1.5 Laos – Things I learnt about Laos

It was good to walk faceless and talk to myself again, to ask where I was going, and who I was, and to realize that I had no idea, that all I could tell you was my name, and not my heritage; my daily schedule for the next week, and not the reason for it; my plans for the summer, and not the purpose I had whittled out for my life. — Sylvia Plath

I ended school far earlier than I’d expected. The last comms class was cancelled, and I had more than a week to spare. More than a week! What a rare treat this will be in the future. I looked at the map and thought about the gaps in my Geographical Imagination, where I lacked an understanding about.

Capital of Laos: Vientiane
Currency: Lao kip (K). 1usd ~ 8000kip

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1. Laos is considered a Communist country.
There’s only 5 Communist countries left in the world – China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos
Before my trip I was trying to understand how Laos was Communist, and was confused between Marxism / Socialism / Communism 
I’m still not completely sure, but I asked my host if Laos was considered a Communist state (and you see the red flag hanging around the cities) and why
Economically they operate in a free-market system. Politically, there’s no elections political party espouses the ideals of Communism

2. Laos – ‘everyone in Laos knows Thai’
Someone said that, and Wikipedia confirmed the similarity between the two languages. Seems like it’s easier for Laotians to learn Thai, but not so easy the other way round. Other than the linguistic similarity, the economic relationship with Thailand is also evident from the Thai products / imports- seems like there’s a preference for their products, and the TV shows, the food they cook at home are also Thai-related / Thai-styles. Similar to Kampong Luong in Cambodia. Seems like Thailand has pretty strong economic/cultural influence within these borders. 

3. No Macdonalds, no Starbucks 
Instead, they have ‘joma cafe’, similar premium-style coffee

4. Laos is a Buddhist country-
My host says that every men in Laos ‘has to be monks before they die’ (could be subjected to his own opinion/stance), which I was very surprised about. You could choose from 1 week to 3 months or more, not necessarily a lifelong decision. 
Reasons: Everyone has to be monks to show respect to parents / thank parents for giving birth to them, raising them (if you don’t become a monk, it suggests a lack of respect / lack of filial piety) 

Another reason could be the fact that they come from poor families. As the monks have government-sponsored monk schools (where they study a range of subjects, including Sanskrit – my host studied Sanskrit for awhile) so the people from poor families can then send their children to school, even up to University for free. 

Also they have to be tmonks / nuns for a day when the family or relatives pass away (funerals) to help out, though nuns don’t need to shave 

This was probably one of the more curious and surprising things for me.

5.  Laos isn’t exactly cheaper than Thailand
In fact, many backpackers I met highlighted their surprise at the prices in Laos. I mean, considering our (my) geographical imagination. The meals on even streetside stalls are about 10-15k kip, and seems to be 20-25k kip on average. My host say that this could be because they have to import everything – the sauces, raw materials etc except some that they can plant. Also, the potholes on the road makes the transport cost in land-locked Laos more expensive in terms of the transport (import) cost.

What i wrote when i went back to Thailand on the last day:
‘Actually, Thailand does feel cheaper.. I don’t know. In Laos meals at its cheapest cost 15k kip ~ 2usd, these are more of the street stalls, local eateries. If not, general prices are 25k kip. Drinks and snacks – about 10k for touristy places. No 7-11 that I saw.. Not as prevalent as in Thailand.’

Thailand a meal costs maybe 3SGD at the food court? 2+ at the streetside stalls?

Key aspects of economy: 

Electricity – electrical powerhouse of SEA, with their dam-building projects. My readings have highlighted the controversies generated from the dam-building projects. I asked what he thought about it, and he said, if it benefits him, he’ll be happy. If it doesn’t then whatever, it’s fine too. 

Export coffee, rice? 
Teachers earn like USD$200 a month? :/ 

Abortion illegal 
Driving license… Erm buy your way 

I climbed onto the upper bunk bed: seat 13B. As people continued to board the bus, I lie on the pillow and squash myself against the window, wondering who’s going to lie next to me for the next 10 hours in this tiny bed. This man glances over for a moment, then passes. Then another. A lady eventually places her shoes next to mine, and I smile with some sort of relief. As the bus tumbles towards Vientiane, our arms touch; she shifts and I try to move closer to the right, but I can budge an inch no more. We try to fall asleep to the rocking rhythm of the night. 

In fact, I think one of the scariest parts of taking the overnight train is wondering who the heck is gonna be sleeping next to you on this bed. 

Oh I think they do assign females with females. But what about fat people…

Now, I lie in the darkness as the bus zooms crazily down the road. I try to sleep as we ride over potholes, and I can’t help giggling as the French girls next to me do the same. The bus SWAYS to the side, and my mind flashes back to La Paz. Goodnight…… I hope. 

Girl turns to me: where are you from? 
Me: Singapore 
Girl: are there buses like this in Singapore?
Me: no, no way. 
We laugh, as the bus continues swaying and speeding down the road.
Me: I hope we get there safely. 
We burst into laughter again.

Last day when I returned to Thailand:

 After so many nights, I FINALLY get to lie on a bed that doesn’t move. I get to curl up and read – FINALLY. 
(appreciation for smooth roads – greatly amplified over the week)

Good morning Bangkok! I am pleasantly surprised when I hear ‘sawadee’ instead of ‘sabaidee’. Instead of khup jai, I say khup khun ka.

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