Saturday, December 6, 2008

Laos - the not-so-lost kingdom

Laos - they used to have a million elephants, and now they have two thousand - mostly in elephant camps and in the logging industry, controlled and trained by mahouts (elephant trainers). Though still considered mostly an isolated country by Southeast Asia standards, change has definitely come to Laos.

Named "Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol" by Fa Ngum, a Cambodia-backed Lao prince who married a Khmer princess and ascended the throne as a result. The tradition seems to have continued into the 20th century, where the last king Sisavong also married a Khmer princess (granted she was one of 15 wives he had). The culture and food of Laos has some similarity to its neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand - yet it has managed to avoid the rapid development and transformation that its neighbours have undergone.

Laos is considered "off the beaten track". Not the easiest of countries to travel to, literally four international airlines fly in and out of the capital Vientiane (China Eastern, Vietnam Air, Air Asia and Thai Airways).

Despite that, it's obvious that lots of people have visited Laos, liked it so much that they've decided to stay and try to transform it into a granola-crunchy utopia. Every imaginable NGO and development institution resides in Laos - from the ADB, to the UNV. Even the Mekong River Commission has its headquarters right on the banks of the Mekong (of course) outside the Vientiane city centre.

Apart from these larger organisations, the granola-crunchiness also extends downwards to small Laotian enterprises (mainly the ones catering to the burgeoning tourist industry). Many local tour agencies offer "eco-tourist" options - from "fair" trekking where a percentage of the earnings from the guide will be paid to the villages tourists walk through, sustainable community development through building of schools and skills training, and support of cottage industries and traditional crafts. Even my little US$15/night hotel stuck stickers in the bathroom, warning me of global warming and environmental damage - so please turn off my lights and re-use my towels!

How did Laos - neighbours to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam - develop in such a tranquil manner? So many foreigners seemed to have been charmed and lulled by the atmosphere of Laos, fallen in love and been determined to preserve it ever since.

Some of the institutions in Vientiane which I found interesting:

TRUE COLOUR - a women's handicrafts cooperative started up by a Lao woman and run on funding from the Japanese government and generous individuals. The store sells completed products from the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. Laotian village women in particular are trained to create higher quality products while keeping to the traditional weaves of their culture. The money raised goes directly to the women and the cooperative. And tourists can even take lessons on how to dye cloth or weave.

MAKPHET - one of my favourite restaurants visited during my stay in Laos, it's run by Friends International which takes in street children and prepares them for reintegration into society and vocational training in the culinary arts or the running of a restaurant. The children learn to wait and serve, they also make lovely little handicraft from recycled material in the small gift shop on premise. And if you're worried about the quality of the food, don't be. The food is simply marvellous. Not exactly Laos, not exactly Western - they've managed to come up with some unique and delicious recipes. Their desserts are also great.

CAROL CASSIDY - A vivacious, extroverted American - she moved to Laos some years ago, setting up a workshop of dyers, weavers, and even a mulberry farm which produces its own silk. Her designs are beautiful, often integrating traditional patterns with architectural designs, creating something that is quite stunning though very pricey. Her designs are sold at the MoMa, and she has visited Washington DC's Textile Museum as a guest speaker.

Luang Prabang is even more a hub of granola-crunchiness than Vientiane. It has that whiff of backpacker about it, but there is an air of affluence about it. It's the sort of place where the backpackers are young well-to-do Europeans doing their round-the-world-on-a-shoestring would hang out, smoke ganja and go jungle trekking. One of my favourite places was a little cafe called Saffron, where they make espressos from coffee beans grown locally in Laos. They've even got "fair trade coffee" tee-shirts for sale.

I'm sure all this must sound quite alarming to tourists who had visited Laos in the past and not experienced all this commercialism (albeit under the guise of sustainability). It was equally alarming for me when I first visited Yangshuo in the south of China, and was confronted with a shrivelled old lady asking in English "Peanuts? Peanuts?" and banana pancakes on every breakfast menu in the area!

No matter what, there seems to be a sense of willingness for the Laotians to embrace and adopt the middle-class backpacker's idea of a Southeast Asian Shangri-La. Yet, I can't help but wonder how one tells what the real Laos and what this made-up, tourist version of Laos is.

At the end of the day, I like Laos. There are places within (a little further even off the beaten track) where you can still see glimpses of everyday life without the influence of the socially conscious foreigner. It just takes a bit more digging beneath the surface, a little more effort.