Famous for fifteen minutes

"Falang, falang"!  I'd been spotted.  I knew I would be - in Laos it's not hard to see me coming.    The first is usually a child - there are plenty of them here, more often than not engrossed in a game apparently similar to bowls with their flip-flops on the dusty streets, sometimes for money, always for pride.  Their game is interrupted by the walking freak show that is a "falang" (foreigner) passing through their village, still a rare event around these parts.  Heads turn and all eyes follow the stranger as he makes his way uneventfully along the road.  Dogs  break the silence with a howl for the unfamiliar intruder and the more uncomfortable children cower behind those less frightened or bemused.

When he feels it is safe to do so, one, usually a boy, calls out "sabaii-di" (hello) and gloats to his friends when the alien responds in the same fashion.  This encourages the others, of course, and the stranger, feeling like an ambassador for the outside world, is obliged to greet each in turn so as not to hurt any feelings.  It would also be rude to do anything else: there are few villages in Laos where people are too busy to say hello.  That, however, is as far as the conversation goes and as far as the language barrier is broken with children.  Walking through a small town in Laos is, I imagine, like being Michael Jackson for a few minutes.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (a misnomer typical of the region) is an ignored country, and ignored not just by tourism.  Its landlocked position means that it has historically fared unfavourably as against its neighbours and their trade-friendly ports.  Its history is largely forgotten too.  It only hit the headlines briefly, when it transpired that in the late sixties the United States had waged a secret war over Laos and its communist pretensions, kept at the time from the US public and now slipping from the memories of those who remember, untold to younger generations.  Hollywood doesn't make movies about Laos.

While Vietnam is waking up to a tourism boom, then, its neighbour in recent misfortunes is still sleeping.  That, of course, is part of its charm.  When it awakes, however, the world will discover a country that is largely unspectacular, but then Laos' appeal is not in such things.  The main draws here are the tranquillity of an unhurried and largely traditional way of life and the exotic colour of the landscape and peoples.  One word sums up its appeal: unspoilt.

In spite of the winter cold, early morning is the best time of day in northern Laos, whether it be for the fog rising from the Mekong, the bustling morning markets, all but over by seven o'clock, or the sight of local monks out alms-gathering as their benefactors crouch shivering in the cold waiting for the saffron-cloaked procession to emerge from the mist.  Staying in bed beneath the blankets to fend off the winter may seem attractive at the time, but if you brace yourself and get out you might well be rewarded with memories that will warm you for years to come.

Here, travel is out of necessity on the same transport and in the same accommodation as the Lao people.  As a result, the feeling is one of contributing little to the often decadent effects of tourism, especially as one drifts leisurely downstream on a rice barge, or beds down for the night in a riverside bamboo shack.  It's not for everyone, however.  In the northern village of Muang Ngoy I crossed paths with a forty-something Italian anthropological tour group.  Its members were not best pleased at the prospect of  sleeping, or rather attempting to do so, on the floor of such an atmospheric but overpriced guest house.  I had known what to expect (my guidebook had listed the only accommodation here as a "very basic hotel ... the toilet is a hut [this turned out to be a generous description] and you wash in the river...") but I could have lived without the marauding and fearless nocturnal mice that the book failed to mention.  I followed my guide book's instructions for washing, but if any of the tour group performed his or her morning ablutions in the bracing Nam Ou river, I didn't notice.  You wouldn't have seen me complaining, though: a modern, comfortable hotel with plumbing and real walls and roof would spoil this peaceful village, beautifully situated on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong and surrounded by towering limestone peaks.  The villagers sleep in wooden shacks, and these complete the picture perfectly, so the visitor should be happy to do the same.

Although not always this simple, facilities are still very basic outside the capital, Vientiane, and second city, Luang Prabang.  Those with time on their hands can travel the length of the country by the barges that ply the mighty Mekong river, where sacks of rice and bunches of bananas take first priority and paying passengers fill what's left of the deck space.  Noisy speedboats imported from Thailand, which is often conveniently located on the opposite bank of the Mekong, are on hand for those short on time and with less concern for their personal safety.  The river enters Laos at its far north-western border with Thailand and for much of its course through Laos it forms the border between those two countries; when it leaves in the far south it continues through Cambodia and disperses at its delta in south Vietnam.

The country's river traffic links many places of interest to the visitor, including the two principal cities, and, although by no means luxurious, is more comfortable than the pick-ups (north) or converted trucks and dilapidated buses (south) plying the roads, more rewarding than air travel.  The rivers are low for much of the year and are not navigable at all for the months leading up to the return of the summer rains, but safe passage through rocky stretches is assured by a morning offering at the shrine on the bows of every boat.

Away from the waterways several side trips are worthwhile, particularly into the hills of the north.  There, it gets cold in the winter and all throughout the country the roads, mostly unpaved, become unbearably dusty, this also being the dry season.  Short journeys take a long time and the transport is crammed with vomiting children and boxes, baskets and bags filled with anything from mysterious fruits and vegetables to live chickens or dying fish.  It is not uncommon for passengers to bring luggage weighing and occupying more space than themselves and these "buses" also act as an informal postal service, their passengers often carrying letters for friends of friends in villages to be passed on route.  As the vehicle swerves to avoid ducks and pigs on the road and villagers scamper for cover to avoid its wake, the dust cloud finally settles to reveal a letter delivered to one of their number.  Travellers by this mode of transport must be prepared to complete their journey thickly coated in dust.

If Laos is a dry country in winter, it is only in the literal sense of that word.  Many Laos are very fond of a drink or two.  The national brew, "Beerlao", is quite drinkable but more widely available is "lau-lao" (Lao alcohol), rice whiskey, usually home-brewed and, I assume, an acquired taste.  Falangs are routinely invited to join impromptu street drinking parties but few are brave enough to do so.  It was a busy time for these parties during my stay in Laos.  The celebrations for the Gregorian calendar new year saw festivities all over the country for the whole of the first week of January, which is fine until you realise that this is not actually their new year, and that they'll be doing it all over again come April, and probably before then too if I'm any judge.

One gets the impression that the Laos, like the Thais, will celebrate anything so long as it means having a good time.  This impression was confirmed for me when I invited myself to a funeral on the island of Dhone Khong, one of the so-called (but exaggerated) four thousand islands at the far south of the Mekong's passage through Laos, and just on the right side of the Cambodian border.  And no, I wasn't being rude in attending the gathering: everyone was invited, for this was the funeral for the senior abbot of the island's monastery, and therefore a funeral with a difference.

Respects having been paid to the deceased at a shrine bearing his coffin in the corner of a large field, the fun could begin.  There was plenty of it too: song and dance on a grand stage, video movies, food stalls, funfair-style side-shows and games, ballroom dancing and, perhaps most bizarre, a full-scale kick-boxing ring where enthusiastically supported bouts were staged throughout the evening.  All in all, it was quite a send-off and in its own way showed a great love and respect for the revered former abbot, whilst also confirming to an outsider like myself his standing in the local community.  The word "community" is often misused in the West, but here I saw what it really means as I watched the local people assemble in their hundreds to celebrate the life of a simple monk.  I suppose that if you can celebrate at a funeral you can celebrate anything.  Perhaps you just have to be Lao to understand.

But then I shouldn't fall into the trap of treating Laotians as being all alike: the Lao people of the country's official name are a diverse bunch.  Among those most immediately striking to the visiting eye are the Hmong people of north-central Laos, one of numerous tribal minority groups in the hills and themselves split into sub-groups classified superficially by the outside world according to the colours (black, blue, etc.) in which they traditionally clothe themselves.  But what colours!  A visit at the time of their new year (usually in December) is particularly rewarding.  At this time they are out in force in the villages, dressed to a man (and woman) in their finest.  Teenagers play games of catch with the cloth balls traditionally given by boys to favoured girls at new year; smiling faces complement the exquisite, home-made costumes, which are always immaculate despite the slim resources available to those wearing them.  The Hmong live without exception in wooden huts and, again, washing facilities are available at the nearby river (there's never one far away).  Many travel carrying an incongruous cassette player from which invariably issues a guttural vocal music that fits the scene perfectly.

Vientiane, a capital city that could be mistaken for a provincial town in many countries, is more cosmopolitan, of course.  Joint ventures supply much of the city's business and a plethora of aid agencies and other non-governmental organisations contribute much of its traffic and a sizeable expatriate population.  This is a country that relies to a large extent on foreign investment, but this did not stop them from using cement provided by the United States for construction at the capital's airport to complete the building of a triumphal arch on a city centre traffic circle, which has as a result become known locally as the "vertical runway".  For all this, and even with its leafy setting on the banks of the Mekong, this is not, however, a spectacular or particularly interesting city and few people stay long, preferring instead the more traditional attractions north of the capital.

In contrast, the second city of Luang Prabang is an attractive place, although calling it a city gives the wrong impression.  This old royal capital on the left bank of the Mekong and the right bank of the Nam Khan features Buddhist monasteries and numerous attractive, abandoned temples amid its tropical foliage, and therefore carries great tourism potential.  The burgeoning number of hotels attests to this but the accommodation that is appearing is for the most part tastefully designed and built.  Whether this is by accident or design, it reflects  an approach to tourism on the part of the government influenced to a great extent by the experiences of neighbouring Thailand.

Only now is Laos tentatively opening to independent travel, and if this has effects considered unfavourable by the Lao government the position may change and the doors close again.  More realistically, however, the money coming in will probably keep the doors open.  Already, though, there is concern in high circles about the invasion of external, westernised culture: television aerials point without exception  towards Thailand.  The authorities must know their country well enough to realise that when Laos establishes itself on the tourist trail, its fame will surely last for more than just a few minutes.

© Nicholas White 1997