Waterfall in Si Phan Don, Laos
By JOHN HENDERSON
Special to woodypaige.com
VIENTIANE, Laos – I grew up in the 1960s in liberal Eugene, Ore., which at the time made the People’s Republic of Boulder look like 18thcentury Persia. I remember passing anti-Vietnam War protests on my way to baseball and basketball practice. My father, like Pavlov’s Dog hearing his bell, would wing his whiskey-and-water glass at the TV every time Richard Nixon appeared. I never would’ve enjoyed “All in the Family” if my father, a World War II veteran and lousy ex-pitcher, had better command . Eugene was just to the left of Gandhi.
What I was told and debunked from elementary school through the University of Oregon was the United States jumped into the Vietnam War to stop the communist dominoes from falling. Here’s how the theory went: If North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam, then countries around it would begin falling to communism. It would spread like typhoid around the world until it threatened our very democracy. Yes, lose the war, then lose “All in the Family.” Even as a 12-year-old in 1968, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes with teammates in class as our teacher pointed at the map of Indochina.
We all know what happened. North Vietnam kicked our ass, and Vietnam became a communist country. It’s 40 years later, and no Vietnamese gunboats ever appeared off the shores of Santa Monica. In fact, only two countries became dominoes. One was Cambodia, for which Vietnam saved by running off Pol Pot, a 1970s Stalin who murdered 1-3 million of his own people. (See: Disastrous Agrarian Reforms).
Last month I spent three weeks in the other one.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a narrow, elongated nation squeezed between Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and China. On a map it looks like a fetus in a suffocating womb, an appropriate analogy as it is still feeds off the teat of foreign aid. The only landlocked country in South Asia remains one of the few communist countries left in the world. While sitting in one of my many hotel rooms, I’d turn on the TV and Laos’ lone TV station inevitably had the same inane scene on the screen: a video of nearly identical-dressed government officials, both men and women, sitting in a conference room. An overly serious newscaster in a cheap suit would speak over the slowly moving lips of the officials. I don’t need to be fluent in Lao to know they were either discussing this year’s rice crop or the unveiling of their next Chinese-funded dam.
Sitting in said hotel rooms, I was usually resting from another night drinking beer. In Laos, you have a choice of drinking Beerlao or … Beerlao. Microbrews with names like Bombers Brew on T-shirts are not coming to Laos anytime soon. Creeping free enterprise has not reached Laos’ beer scene. Laos’ one newspaper – yes, one – is about as objective as the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ website.
However, Laos has a different communist vibe, one that makes it appealing to travelers and one of the up-and-coming countries in Asia. I know how bad communism can be. When I graduated from Oregon in 1978, I classified myself as a closet Marxist. Then I traveled to Hungary behind the Iron Curtain and started talking to people, from soldiers in the street to factory workers in working-class bars. I heard their struggles, their fears, their restrictions. Then I realized something.
My sociology professors, the ones who claimed capitalism would be the downfall of mankind, had never been east of Hartford, Conn.
Many years later I went to Cuba where Fidel Castro’s shredded lifeline to the Soviet Union left the Cubans with food shortages they hadn’t experienced in a generation. But I also went to Vietnam in 2005 when it had the third-fastest growing economy in Asia. Ho Chi Minh’s glittery skyline and exploding tourist trade left me wondering even more than when I sat in that classroom in the ‘60s: What the hell were we fighting for?
That question hung over me as I traversed Laos, from the peaceful hill tribes along the Chinese border in the north to my swinging hammock on the bank of the Mekong in the south. Laos has gone from one of the 10 poorest nations in the world to what is quietly becoming a possible success story.
When the communists took over in 1975, they curtailed the private sector, forced the collectivization of agriculture and curbed religion. About 10 percent of the country fled. Those who stayed circled the drain of what became an Asian backwater. In 1991, the World Bank listed Laos among the 10 poorest countries in the world. Then it flat lined during the global economic crisis of the late ‘90s.
Laos also remained extraordinarily dangerous. The crime wasn’t in the streets. It was buried in fields, near schools, by homes. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted a “secret war” in Laos. According to Legacies of War, a website dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 580,000 missions from 1964-73, many landing in the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. Today, many of those bombs still rest in the countryside. Laos does nothing to hide that fact. On one bus ride, a went past a road sign pointing toward a town named, simply, Bomb Village. Yes, that’s a town near the Plain of Jars. Every year more than 60 Lao die from leftover bombs.
However, following China’s lead in the 2000s, Laos slightly opened up the economic purse strings with a reform called the New Economic Mechanism. Roads were built. Tourism was emphasized. From 2006-16, according to the World Bank, Laos’ poverty level dropped from 33.5 percent to 23.2 percent. More than half a million people were lifted out of poverty. In today’s current list of the world’s poorest countries, it’s not even in the top 25.
A big reason is tourism. The number of tourists jumped from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.68 million in 2015. According to Laos government records, revenue from tourism went from $2.25 million in 1991 to $406 million in 2011.
The money figures are shocking. It’s not because of the source. It’s because Laos is my 100th country and it’s one of the cheapest I’ve ever visited. It’s on a par with rural India. I lived like Donald Trump on $50 a day. I rarely paid more than $10 for a decent hotel room. A $28 room gave me a swimming pool. Dinners were never more than $5, the same amount you’d spend on five beers. A 15-hour bus ride cost $18. Of course, it was a red eye in which the woman across the aisle from me became violently carsick and kept missing the vomit bag, the woman next to me was nursed her ragingly kicking infant and the infant behind me screamed like Pavarotti with his hand slammed in a car door.
Still, Laos has become a hip destination for the savvy traveler. Thanks to, yes, the communist government, it has even more appeal today. Five years ago it drove away the drunken backpacker who threatened to turn Laos into a giant vomitorium, not unlike parts of Thailand where tourism ran amok decades ago.
Take Vientiane, Laos’ sleepy little capital. It wasn’t too long ago when Vientiane had about as many streetlights as it had beer choices. Today it has more streetlights but not much more traffic. Leaving my lovely $28 hotel with white-washed walls, wood-stained paneling and swimming pool, I walked the two blocks to the Mekong which separates Laos from Thailand. Along the broad banks of the world’s 12th-longest river, locals set up stalls selling fresh grilled fish, chicken on a stick and sizzling sausages, kabobs, oysters and crabs. For 80 cents I bought a piece of chicken that could’ve tasted off a barbecue in Highlands Ranch. Standing with a bunch of locals, I ate it like a meaty Popsicle between long draws on an ice-cold Beerlao on a steamy 80-degree night.
Keep in mind before the communists ended a 650-year monarchy in 1975, Laos was a French colony from 1893-1953 (with the exception of one violent intervention by the Japanese). The U.S. left bombs; the French left recipes. The food in Laos is fabulous. Picture Chinese food with French flair. Not far from the riverside barbecue is Le Banneton. As the name suggests, it’s a French bakery with croissants, cakes and coffee right out of Paris. It’s where I’d start my day, sitting outside with a chocolate croissant and café au lait while I pondered what pagoda to visit.
Despite communism’s atheist leanings, religion remains a central part of the Laos experience. Nowhere is it stronger than in Luang Prabang. From 1695 to well into the 20th century, this pleasant town on the Mekong was the capital of its own kingdom. Buddhist scholars flocked here for further study. Eventually weakened and propped up by the Vietnamese, Siamese and French, the town settled in as a UNESCO Historical Site with an accompanying label as Laos’ “Nirvana.” Besides the palm trees framing gorgeous sunsets, a lovely night market and guesthouses with relaxing open-air patios, Luang Prabang’s Nirvana is more spiritual.
There are 33 gilded wats, or monasteries, scattered around the city where saffron-robed monks walk the streets with backpackers in flip-flops.
Every morning at dawn, the monks walk in silent single file carrying large bowls. One morning I joined the locals in the daily tradition of “tak bat,” or “giving alms.” I went to a street corner and got on my knees. As monks aged from 10 to 60 walked past, I put little balls of rice, sweets and chocolate into their buckets. It’s the monks’ display of poverty and humility combined with local Buddhists scoring spiritual points in the act of giving. Any points I scored were quickly erased after the woman who shoved a sack of gifts in my hand and shepherded me to the street corner demanding 15,000 kip (about $2) during my handouts. Feeling fleeced, I got up and left, leaving my gifts to any monks or stray dogs who happened to pass.
The monks are an accepted, respected lot in Laos. Even among the communist cadre, the monks are given a wide space and freedom. Then again, Buddhism is arguably the most peaceful religion. The term “Buddhist terrorist” doesn’t appear much in world history. I met one such monk after I walked past a pagoda. From inside I heard chanting, beautiful rhythmic sounds from young men. I waited outside until a procession of teenagers, all decked out in orange saffron robes, filed out.
One stopped and a man also observing said, “Nice singing.”
“It wasn’t singing,” the monk said, almost scolding. “It’s chanting. Singing is something else.”
He said his name was Bournnakh. He’s 19 and been at this monastery for five years. He came from a village outside Luang Prabang that had only two grades. After that, children went to help their parents. He wanted more. One day, a monk came to the village and Bournnakh asked him coyly how could he continue his studies. He said come to the monastery. He was 12. He’s been here ever since. I asked him if he likes it.
“I like to meditate,” he said. “When I first came here, I didn’t know anything.”
He was a very nice kid and one of the few Lao who could speak English. He had a future. I asked how he saw his.
“I want to go to university,” he said. “I want to study computers.”
“Will you continue to be a monk?” He pointed at his robe and smiled.
“No,” he said. “I want to leave. But I will continue to meditate.”
Maybe at one time, he said a prayer for Vang Vieng. While Laos is a small country, Vang Vieng is only 115 miles from Luang Prabang but a galaxy apart in attitude and atmosphere. During the 2000s, Vang Vieng had surpassed various islands in Thailand as party central in Southeast Asia. Backpackers from around the globe came to float down the Nam Song on inner tubes and drink at the more than a dozen “rave” bars along the banks. Combine drinking cheap beer and Lao-Lao, Laos’ lethal-but-smooth whisky, with a river and you have problems. Throw in rope swings over dangerously hidden rocks and you have deaths.
One year Vang Vieng’s little hospital recorded 27 people dying in the river. That doesn’t count others who died after getting emergency transported the 100 miles to Vientiane. It became so bad, the communist government stormed into town in 2012 and shut down all the unlicensed bars.
“If you were 20 years old, it was like paradise,” New Zealander Neil Farmiloe told me at his Pan’s Place guesthouse, which he opened 11 years ago. “It just got over the top with the number of people dying. The local Lao weren’t very impressed, either: people drunk wandering through town in their bikinis and shorts being sick all over the place.”
The backpackers have been replaced by older, better-heeled travelers like me seeking more sober adventures such as ziplining, caving and kayaking. I’d sit at my lovely guesthouse on the bank of the river and look out at the beautiful karsts, the craggy, pointy mountains that Oriental tapestries have featured since the Ming Dynasty. Inner tubers still float down the Nam Song but kayakers have overtaken them in popularity. I spent one leisurely afternoon paddling down the river and saw only two bars open. Both were nearly empty, sans three South Koreans and fellow kayakers snoozing in nearby hammocks. The rope swing platforms were abandoned, dark remnants of a haunting past.
Some things in Laos, however, never change. My 15-hour vomit ride took me to Phongsali, the northern-most province that juts into southern China. It is marked by spectacular mountain scenery, cold weather and hill tribes who haven’t changed their way of life in centuries. There are 134 hill tribes in Laos (the government’s number is only 49) and I spent two days trekking among the Akha, a colorful, happy people who consider marriage among other tribes a crime against nature.
Trekking in Laos is challenging but oh, so rewarding. It’s the one cool place in Laos that doesn’t seem more appropriate for African violets. I hiked mostly in long pants. I wore a turtleneck to dinner. I slept in a stocking cap. But it made it easier ascending the steep paths that went seemingly to the heavens along the Chinese border. With every turn, I saw a new glimpse of the fog-shrouded mountains bordering both countries. After about 4 ½ hours, four others and me finally descended a small distance into the Akha village where the village chieftain smoked out of a long, big bamboo pole that looked like Asia’s largest hash pipe.
Life among hill tribes isn’t for the unadventurous. If the thought of a Holiday Inn is beneath your standards, don’t go near Asian hill tribes. In 1978 I contracted typhoid in Northern Thailand. I had no health issues among the Akha but they weren’t any more advanced than the Lahu and Hmong I hung with nearly 30 years ago. The Akha still have no running water or electricity. They have no bathroom facilities. You went in the forest. With the thought that one of the U.S. military’s little gifts could be under every step, modesty becomes excess baggage when you ponder straying from the trail.
But the Akha are very hospitable. We survived a dinner that looked more like a science experiment then afterward the village chief plied us with shots of Lao-Lao. I counted seven before I wandered outside and blearily looked out at the shadowy mountains in air as crisp and clean as anything in Colorado.
After two days trekking and two days steaming down rivers in the bottom of longboats, I was in the mood for a comfy hammock. I flew from Luang Prabang to Pakse, the gateway to southern Laos. This is where the Mekong is at its widest point in it’s 2,700-mile journey. At some points during the rainy season, it’s eight miles wide. The river here is dotted with thousands of little islands and is appropriately called Si Phan Don, Lao for “Four Thousand Islands.” On Don Khon, along with Don Det one of the two most popular islands, I took a room with a hammock on a patio that looked out over the Mekong. I’d swing on my deck reading “The Coroner’s Lunch,” Colin Cottrill’s dark comedy about a Lao coroner investigating murders, in between swigs of ice cold Beerlao from my minibar.
This is the land of the lotus eaters. It’s where I rode a motorbike between blooming flowers around the island and where I ate lahp, Laos’ national dish of crispy rice, meats, salad and chilies, in the many healthy little restaurants seemingly every 50 feet. I spent one day kayaking along the vast Mekong where at this point seems like kayaking in the Pacific. The few contacts I had with land were negotiating slippery rocks in the many waterfalls that dot this tropical paradise.
Yes, Laos remains one of the world’s last holdouts of communism. But as a traveler I didn’t feel the oppression, the gags on basic freedoms, as I did in 1970s Hungary or 21st century Cuba. Laos has preserved its dignity. It is the classical concert to Thailand’s disco. As I left the country for a layover in Bangkok, I couldn’t help thinking of Karl Marx, sipping a Beerlao, swinging in a hammock on the banks of the Mekong, smiling at what could be.
John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel during his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country — with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport (www.johnhendersontravel.com) that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he had some of the best 10 years of his career. He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. He is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon, which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)