A Laos Beta version soon to be a 2.0

A Laos Beta version soon to be a 2.0

Laos doesn’t seem to have changed at all since I last visited. (…) Life flows according to the usual rhythms, the rhythms of a peasant life punctuated by nature and made up of days that are almost all the same: at dawn, small groups of people lined up along the road reach the plantations; in the local markets, made up of simple goods and lots of fruit, there is slow activity, people meet, talk, buy, sell. Outside some shack used as a shop, the young and the old spend their days idly by watching the traffic go by and chatting with each other while children, like all children in the world, play and run, still partly carefree, waiting for their time to help in the fields.”

A local village in northern Laos – Image by Guglielmo

I wrote this in 2013 when I was a few kilometres away from Bo Ten – a then forgotten town on the border with China – and I was about to cross the north of the country to reach China. Today, I’m preparing to make a very similar journey again, but I have serious doubts about being able to repeat those words and rediscover that almost enchanted country that had bewitched me every time I returned to visit it.

Read on to find out why. For now it is enough for you to know that the characters and performers are the same as 10 years ago: China in version 100.0, in the role of a local feudal lord who seeks to derive the greatest possible advantages from his vassals; Laos which, to continue the terminology of computers, I would still define in the “beta” version, wearing the clothes of a vassal; and then there’s me, the storyteller.

Perhaps speaking of an end is a bit exaggerated in absolute terms; maybe it is more appropriate to speak of a decline, and I have the clear feeling that my next trip to Laos, which should take place in the coming April, could bear witness to the beginning of the decline of a nation that has always had little but that has always tried to keep its identity intact with extreme dignity.

Si Phan Don rice fields – Image by Guglielmo

Laos has a population of about 7 and a half million inhabitants, distributed among forty-seven different ethnic minorities, with a majority formed by the Lao ethnic group. Each of these groups has its own language and culture. Laos is home to some of the most pristine regions in the world, made up of lush forests, towering mountains and, above all, by the meandering Mekong River, which divides into an internal estuary that gives life to an infinite number of islands and islets in the southern part of the country and which, above all, has represented over the years the most important commercial communication route in the country.

To the traveler who visits it, Laos offers paths between nature, spirituality and silence. A place more to breathe than to admire. Many times I have asked myself: “What is it that I find beautiful in Laos?” Perhaps it’s the ancient temples of Luang Prabang with the morning alms of the monks, or the lively life on the ‘long Mekong’? Or perhaps it’s the mysterious jars lying on the Xiangkhoang plateau, which alongside the legends associated with the jars themselves, has also seen history pass along its paths; a story made up of thousands of tons of bombs dropped during what the Americans themselves defined a ‘dirty war’? Or maybe it’s the waterfalls, the sunsets with the last rays of the sun caressing the rice fields, the waters of the Mekong that are placid one moment, rushing the next?

Scene of daily life in Laos – Image by Guglielmo

Perhaps it’s all these and other things put together. And maybe none of them, because in fact Laos doesn’t have its Angkor, its Walls, its Taj Mahal; but you don’t miss them, and you come back for its people, for its simplicity, for that atmosphere that Asia exudes from all pores.

Planning a trip to Laos is an exciting prospect and, with so many interesting places to visit, it can be said that travel begins in preparation. In this specific case I will follow a fairly classic route with the four of the most popular destinations in Laos – Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang – to which I will add Bo Ten again.

In short, like a murderer, I too will go back to the places of the crime to see if I will find the same Laos as many years ago. Will I find it again? Frankly I hope so, but I’m afraid not, and I’ll explain why right away: on December 3rd 2021, a high-speed railway was inaugurated, one that connects Vientiane with Bo Ten in a few hours, to then connect with a Chinese railway that will reach Kunming.

This ultra-modern project which has taken the name of ‘New Silk Road’ and which over time intends to extend to connect with the Kuala LumpurSingapore railway line with the aim of opening a new commercial route between China and the major ports of Southeast Asia, will surely have begun to produce an epochal change in a Laos that seems to be passing, at least in some areas of the country, from nothing to so much all too rapidly.

And it is precisely this Laos in the making that I want to go visit. It intrigues me to personally see how such a particular country is absorbing this path from a peasant economy, as it has been said several times, to a much more complex economic phase.

Simple life in Laos

As in the American Far West, the railway will bring progress, work, perhaps a decrease in the level of poverty, economic and social growth. It has already led, for example, to the clearing of unexploded ordnance left over from indiscriminate bombing during the Vietnam War, which was located along the route and which was removed during the execution of the works.

But there will also be a price to pay.

In America it was paid for with the disappearance of the bison and with the inability, or more probably with the unwillingness, to accompany the indigenous populations towards a different form of life adapted to the new times. In Laos, where 75 tunnels and a number of viaducts divided into 167 bridges had to be built, the environmental impact was evidently harmful and resulted in the loss of 318,000 hectares of natural forest. Not to mention that even in Laos the population will need to be supported in this rapid change in their daily life.

And with the last rays of the sun, the Mekong in Si Phan Don is colored – Image by Guglielmo

While it should be acknowledged that the new rail link has the potential to stimulate the economy of landlocked Laos, ultimately resulting in the country being part of a pan-Asian rail link which can only bring benefits, there are also concerns that this situation will increase the country’s indebtedness to China.

Laos will increasingly rely on international aid and financial assistance from the Beijing government, and Vientiane will be drawn further politically into the orbit of its unwieldy neighbour.

In short, a Laos to discover, to experience and to understand in the few days that I will have time to visit it. I am quite sure that once again, the sides of the rails will show me its most beautiful face. Maybe even the surprised faces of the people when they see that iron monster that could change their lives darting along the edge of their fields. A turning point, in short, which in the end we hope will be for the better.

Share This

About the author

Pluto, alias Guglielmo Zanchi, was born in Rome, Italy, on 19 December 1960. After obtaining a Degree in Political Science at the La Sapienza University and working six years at an accountant office, PLuto moved to Phuket, Thailand, in 1993. He had a short spell at a Gibbon Rehabilitation Center in the protected area of Bang Pae, then worked for 15 years for a local tour operator first in Phuket, and eventually in Krabi where he still lives since 2000. Pluto now works self employed in the tourist sector, managing to keep enough time free for his real passions: photography, travels and Vespa, at times merging the latter two. Pluto is one of asianitinerary.com photo reporters.

View all articles by Pluto