Today Hillary Clinton is in Laos for a one day visit. This event will mark the first time in 58 years for a high ranking US official to do so.
What do we actually know about Laos? Reports often start to state that Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia or in the world. To be more factual, the GDP per capita of Laos is the highest of Asia’s bottom 5 and in the top of world’s bottom 40, a long cry from financial prosperity.
With over 1.8 million tourists annually visiting the republic, tourism has become an important source of income. Although one can quite easily get in and is allowed to freely travel to a large part of the landlocked country, Laos remains one of the least well known countries in Asia.
Along with Cuba, China, Vietnam, and North Korea it is one of the last countries remaining under communist rule.
Like China and Vietnam, Laos is moving from socialism to capitalism, however their regimes are still autocratic. With the Lao press fully under state control, there’s no transparency whatsoever. Arguably there’s as little or even less known about the life of Lao President Choummaly Sayasone than about North Korea’s new leader Kim Yong Un.
Foreign reporters who question the conduct of Laotion authority or seeking contact with opposition factions (See an Al Jazeera documentary of Hmong opposition here), are not tolerated and there’s a large chance to be caught and jailed.
Reporters without borders (RSF) have not updated their records on Laos for over 6 years.
If one leaves out an open letter to the president which has been left unreplied, this is actually nine years, after an incident in 2003 when 2 French reporters and two Laotian assistants were imprisoned.
Although healthcare and sanitary conditions have greatly improved to a point that it has already met its 2015 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target, there’s little substantial evidence that progress has been made on the issue of human rights.
After a request from I-nomad to RSF about their seeming lack of effort to investigate, analogous to the Lao President on their open letter, RSF has chosen not to comment.
Little known facts about Laos
1. The mysterious plain of jars
400 km North-East of the capital Vientienne, the province of Xieng Khouang, boasts 90 sites with thousands of stone jars. The plain of jars is still mystifying archeologists. What culture created the jars, which have a height of 1 till 3 metres and why they are there? Most experts support the theory that they are urns. The jars date back from 500 BC till 500 BCE.
2. Debatebly Asia’s best beer
The country’s most widely recognised product is Beerlao brewn by Lao Brewery Company.
The beer is based on locally grown jasmine rice; the hops and yeast used are imported from Germany.
Beerlao is highly appreciated both locally as well as abroad.
Together with LaneXang beer (Lan Xang is the old name for Laos meaning Million Elephants) by the same brewery it is said to cover 99% of the domestic market. Beerlao is exported to 27 countries.
3. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped 50 bombs per Laotion
Laos is the most heavely bombed country in the world. More bombs were dropped on Laos than in the entire WWII. During the secret war between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day on Laos. One tonne of bombs was dropped for every man, woman and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. From an estimated 260 till 270 million cluster bombs or 50 per Laotian that rained down, some 80 million failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy. An estimated one-third of Laos is still littered with unexploded bombs, making land unavailable for food production or development.
Now, 4o years later, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.
Yearly, about 100 people get injured 60 of which die.
4. The Lao stock exchange market
To obtain more influx of foreign capital, in 2011 Laos has opened a stock exchange (LSX) based in the capital Vientienne. Altough three till five companies were expected to be listed by end 2011, at the time of writing just two companies are represented. The first is EDL Generation-Public Company, which is a subsidiary of the state owned energy company, Electricite du Laos. The other company is the largest bank in Laos, Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur Lao (BCEL). Another company expected to join in soon is the state owned Bank of Lao P.D.R.
Despite the fact that market authorities impose a number of restrictions on foreign ownership, most active investors who trade on the stock market are foreigners, with a majority of investors from mainland China. Foreigners are allowed to purchase just 10 percent of a listed company’s shares and a single foreign investor can hold only one percent.
The market currently has around 8,000 accounts of which only 50 percent are owned by Lao nationals. Last year, the average daily trading volume was only about 150,000 shares, much lower than predicted.
There a slight growing trend in trade, but in the past daily transaction totals of a mere 1000 US$ were no exception. This year in August an online trading service will quite possibly give an additional boost to the market.
5. The only 5 star hotel
Arguably in the eyes of environmentalists and purist who’d like to visit Laos this is a big plus.
The Savan Vegas, which facilitates a big casino, is situated in the country’s second largest city Savannakhet. This is the country’s only 5 star hotel. Room rates vary from 148 till 1,546 US$. The average salary of Latioans is about 60 US$ per month.
6. Hydropower: a blessing and a curse
A lucrative export product of Laos is hydroelectric power, the surplus of which is delivered to neighbours Thailand, Vietnam (8,000 megawatts) and China. The mountainous country now has ten dams, annother four are under construction. The planning of a new series of 55 dams in the Mekong is under dispute. After considerable international pressure about the threat to unique species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin and the Mekong giant catfish as well as insecuring dependency on fishing in the lower Mekong region, for the time being the goverment of the Lao PDR ordered to halt work on the first of the new series of dams called the Xayaburi dam.
7. No sex before marriage, at least not with a farang
Foreigners sleeping under one roof with a Lation, even for homestay be aware. You could become under suspicion and have the police drop in. It is illegal for a Lao citizen, male or female, to have sex with a non Lao unless they are married (with that person). Some hotels have discotheques / nightclubs in the same building, so women offering their services remain more or less out of sight from the authorities, read the public eye. Caution is advised, since you are commiting an offense, you could theoretically become a victim of extortion.
8. 2009 SEA games
In 2009 Laos hosted the bi-annual SEA games, a smaller scale alternative of the Olympics for the 10 ASEAN country’s. Amongst others baskeball was taken from the program, the official reason was a lack of facilities and funds. An offer from the Philipines for financial help was declined. Some blamed the host to remove the disciplines in which Laotions teams had proved to be relatively weak.
9. Are Isaan people Laotian too?
After Thai rule over Laos, they were defeated in the Franco-Siamese war by France who seeked expansion of Indo-China. By 1907, the area of Isaan which was ethnically Lao and Khmer, was agreed upon to be used as a buffer zone between Indo-China and Thailand. At present a Lao dialect is still being used by many people living in Isaan in daily conversation. Some Laotians still consider Isaan people to be Laotion and claim that worldwide there are about 30 million Laotians ie. 7 million in the country, 22 million in Isaan, Thailand and about 1 million, mostly Hmong elsewhere. However not all people in Isaan are ethnic Laotians and generally the people of Isaan now prefer to see themselves as Thai rather than Lao.
Since several forests are believed by the local community to be bewitched, in some areas the wildlife has been left virtually untouched for centuries. Rare species, some of them once common in neighbouring countries who are now believed to be extinct, might have survived in Laos. For a large part unexplored, several unknown species have recently been discovered.