If you are visiting Laos, this is probably not your first rodeo in Asia, so I’ll skip the squat toilets and fleets of bicycles and get to seven things that this little Southeast Asian gem has to surprise even seasoned travelers.
1. How dirty the air is
This is the one item on the list that really doesn’t have any redeeming charm, so let’s get it out of the way first. Laos is still a largely agrarian society, with little manufacturing and a whole lot of untouched jungle, so I was anticipating filling my lungs with crystal clear, if muggy, air, but instead spent most of the trip cleaning black gunk out of my mucus membranes. Even in the nature reserves of the far north, where the nearest town of any size is several hours’ drive away, the sun was almost completely obscured well into the afternoon most days.
This might be partly due to the time of year I visited, as March turns out to be when farmers burn brush off their land in preparation for planting. Throughout my travels, I often saw plots of land smoking from a controlled burn. It creates so much haze in the air that sometimes flights are grounded! Even if it is only temporary, for someone to whom air pollution is associated with heavy vehicle traffic and manufacturing, the degree of congestion in Laos was shocking.
2. The dearth of domestic products
To be clear, I mean manufactured domestic products here. There is plenty of domestic produce, handicrafts and the like available, but the vast majority of value-added manufactured goods are imported from neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam.
This isn’t something I normally pay attention to, but after a local trekking guide mentioned how many daily necessities have to be imported, I began looking for domestically produced goods in the shops. The only one I found during my travels was the ubiquitous (and tasty) Beerlao pictured above, itself started as a joint venture with foreign investors. The rest of shelves were a sea of Thai, Chinese characters and the odd romanized logo.
3. The stubby-legged guard mutts
I detected something a bit different about the dogs here compared to their rangier, wilder cousins I tried to pet in neighboring SE Asian countries. For one thing, the dogs I saw in Laos were not strays. They weren’t the pampered handbag pets of Tokyo either, but each seemed to belong to a particular home or shop, and although I can’t remember ever seeing a veterinary office, I rarely saw dogs with any obvious health problems. Most seemed well-fed and properly socialized.
Surprisingly, during the day, they would sit out front and be friendly and approachable, but if you passed by the same dog after business hours, you would get an earful and possibly a solid bite if you didn’t move along fast enough. They seemed to know when they were “on duty”.
The other thing that cracked me up about dogs here is that an unlikely number of them had little stubby legs like corgis!
▼ Look at those little things!
4. Monks with mixed messages
Clearly monks are deeply revered in Lao culture. Buddhism has a long and rich history in Laos and you can’t go far without running into a wat (temple), all of them completely supported by the generosity of the neighborhood. And what’s not to admire? The monks take on a ascetic lifestyle, focusing all their energies on study, prayer and community service.
For a foreigner, this image of the self-sacrificing ascetic seems quite noble, but the reality sometimes jars with the romantic image. Once, while prowling the wats of Luang Prabang, my friend and I rounded a corner to see a young monk, smoking a cigarette and shimmying to music on his very own iPod. Hardly the image of purity and self-negation!
It’s important to remember that, despite the revered place of monks in society, not everyone joins due to some higher calling. For some, it is a temporary arrangement to garner good karma for themselves or their family or to do penance for misdeeds. Most Lao men will enter the monkhood at some point in their lives, prior to a marriage or after the death of a parent, for example. For young men from poorer villages without access to schools, it can be a way to get a free education, which is why Laos has relatively high literacy rate for its level of development.
5. Children, children, everywhere!
Everywhere I went in Laos, from remote jungle villages to the bustling streets of Luang Prabang and everywhere in between, it seemed like there were always hordes of children running hither and thither. Every lady in the market seemed to have a baby strapped to her back, every river seemed to have groups of shrieking, giggling toddlers playing in the shallows, and every road seemed to have packs of school-aged kids on their way to or from class.
Turns out this was not just my imagination. About 35% of the population of Laos is 14 years old or younger, and it has the youngest median age in all of Asia at 19.5 years (2010), far below the worldwide median of 28.4.
6. Multilingual Laos
Laos is incredibly diverse. Ethnic Lao make up slightly more than half of the population, there are Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese minorities, and numerous “hill people” tribes, such as the Hmong, Dao, Shan, Yao and Tibetan-Burmese people. It’s almost shocking how many languages this brings into the mix. Although most of the adult population can speak Lao, it’s not the mother language for many, who grow up speaking minority languages. Add to that regional dialects and some people end up speaking one language at work, one language with a spouse, and yet another when they visit their home village! Somehow they manage without getting things too mixed up, though.
And that’s just the homegrown languages. Laos was once a French colony, so French is still widely used and also taught in schools, but since the country joined ASEAN and the WTO, English has become more common too. Talk about your linguistic melting pots!
7. You can keep your kip
The official currency in Laos is the kip, with an exchange rate of about 8,000 kip to the US dollar at the moment. The combination of those big numbers, some similarly colored denominations and the use of Lao numbers make kip a bit unwieldy for new arrivals. But you might not even see many kip during your travels because most places accept and even prefer other currencies, in particular Thai baht, US dollars and euros! This is technically illegal, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. Even roadside fruit merchants were happy to take my baht.
This can make paying for things a confusing mishmash of currencies and exchange rates. With so many different rates to factor, it’s enough to make your head spin, but the Lao are unwaveringly honest, so there is no need to fear that you are being cheated when they make complex currency transactions faster than you can even find the right bills. In fact, many people give up on trying to follow at all and just open their wallets to let merchants take out the correct amounts. Try that anywhere else in SE Asia!
Have I missed anything you found surprising on your Laotian adventure? If so, tell us in the comments. And if you haven’t been to Laos yet, get moving! It’s a charming place I can’t recommend highly enough. Here are a few more photos to whet your appetite:
▼ A Buddhist wat in Luang Prabang
▼ Gardening Luang Prabang-style
▼ A friendly local “lends a hand” in mounting an elephant
▼ The lovely karst mountains in Nong Khiaw
▼ Ziplining in the jungle
▼ Sunrise in the Bokeo Nature Reserve