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  • Elizabeth Cochran

Laos land of ... well mere nature and dirt across from Land of Smiles Thailand

When entering Laos, it is a step back into time. Laos is full of "rich" landscapes, but the poverty that hits you in the face upon entering cannot be avoided. This is the heavy reality I experienced when visiting Laos. I have visited twice, and the experience has been the same both times. When in Laos, it is unavoidable to notice the stark differences between Laos and Thailand.

laos, temple
My first Laos temple

I traveled to Laos for the first time in 2019 with my friend from Bangkok to get my work visa and apply at the Thai consulate, but in Laos. It is a visa scheme they previously had going on pre-pandemic. It made no sense to me why I was to apply in Laos for my Thai visa, but that was how it was. Laos wasn't a country I knew almost anything about. The truth is Laos used to be a part of Siam, previously the country name for Thailand. And now Laos struggles with poverty, lack of natural resources, development, post war monstrosities from the Vietnam or American War, whichever you refer to it as. The country is loaded with unexploded bombs making the country very unsafe in a lot of areas. This is a problem for tourism of course but think of all the locals and what they have to face every day. Lao kids are told to not play in fields and to play near their homes, due to the fear of unexploded bombs.

First, the country struggles with the rainy season as a lot of Southeast Asia does. The monsoon season is so strong that buildings, roads, and the control of the flooding seems impossible to maintain. Laos struggles with this, and I saw the extreme flooding as I visited right after the monsoon season. When arriving to Laos on airplane, you could see villages, and landscapes submerged by the floods. This was in September of 2019. Also, Laos has many unexploded bombs scattered across the country. Flash floods force people to flee the country or flee the capital. This only creates an instable environment for Laos people to have a ground, a home, or even a stable place to work. When I was with my Thai coworker getting hot pot (shabu), we were chatting with our friendly waitress about Laos. She was making conversation with us too. She was a teenager and explained that she is not from this town and moved here since tourists come here. It was the only option for her family. In the capital at that time there was huge flooding. This is an ongoing problem for Laos as flash floods happen often as she was explaining. She was also telling us all about the unexploded bombs and Beer Lao too, she was proud of the beer. My coworker thought Beer Lao was too sweet and grimaced at the taste, while I drank it all down and enjoyed it. We both felt heavy and delighted to be able to share our stories with her. She was extremely kind and that was a theme for Lao people throughout our trip. What we found on the entire trip was, while it is prevalent Laos is struggling, we felt safe oddly enough. On our trip, there was no begging, or stealing happening, and Lao people were and still are very kind and resilient people.

Laos, ox, buffalo, river
Day in the life in Laos image : "surfing the planet"

I recently learnt more about the history of Laos and the economy. I was surprised to find out in my research, but also it made sense that Laos does not have many natural resources. While Laos is gorgeous in its scenery, nature, waterfalls, and has lush greenery, the soil just isn't good. The soil in Laos is not good for farming. Take a moment though to appreciate the beauty of the nature in Laos.

waterfall, luangprabang, laos
Luang Prabang, Waterfall in Laos image: adventure in you

Unlike Thailand where agriculture thrives with fruits, vegetables, fishing, farming, forestry, and mining. The only thing that Laos has to offer for natural resources is mining and that's it. That is very limited and truthfully there is a long history of opium production in Laos. There is also a big road referred to as "the Chinese Road", that was built by the Chinese to transport goods during the Vietnam or American War that became a source for trade including: guns, weapons, essentials for the troops; this of course was the past in the 1970s- 1990s. However, what this road is currently being used for today is not something I easily could find out by researching. In very recent years, Laos is working on farming other things such as coffee, however the soil is limited in what it can help grow. This is harsh, but also their reality. Laos is a border country as there is limited resources in the country. Laos is placed in between China, Vietnam, and Thailand, which all have a more successful economy.

laos map, south east asia map
Map of Laos and surrounding countries image: Britannica encyclopedia

Laos in my opinion needs some outward influence to help develop the country, for more resources, trading, more opportunity somehow, but I am not sure if I am being overly optimistic on the reality. The options that are in Laos is limited, and the only thing I can do is share their story about Laos. Laos was a country I never intended to explore, but while the reality is somewhat grim, the nature is outstanding. When I had visited Laos, I was shocked with the stark contrast in economy or lack of a booming economy, as I was new to living in Thailand (Thailand has a booming economy) and the economy in the United States is also good. I mean I hadn't known what these types of problems really were, and I acknowledge how lucky and privileged to grow up as a third culture Vietnamese American in America, with certainly a lot more opportunity. Thailand is so extremely close to Laos and when you are on the border it is hard to not compare the two countries, the economies, and the struggle.

The two times I had visited Laos, the treatment at the border was exactly the same. The immigration officers were wondering what an American is doing and why she is wanting to enter Laos. The officers were asking "how long you stay.. why you come here, tourist? Really?" and even having an interview both times with the officers privately. I felt safe, but the questioning had to do I believe with a lack of tourism and a slight concern for their dark history of previous drug trade in Laos. The process of entering really was simple, fill out a form and attach your passport photo and pay the fee.

They prefer Thai baht or USD. In fact the Laos kip is worthless, bring all the different notes of baht that you can, because kip is worthless and cannot be changed into another currency. I have some random notes of Laotian kip and it is interesting. I did some research about the currency beforehand, as an experienced traveler I like to get a hold on the currency to prevent scams or having to convert it. I did the calculations on kip to baht and about how much the currency is in relation to cost of things to prevent any petty scams. My Thai friend had never really traveled and was learning a lot from me. The immigration officers wanted me to pay in USD and at the time I didn't think why, but once I was in the country, I realized how worthless Laos kip was.

laos kip, currency
Laos kip image: Vietnamese private tours

The entire time while I was in Laos, I used Thai Baht as Thai baht is king. The Laos money is almost worthless. It is a headache converting Laos kip to Thai Baht, but you will pay in Thai Baht. When visiting Laos, I recommend you bring all the money you need as there are almost no banks or ATMS. Have small notes as you will pay in Thai baht and get your change in Laos kip. Laos kip is worthless and will be extremely hard to exchange to another currency, so pay in Thai baht for the closest amount that way you don't need any change.

mekong, river, laos people, bathing in the river
Bathing in the river in Laos image: Flickr

If you are wanting a luxurious stay in Laos, then that is not what you will get. Instead, you will get dirt roads, ox, and cows roaming the streets, kids playing in the streets, women bathing in buckets on the side of the roads, and at night people eating Thai and Vietnamese food in the markets. Laos people will BBQ anything and before you judge, it is just life here.

laos field, laos
Laos day in the life image: dreamstime

There are not huge shopping malls, a booming economy, or even thriving agriculture. People eat BBQ, bathe on the street, play with the livestock on the streets, the kids play with rocks, and they drink Beer Lao late into the night while watching sports on an old television set. When I was exploring around Savvanakhet a border town to Mukhadan, Thailand I found it hard to find food. There of course were options, but unlike Thailand there no longer were street vendors everywhere, fresh fruit stands, farmers selling their crops, or huge markets. Laos was just some small carts with crops, small shoppes with mostly snack food, some rice sellers, and a limited restaurant selection. It was evident Lao people really struggle, most of the land is agriculture, but like I said before the soil is not good for growing most crops.

What I noticed about Laos was all the products are all imported from Thailand. I went to a tourist shop as there was one and it was huge. I was on a mission to find things special to Laos, but I found none instead. Everything said on the tag "made in Thailand". I bought a shirt, some Beer Lao, a wooden comb, and a coin purse. Nothing was special to Laos, at all but I will say Beer Lao is one of my favorite beers. I found it puzzling that there were no handicrafts or even traditional products that are Laotian such as rugs, pots, pottery, cloths, clothes, or anything for that matter. They do have food stores that are similar to a Makro, Tesco Lotus, or Sam’s Club, but there are not convivence stores everywhere like Thailand. All of the products you can find to buy in Laos are from Thailand. All the necessities are imported from Thailand. When you are on a border town it is easy to see the transport of goods from Thailand. The Laos people that live on the border often are going over the border to buy Thai goods, then returning to Laos. The border on Mukhadan I entered by bus on the Thai-Lao friendship bridge, and the security there was very strict. Huge barriers to cross and guards everywhere. On the bus it was very evident that Laos people had crossed over only to buy food, kitchen items, huge bags of rice, to return to Laos to their families. I even spoke with a Laos young man who was carrying many bags of rice. Being on the border you really have to be cautious of whom you are interacting with. It is not a good place to get into a misunderstanding. I merely asked him "why so much rice? " in Thai ( Thai is almost the same as Lao language) and he answered "to eat for mom, dad, brother, sister, yeah". We nodded to each other and I went to the foreigner line for Americans, British etc. and he went the other direction.

laos, boats, laos river
Laos border town with trading boats image: Kalitravel

I wouldn't be surprised though if there is a food scarcity in Laos. When I was in Laos going to the big food store was how to get food. There were very few restaurants and there is a reason the hotels serve food and have room service. Because if they didn't people would struggle to find places to eat. The food was good, and I learnt a huge lesson when visiting Laos which was thankfulness and just to be, listen to people, and be kind.

My impression of Laos was more a humbling experience to say the least. I did not judge, I did not scoff, or even want to leave immediately. I just felt thankful, thankful for everything. I felt appreciative of the kindness of Lao people. Their openness to share their stories of Laos and their way of life. I felt a sense of connectedness to Laos people for a mere moment in time whilst in Laos. Which is what inspired me to share the story of Laos with you. Visiting Laos you can feel their appreciation to speak with you, to see tourists, and be able to share what Laos is all about. While there is lack of infrastructure and so on, Laos people are very proud to be Lao, and still find it in them to be kind to everyone.

Find the time to see the peace within yourself, despite tribulations, circumstances, or perceptions of you. Laos people inspired me to see the good, and to be the good in this world. If you like what you read, please support this website and feel free to buy me a coffee. It goes directly to me and helps fund this website. Thank you for being here.

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