the market.
Once dubbed ‘The land of a million Elephants’ it is estimated that there are currently around 1500 Asian ellies left in the country, half in the wild and half in captivity or conservation ‘sanctuaries’. Day trips and residential stays involving riding, feeding, bathing and looking after elephants are extremely popular amongst tourists in Laos. The treatment of the animal varies a great deal depending on the organisation or company visited. It is easy to understand that a ‘sanctuary’ would be the best choice for a vulnerable animal, however practices are often questionable. Some elephants residing in such sanctuaries are tied up for a majority of the day, wear heavy benches for leisure rides and will still be forced to work in the logging industry – from which most are ‘saved from’ – seasonally. To experience elephants ethically, do a lot of research, ensure the animals are free to roam, that the organisation meets international standards, and no riding occurs.
Residing in the estuaries of the Mekong in southern Laos, the Irrawaddy dolphin is one of the most severely endangered species in the whole region. With an estimated population in this area of around 80, this species is not one a visitor should expect to see. Although it is not directly hunted, the low numbers are a result of large scale fishing techniques and habitat degradation. Unless going with the sole mission to improve the wellbeing or habitat of the dolphin, tourists with interest in the species should donate to conservation charities and avoid their habitat.
The highlight for most people on a trip to Laos will be a visit to the Mekong and its estuaries. In fact the waterway is a very popular route into the country from north-east Thailand or northern Cambodia. Speedboats are often preferred for time-conscious travellers, but are big pollutants. However, the long and slow boats with basic petrol motors that ply the waterways for any length of journey are in such numbers that the environmental impact is likely to also be large. Choosing to cruise on a rowing boat will be a much quieter, more serene and responsible alternative.
The river is being increasingly recognised as a major source of hydropower. In 2010 the Laos government began work on a huge dam project in the North – the Xayaburi, and it also has the go-ahead for another enormous development in the South – the Don Sahong project. Aside from its industrial benefits, the damming has come under intense scrutiny and criticism globally due to their environmental impact. Local livelihood, culture and marine life, including fish stocks, are permanently affected from resettlement projects and reduced or increased water levels. Given the controversy, it may be tempting to discuss the issues with a local person, but delving into such topics is likely to lead to discomfort – let them guide the conversation.
Throughout your stay by or on the river, it is essential to always remain aware of the enormous symbolic and practical significance of the Mekong to the lives of the locals.
UXOs & the Vietnam War:
During the Vietnam War, Laos was heavily targeted by US forces, 20 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped, and approximately 30% of which did not explode. Unexploded ordnance contaminates all provinces in Laos and is a continuous threat, particularly for most rural communities. There are around 300 landmine and UXO incidents per year, causing death and severe injury leading to disability. The ongoing threat has meant large unchecked areas of land are off-limits to agriculture or socio-economic development. Whether you are with a local guide or without, always remain cautious about where you or others are wandering. Do not travel off any beaten paths unless the area has been officially declared safe.
The climate of Laos is tropical, with two main seasons – the hot monsoon season between May and September, which can bring temperatures to over 35 degrees Celsius and localised flooding, and the slightly cooler and dry winter months, with average temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius and localised drought. During the rainy season, heavy downpours can occur daily and are a welcome relief from the high humidity. If arriving during the dry season, you will still notice the prevalence of rain umbrellas – many locals carry these to shelter from the sun.
In comparison to its neighbours, Laos is very sparsely inhabited with a land mass of 236,800 sq km and a population of 6.77 million. Being landlocked, the Mekong River is Laos’ life-giving artery. Given the country’s topography it acts as the major transportation highway for imports, exports, locals and tourists. It travels down the whole western side of the country, forming a natural border with Thailand, and connecting China, Cambodia and Vietnam. The rest of the country is mountainous and studded with intriguing cave systems and pristine waterfalls. It is estimated that currently 16% of the land in Laos is protected, and there are 20 official National Biodiversity Protected Areas in the country.
The majority of the Laos people live in the capital Vientiane or as subsistence farmers in the valleys of the Mekong. The surrounding plains of the river are perfectly fertile for the cultivation of rice. Despite the fact subsistence agriculture provides most of the employment in Laos, only 5% of the land is naturally suitable. The rest is either too densely forested, designated unsafe due to unexploded ordnance, or spoilt from logging and slash-and-burn farming.
The traditional greeting and expression of thanks, as in other Buddhist countries, is the ‘nop’, where hands are placed prayer-like and the head is nodded. The higher the hands and bigger the bow, the more respect one is showing. In areas more familiar with western tourists, handshakes are also used. Friends of the same gender are often tactile with each other, however, displays of affection and other kinds of physical contact in public can be very offensive. Additionally, showing anger and verbal or physical altercations can draw a lot of concern and embarrassment for locals.
Try and remain aware of how you are using your hands and your feet in public, particularly in and around temples. For Buddhists the head is the most sacred part of the body, and the feet the least. Touching ones feet or shoes, or pointing them outwards when sitting is not advised. Equally, certain common western hand gestures, like pointing or beckoning by holding the palm up are offensive in Laos. Beckoning is done with the fingers pointing down and flicked back and forth as if fanning some hot food.
Noodle soup, sticky rice and fresh fruit are the main staple available throughout Laos. In fact, in small towns and villages these are often the only options on a menu. Laotians typically eat their meals in their own home with family, and so in less trodden places, you may find the local restaurant simply to be an extension of the front room. Sweet Western snack foods like biscuits are found in abundance in local shops where visitors will also purchase sealed bottled water.
The rest of Laotian cuisine takes most influence from the Vietnamese, Thais and French. The most popular dishes usually include meat as well as the familiar South East Asian flavours of chilli, galangal, kaffir lime, fish sauce, ginger and garlic. Being a landlocked country with often intermittent power, it is a good idea to steer clear of saltwater sea food, and meat which has not been freshly prepared. Markets and street-food stalls are the places to go for variety and freshness. Most eateries will offer ‘non-meat’ dishes, however sticking to strict vegetarian standards makes things a lot more difficult due to widespread use of base ingredients like fish sauce and meat stock.
The official language in Laos is Lao which is very similar in sound and alphabet to Thai. Although Western visitors will be greeted with Sa-bai-dee (Hello) and often learn Kwap-chai (Thank you) they will not be expected to be able to speak or read any other Lao words – so to do so will bring a great deal of surprise and respect. Despite the visible French influence in some towns, English is the second most widely spoken language. In very remote places communication can be difficult, particularly with older generations and due to the existence of numerous local dialects and lack of infiltration of alternative culture.
The dominant religion in Laos is Theravada Buddhism practiced by most ‘low-land’ Laotians. As in Thailand, the principles run throughout the daily lives and minds of the Laos people. The Monk population is large and visible. It is common practice for most boys of poor backgrounds to be sent to the Monastery for at least a few years as teenagers. Visiting some temples and sacred sites is possible throughout the country, however covering the arms and legs, and removing shoes at the door, is a must. Around a third of the people of Laos, mainly in rural areas, still practice local religion, but the belief system often ties in with that of Buddhism. There are also some small Muslim and Christian communities.