Made in Laos – Land of One Million Elephants

John: “What do you want to do today?”

Me: “I want to go see elephants.”

John: “Huh? Elephants? What do you mean?”

Me: (Speaking Lao and using my arm as a trunk extending from my nose making elephant noises.) “Yes, you know, elephants?”

John: “Oh, elephants.” (Perplexed)

Me: “Have you seen one before?”

John: “Only once.”

My cousin John was wondering if I was crazy. He had never heard that request before. I was wondering if he ever heard about the nickname of Laos. For all I remember, Laos was known as the “Land of One Million Elephants.”

When I was young, my mom would tell me stories about elephants among many tales. One of my favorite tales was about a mystical boogeyman that lived high on top of the coconut trees. He would drop his head to scare folks walking by and take their souls. My mom told me how scarce clean drinking water was and that when I was a toddler I contaminated our family’s supply. My mom was furious knowing my grandmother would scold her, but was very forgiving because my response to my action was, “Mom, I am cleaning my hands.” Then there were the daily reminders to finish eating our food. I was always told to me grateful that we have food and that the people in Laos would be so happy to have what we have because they were poor and could not afford a sufficient serving. Every night, my mother would hug me and share these stories. She would end every night with a message and she would always be crying – “Son, I want you to grow up strong, do well in school, and one day return to help the people of Laos.” It was the cement that laid my foundation. It will stay with me forever and is the force that drives me.

I finally made it to the “Land of One Million Elephants.” I didn’t find one million elephants. Yet, what I found was a land beyond my expectations. To understand the land, it was helpful for me to take a step back and look at it through the eyes of historians.

In case you are wondering about the nickname, Laos was once ruled by a great monarchy. In its height of its glorious empire, Laos was called, “Lan Xang.” This reflected the powerful army that was able to conquer much of what is known today as Southeast Asia. In the late 1800’s, the French became a major influence and stakeholder of Laos. France was looking to extend its imperialistic ambition and quickly established control in Laos, bringing the country much needed development.

(In modern day history, Laos is known as the most bombed nation with over 2,000,000 bombing incidents during the Vietnam War.)

What France discovered was a weaken empire torn by internal conflicts from the royal family. At the time, the current ruling party was unable to maintain its power and control. Laos was quickly losing its land and identity. Without the insurgence of French diplomacy and military, Laos would have become a part of Thailand. As a result of the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, Siam (Thailand) had to cede its claim on Laos.

The French would continue to influence the growth and development of Laos heading into the 20th century. Laos was still governed by monarchy. Reading through the history anecdotes, it became apparent to me that a consistent behavior dominated the governance of Laos.  The monarchy was always at battle with itself. This was the case in the mid 1900’s as three princes wielded their conflicting authority on Laos. With the Cold War underway and the rise of communism in Vietnam, these factors would lead to another historical transformation of the region.

By 1975, it was evident that Communist Party’s rise in power in Vietnam would cause a domino effect in Southeast Asia. The Pathet Lao army won the Laotian Civil War sending about 10% of its population seeking refuge with surrounding countries, mainly Thailand. The monarchy was abdicated. Much of the country’s intellectual elitist escaped to other nations in fear of the rising communist regime.  Those loyal to the monarchy were sent to labor camps and re-educated including all members of the royal family. The aftermath of these events left Laos in worse shape and Laos soon became one of the poorest nations in the world which it still remains today.

This snapshot of the history of Laos and the anecdotes from my family influenced my perception of Laos. I had a vision of Laos as an impoverish land where children would beg for food, where houses were built on bamboo stilts, where oxen would cart passengers and cargo, where water be gathered from a well, where public restrooms reflect outhouses, where food would be served by unsanitary methods, where schools lack electricity and supplies, and well, you get the picture.

Isn’t this what a third world country supposed to look like? I mean, even the World Bank deems Laos as one of the poorest countries in the world that desperately need capital infrastructure to improve living conditions. The GDP and Per Capita Income ranks among the lowest in the world. The data I collected affirmed my beliefs as I started to my trip. I was ready to experience poverty at its worst.

After a few days exploring Bangkok and Nongkhai, Thailand, I was set to cross the Friendship Bridge into Vientiane, Laos. I was minutes away from finally reaching my birth place. Thailand was an experience of luxury. I stayed at a very posh and upscale hotel. I attended a beautiful and elegant Thai wedding at a 5 star hotel. I was ready to give up the luxury and experience poverty. I was ready to immerse myself onto this sacred land and understand what it is to be “Made in Laos.”

(Beautiful sunset over the Mekong River, viewed from Nongkhai, Thailand. Across the way is Vientiane, Laos. click to image to enlarge view)

We waited for our van at the customs control center in Nongkhai. After waiting longer than expected, our driver greeted us and we finished our Visa process. We were now ready to cross the Mekong River. I quickly thought about that night my family had to cross this exact river to Thailand some 30 years ago. I could imagine the fear my mom and dad must have experienced. How long did it take them to cross over? Where were the soldiers who fired at our boat? Where did our boat tip over? Where did I sink to the bottom? What was my parents feeling when I sank to the bottom? How long was I in the water? When did the sky open up for the green giant to descend from the heavens to pick me from the bottom of the river and place me safely on shore? Wow, this story felt so real. I wished I had a time machine to watch the events transpire. I felt so close to it all as we drove over the Mekong. A rush of emotions circulated through me. My life flashed before me and I was thankful for my parent’s courage to take the leap of faith and risk their lives for my future. I was given a gift. Was it by design? I let a great surge of love flow within me. I was more eager to finally set foot on this land.

As we crossed over the bridge, my heart was beating with excitement. I was now officially in Laos. I started looking around and something just didn’t feel right. What I saw rattled my mind. There were gorgeous and enormous houses along the country road. (Oh, the road was paved. I don’t know why this surprised me so much. I was expecting a gravel dirt road.) There were luxury cars racing pass us. Lexus, Mercedes, Hummer… where exactly am I? As we approached “downtown” Vientiane, I saw modern buildings, shopping centers, restaurants, luxurious hotels, landmarks, and like a page out of the Industrial Age, I saw massive construction projects everywhere.

As far as my eyes can stretch, there was a tremendous flux of activity. People were everywhere. Old women would carry garments and fruits to sell. Monks stood out from the crowd in their golden orange attire. Expats and tourists moved slowly with their cameras ready to point and click at the next point of interest. Traffic was a circus caravan of hundreds of motorcycles, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, cargo trucks, bicycles, and oddly enough, animals. Yes, dogs, chickens, oxen, and buffaloes commanded their own right of way. This was by far the most distinguishing aspect of this “impoverish land” so far. Was I in Vientiane? My mind battled itself trying to sort out what was real and what I wanted to be real.

Finally, turn after turn, I leaned back on my seat. It set in. Laos was not the poor country I thought it would be. Whatever I thought coming in was quickly debunked. It was modern and vibrant. There was a pulse about the city that stirred my curiosity. How was all this possible? How did all these businesses make money? Who owned all these cars? How did they pay for them? Where are all these people moving to? How many restaurants were there? Which ones were the best? How chaotic can traffic really be? How could parents put children on a motorcycle? Are there any traffic laws? How was the night life scene? Where can I get coconut juice? Why were there so many schools? Were all the stories I heard true? Is there a striving middle class? How can dogs roam the streets freely? Do they have rabies? Is the boogeyman real? What tree can I find him in? Where are the elephants? Like a swarm of bees, hundreds of questions buzzed my head. I was ready to explore it all.

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During my three weeks in Laos, I was able to experience the best of Vientiane. My trip was full of restaurants, hotel hopping, coffee shops, fashion boutiques, shopping malls, street markets, tourist attractions, and nightlife spots. I did what a tourist was supposed to plus more. While staying at my grandparents, I was able to experience the typical day-to-day life of a Laotian. This gave me a taste of what life really was like since I was removed from the hotels and tourist areas.

Each day presented new lessons as I would freely ask anyone who would listen about Laos. I would ask about everything. How do people make money? How much money do they make? How can they afford living on such low incomes? How was Laos five years ago? Ten years ago? What do you expect Laos to look like in five years? Ten years? How did children get to school? Why are there so many schools? Where are the growth opportunities? How long does it take to construct buildings? Why does it take so long? How much does it costs to build a house? How do people afford homes? Do you have mortgages? How does credit work? Why are there so many restaurants? How do they compete? How is the healthcare system? Why is there a shortage of doctors? And of course, where are the elephants? My inquisitive mind wanted knowledge.

I was extremely happy that my questions were met with open ears. Lao people were happy to discuss the progress of Vientiane and Laos. It was an exciting time for them. The air was buzzing with the prospects of advancement and growth. Laos, for the most part, was growing and poised to accelerate and catch up to the modern world.

Indeed, this is a transformational period for the people of Laos. The “Land of One Million Elephants” was embarking on its own journey. With the blessing of the policy makers, Laos is done being a “landlocked” nation. It was time to be a “land-linked” nation. If there was one lesson that Laos can learn from its past, now would be the time to revive and rally the mystical elephants from the shadows and storm ferociously into the future.

I left feeling so full and yet, empty. On one hand, I discovered a lot about my origin and ethnicity. To finally step on the land fulfilled a life long journey to return to my birthplace. I left with an abundance of knowledge. It is this abundance that leaves me empty. Where to go from here? Having awareness of the current conditions of Laos, how was I going to do my part to help grow the country?  My only answer is that my first leg of my journey has completed. It’s time to continue to the next chapter and contribute to the future of the “Land of One Million Elephants.”

Below is a summary of the “Laosy Guy’s” observations on the “Land of One Million Elephants”:

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Living the High Life, Missing the Real Life – Looking back, I have realized that a lot of what I have learned about Laos was singular in perspective. I spent the majority of my time in a metropolitan area. For the most part, I lived the city life. I enjoyed all the comforts of the “big city.” As enjoyable as it was, I understand that I have not experience life beyond the city limits in terms of geography and most importantly, intellectual thought. I have learned from my discussions with several people that poverty is a major issue and the further away you travel from the “big city,” the more evident it is. Rural Laos is stricken with impoverish conditions. Children lack resources. Their parents are too poor to send them to school and often, too poor to pay for basic needs. This is where you would find families scraping for food and water. It saddens me that I did not get an opportunity to make a trip to the countryside. It was rainy season and my family did not want me to take a trip along the roads. They feared for my safety and health. In hindsight, I agree with them. I wasn’t fully prepared to make such a trip. I didn’t have enough days set aside for the trip. Had I gone, I would be rushing my experience. I can only hope and pray that the buzz and excitement of growth is as vibrant in rural Laos as it is in Vientiane. My heart tells me that rural Laos needs more development and resources. I plan to make a trip backpacking the countryside on my next journey to Laos to fully understand life and see poverty firsthand.

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“If you build it, he will come.” – Nothing like stealing a line from one of my favorite movies, “Field of Dreams.” If you have seen the movie, then you know the meaning of this famous quote. In Laos, the voice of change has resonated to all those who are listening. Excitement is buzzing. Why? For many years following the establishment of the communist party, Laos depended on foreign aid money to help build and develop the infrastructure. The 80’s and 90’s relied heavily on international aid funds. Just recently, the policy makers came to realize that their policies stifled the economic growth of Laos. They have changed their course of action and have established new policies to open Laos to a broader international capital market. The most significant outcome of this newly found policy is the establishment of The Laos Stock Exchange, scheduled to open this October. This will be a monumental movement for a country that has historically kept secretive in its dealings and operations to the outside world. The Laos Stock Exchange will promote transparency and shift the commercial and financial culture of Laos. If The Laos Stock Exchange can do what the Vietnam exchange has done, then you can understand why everyone in Vientiane is excited about the capital infrastructure and development of the country. When Vietnam launched its bourse in 2000, the initial market capitalization was $43 million. Today, the Vietnamese bourse is valued at $33 billion. This is also a sign that Laos will move closer to a capitalist market. Whether or not it adopts the capitalist principles fully, it is a move in the right direction for the people. Indeed, this is a transformational period for the region.

Modern Mystique – I think the true beauty of Laos is the land as it is today. It was amazing to feel the modern luxuries of life and at the same time, experience an ancient land. At the same token, Vientiane was also an example of the East meets the West. A quick look at the landscape of Laos, you can actively take in a history lesson dating back centuries to the modern time. In Laos, some things never grow out of style and remain in place. Farmers still use water buffaloes to cultivate the rice paddies. Construction crews still rely on bamboo stilts to support the structural framework. You would figure that in the age of technology, that people around the world would somehow adopt new processes for improved efficiencies and production. Laos might be the exception to this rule. I always wondered how it would feel to live in ancient times and lands. In Laos, I was able to see how life might have been centuries ago.  I hope that it stays like this as long as it can. I hear Laos is full of beautiful waterfalls and majestic caves. There is more to be discovered and I am ready to unlock all the treasures.

Next in this series – “Made in Laos – Sabaidee! The Lao People”

(Ha! I found an elephant. Hopefully, my next trip I will be riding a REAL one.)

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