Laos is a sparsely populated and hilly country squeezed between Vietnam and Cambodia to the East and Thailand and Myanmar to the West. Many of its 6.5 million people live simple lives in the countryside and villages and modern progress has been hampered by war, a communist government and the natural inclination of the people to be satisfied with what they have got. Things are now changing with big foreign investment, particularly from China, Vietnam and Thailand. Having struggled to get off the beaten track in Asia so far we finally found a trip where we could really experience the simpler side of Asia.
In two weeks we visit the northern half of the country. Pakse and Savannakhet in the south are the two largest cities but we want to see the mountains, villages and rivers in the less populated half of the country. We fly into Vientiane, the capital, then drive north and west, via Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars to Vieng Xai in the east where the communist leaders of the Pathet Lao lived in caves during the 1964-73 war. From here we head north west travelling by van and boat and visiting the Nam Et National Park. We keep going North and West via Nong Khiaw and Nam Tha as far as Muang Sing right up in the Golden Triangle. From the North West we then head back to Luang Prabang for a few days in the old capital before leaving the country via Vientiane.
Like its neighbours in Yunnan, Vietnam and Myanmar the Lao people are a wide mixture of ethnic groups. About 50% are ethnic Lao or Lao Loum, 15% are Tai, 25% are Lao Thoeng, living in the lower uplands and 15% are Lao Soung, or Highland Lao - mainly Hmong and Tien. On our trip we also see smaller groups like the Akha. There are so many children everywhere - in the villages the girls may be married by 14 and have more than 10 kids. We see many schools but also young children helping their parents in the fields. Although communist ruled, the Lao are a mixture of Buddhists and animists. Boys will usually spend some time as monks - "minimum one week" Dao tells us "to honour your parents".
As well as 'slash and burn' farming, villagers supplement their income by cash crops - tobacco, "broom grass", rubber and palm oil - and through handicrafts - basketwork and most noticeably weaving. In some villages there is a loom under every house. Roads and rivers are also important. Fishing provides nutrition and extra income. Many villages have large fish ponds and the rivers also provide means of transport in such a mountainous country. As Laos continues to build dams fishing may well be affected as well as farming.
40 years after America dropped 5 million tonnes of bombs on Laos there is still evidence of the damage to the country. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) is a continuing hazard in the countryside and local disposal teams with expert advisers are still dealing with many devices. Most scary are the 'bombies' - cluster bombs that can look like toys to the kids and of which 270 million were scattered over the country. At the Plain of Jars, markers on the ground show the area to stay within as you walk round and an exhibition and film at the MAG headquarters in Phonsavan shows the huge ongoing impact that this illegal war has on people still. In the worst affected areas every piece of land needs to be cleared before it can be used to build or farm on.
Life for the villagers is improving with schools everywhere, electricity generators in the rivers and even satellite dishes (for mostly Thai TV) and internet. However much of the basic farming has not changed for hundreds of years, the country is still sparsely populated as well as being very beautiful. This really allows the visitor to feel 'off the beaten track' and we felt lucky and privileged to be here. Select the buttons above on the left for more about our trip.