Laos – from A to Z

A as in ASEAN

The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was founded in 1967 and can be compared to the European Union. Similar to the EU with the years the cooperation got stronger and stronger.

In 2004 Vientiane was the hosts city for the yearly ASEAN summit.  To host all the delegates a huge hotel- and conference complex was built at the Mekong promenade near the city centre. These buildings determine the cityscape today, though most of the Hotels and apartments are empty.

In 2016 the Asian Economic Community (AEC) was founded. It provides a shared home market of the ASEAN states and also common standards for schools in all the member states were enacted. The AEC will probably have a huge impact on the education in Laos.

 

 

Laotian Flag and hammer and sickle near the place the ASEAN summit was located

 

B as in Buddhism

Majority of the Laotians follow the Theravada-Buddhism, which is the most common Buddhist school in South-East Asia. Other elements influencing the faith are pre-Buddhist elements like animism and believe in ghosts, which are now part of the religious belief.

Religion is omnipresent in Laos, as there are temples (Laotian: Wats) and monks in their striking orange garments in nearly every village and little houses (Lao: Ho-Phi) for ghosts standing in front of many houses preserving sacrificial offerings to the ghosts.
(Source for more information: Deutsch-Laotische Gesellschaft)

 

 

C as in Children

Like many other development countries Laos is also a very young county. More than 50 percent of the population is under 24 years old. Children are the future of the country and that is why our foundation wants to provide better chances for the future of these children. But regular public schools often offer no good education and private schools are much too expensive for a big part of the population.
Many children who don’t live near touristic attractions or places are very shy when they first get in contact with foreigners. When they lose their fear they are very open and friendly. In the schools a visitor can experience the vitality, curiosity, openness and fun in every game among each other but also with farangs (lao for non (remove – not) Asian people, means something like long nose).

 

 

D as in Deutschland (Germany)

Germany is besides France the most important trading partner and at the same time major money donator for Laos. As there was a strong connection between GDR and Laos many Laotian people came to the GDR to study or for apprenticeships the Federal Republic of Germany could affiliate to that in the 1990s.
The German embassy in Vientiane was formerly the embassy of the GDR. The Lao Technical School, a College, which trains young Laotians since more than 50 years successful is also supported by the Germans. There is also a German department at the University of Vientiane which focuses on German tourists and supports rural development and climate and economic projects.

(Source and more information: Federal Foreign Office)

 

 

E as in Elephants

Laos is also known as the country of a million elephants. The number of wild animals is constantly decreasing during the last years as the logging of the rainforest continues. Though the elephants are still used as sloggers in the forest and superior to machines in areas which are difficult to reach. They are like family members to their mahout as they have a strong connection: the mahout has to know (remove – a) his animal very well (remove – good) to move securely several tons of trunks. Since the opening of the country in the 1990s the animals also became a popular tourist attraction, in Luang Prabang and in Vang-Vieng  there are a lot of offerors of elephant trekking.

 

 

F as in France

Since 1893 Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia built the French colony of Indochina until it became independent in 1949. During nearly 50 years of colonialism the French influence remained low, but some remedies of this time are still visible in the country, like the buildings in colonial style (mainly in Luang Prabang), or that some institutions are named in French like the Ministry of Energy “Electricite du Laos” or the white bread which can be bought nearly everywhere in contrast to the neighbour country Thailand. One can meet people who speak French as they worked in the French administration. Economically Laos was never at any interest for France as their plan to find a navigable route up the Mekong to China failed due to the many waterfalls and rapids.

 

 

G as in “Gemütlichkeit” (easy-going)

The easy-going mentality of the Lao people is characteristic for the country. Carpe diems seems to be most people’s life moto and the government has the same attitude. If a public holiday is on a Saturday or Sunday the day before or after is free instead. The Laotian people do everything a bit slower, rush and hastiness are not very often to be seen.  Because of the humid and hot climate it is not possible to work like Middle-Europeans are used to. The work is spread about the whole day from the morning to the evening and sometime also to the next day.

 

 

H as in Hmong

The Hmong originate from China and are the biggest ethnic minority mainly in the north of Laos, but also in Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. They mostly preserved their cultural identity that’s why they can be identified easily on their clothes, often black with colourful detailing and a characteristic hat. The main part of the Hmong lives of agriculture in the mountainous north, where they grow tea, rice and coffee. The Hmong were known for being ambitious, saving, frugal and studious. For a long time, the standing of the Hmong in Laos was very bad as they collaborated in the Vietnam war and in the following civil war against the government, since some years the relations normalized.

 

 

 

I as in Infrastructure

Laos has a countrywide road network, but some parts of it don’t even earn the name “street” (compared with the European standard). That’s why everything takes more time. Even with a modern travelling bus a 400km drive from Vientiane to Luang Prabang takes ten to twelve hours. Mainly in the mountainous north you need much patience as in the rainy season strong showers can lead to land sliding and streets can become impassable.
At the same time you have to drive very cautious as streets are not always very busy but the truck drivers drive very fast or motorbikes pass by before a sharp curve.  As foreigner you are first shocked realizing that the rules of road traffic are different, even if there are signs and traffic lights mostly it counts you is faster (not sure what this sentence is trying to say  – sorry). You have to get used to this changed rules and the chaos and at some point the feeling for the traffic and the rules you know of Germany step behind and you become part of the alert scooter driving mass.

 

 

 

J as in Jackfruit

The Jackfruit is probably the most spectacular fruit you can find in Laos. It grows on trees, and can become as big as a medicine ball. That’s why there are signs warning of down falling fruits in public parks. The jackfruit is used in South-East-Asian cooking, but you can also eat it rare, the inner is shaped like huge grains of maize and tastes sweet.

 

 

 

K as in Khop Chai

Khop Chai means Thank you, while Khop Chai Lai Lai or Kho Chai Deu are especially polite forms to say thank you. Besides Sabaidee (Hallo) Khop Chai is the word a tourist will learn first. If you are really thankful, you hold your hands together in front of the chest and bow when you thank the counterpart.
One of the most popular restaurants for tourists is also called Khop Chai Deu.

 

 

 

L as in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the capital city of the old kingdom and until 1975 it has also been the capital of Laos. The city lies picturesque in the mountainous north right next to the Mekong river. The city is unique in the country because of the many temples and the charm(e) of French colonial architecture.
Since 1995 Lauang Prabang is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and attracts thousands of tourists  every year. A wide range of accommodations from backpacker hostels to luxury hotels can be found in Luang Prabang. Also the offered food varies largely: there is the typical Asian street food but also French gourmet restaurants. You can ride on an elephant and also take part in the Gibbon Experience, a tree house complex in the tree tops of the tropical forests which can only be reached by using a large ropeway. The vicinity of Luang Prabang with waterfalls and limestone caves impresses with its naturalness and its unspoiled state.

 

 

 

M as in Mekong

The river Mekong is the lifeline of South-East Asia. It flows through the whole length of Laos and is therefore a natural boarder to the Western neighbour Thailand until it separates into the delta Si Phan Don and flows further to Cambodia. In the dry season this region is also called Fourthousand Islands, as many small islands, often not much bigger than a tree or a bush, emerge due to the lower water level.
The river which arises in Tibet gets its characteristic brown colour in the rainy season as washed earth gets into the water. Between June and October the Mekong river swells to an enormous size.  Besides the meaning for agriculture the Mekong also supports economic growth as more and more barrages emerges. That is why Laos is also called the battery South-East Asia. The won energy is main export product of Laos, mainly sold to Thailand. But missing water leads to tensions with the neighbour states Cambodia and Vietnam as they get less water.

 

 

N as in Nature

Laos offers several different landscapes, the cool and mountainous north and the hot and flat south. The highest mountain is Phiu Bia which is 2800m high and lies north of Vientiane. A huge part of Laos is determined by mountains which is the reason why many villages are difficult to reach, but you get rewarded by the magnificent and often untouched landscape. Especially the limestone rocks around Vang Vieng attrack many tourists. Everyone who travels in Laos for a longer time will probably find his own attractions which have a huge impact on the charm of the country.

 

 

O as in Organic Fruits and Vegetables

As there are only rainy season and dry season in Laos and not four seasons like in Europe and the temperature is rarely under degrees (besides the high lands), the whole year different fruits and vegetables are in season. For example, when there is melon season the farmers around Vientiane put all their harvest on a truck and go to the city to stay there until they sold all of the melons. Bananas can be bought and also picked fresh from the tree whole year. They are smaller as the ones from South America and you can taste that they are grown locally.

 

 

P as in Pi Mai Lao

Pi Mai Lao (also called feast of the water) is Lao New Year. It takes place from the 14th to the 16th of April and is probably the biggest festivity in the whole year. During this time the country is in an euphoric state. You celebrate the new year and literally wash of the old one. In the beginning this was a ritual gesture, today it changed to a countrywide water hose fight, where people celebrate on the street and hose everybody who passes with water. The means range from a small water pistol to huge water barrels.
But Pi Mai Lao is more than a hose fight for what it is mainly seen by tourists. New Year celebration is a time for family and friends and a time of New Year’s resolutions. Many Laotian people take off time to visit family members who live far away.
Before such a trip and in general before somebody goes on a journey a Baci Ceremony takes place, in which luck and healthiness for the journey and the new year are requested. On the holidays you eat and drink together, similar to Germans during the Christmas holidays.

 

 

Students in Ban Sikeud on Pi Mai Lao: Many people wear colourful clothes during these days and mainly the children have fun at the hose fights, which is very refreshing by constant 35 degrees at the end of the dry season

 

Q as in Quality Goods

Products which have a very high quality and uniqueness is woodwork in all sizes. Mainly in Vientiane and in Luang Prabang you can find some stores which sell elephant statues, huge dining tables, vases and a lot more made out of massive wood. Mainly carving work out of tropical trees’ root wood are really impressing. The material for these can often be seen on new building land.

 

 

 

R as in Rice

Rice is as in any South-East-Asian country the main dish. Rice is eaten at every day time, it is even normal to eat rice and also soup for breakfast. Many Laotian people, also the ones who live near the city, still grow rice on their own fields. As the climate stays permanently warm you can harvest two times a year without any problems. Sticky rice which is in Germany not very well known is mostly eaten. It is formed to little balls with the hands and is eaten without any cutlery. Similar to lunch boxes in Europe, in Laos there are round baskets made out of palm leafs in all sizes in which the sticky rice is kept.

 

 

S as in Sekap Takraw

Probably the most popular sport in Laos and one of the most popular in South-East-Asia. It is very impressive to be seen for not Asian people. Sekap Takraw is a mixture of soccer and volleyball. In the game three people play against another team of three people. Every team has to bring the hollow ball which is as big as a handball over a net which is 1,50 metres high. For this they only have three contacts with the ball. It is allowed to use every part of the body, except the arms. As a playground nearly every underground is functioning, as the game is played with shoes, flip-flops or barefoot. The game requests a lot of agility, as the ball is made of soft plastic (originally made out of braided withies) it takes some practice. On YouTube there is videos showing how Asian teams play final games which are full of action and acrobatic.

 

 

T as in Tradition and Modernity

These opposites can be found more and more in Laos, mainly in the cities, with Vientiane leading the way. As the economic expansion in the last years was about 7 to 9 percent, Laos is one of the fastest growing national economies. An expansion which can mainly be seen in the growing disparity.  A bright red Mercedes cabriolet next to a typical tuk-tuk motorbike taxi in a communistic country shows boldly the new Laos. After the highly isolated country opened more and more in the 90’s and the influence from the outside got bigger you can observe the changes on every street in Vientiane. It seems as if there are construction zones everywhere: car dealerships, banks, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls pop up after Vientiane awoke from a deep slumber.

 

 

U as in UXO (Unexploded Ordnance)

A sad chapter of Laotian history is the Vietnam war which took place from 1964 to 1973. Even if Laos was never an active part in the conflict, it suffered immensely from it.  To interrupt supplies on the so called Ho-Chi-Minh path from North to South Vietnam, which lay on the border between Laos and Vietnam, the US air force started bombardments on Laos. During the whole time the bombardment was expanded and about 300 million explosive devices were dropped on Laos. About 80 million of these unexploded bombs remained behind. Mainly the population in East-Laos is still suffering because of this. Again and again big and small bombs are found. Men, women and children walk into them or children play with them until they explode and mutilate the victim.
This lethal “resource” is a macabre source of income as people search for it with unprofessional devices to sell scrap metal. These remains can be seen everywhere in the country, big bomb cases become boars or feeding troughs for animals, smaller parts are melted down and cutlery or jewellery are made out of it.

 

 

V as in Vientiane

With more than 350 000 inhabitants Vientiane is by far the biggest city of Laos. Since the revolution in 1975 it is the capital and builds the political heart of the country. In the city there are many ministries, embassies and museums, and the presidential palace, next to Wat Sisaket and Wat Ho Pha Keo, two well preserved temples. Though the political takeover of the communistic party in 1975 Religion has still a huge impact. That is why Vientiane has two landmarks: the Patuxai (lao: Gate of victory) which resembles the French Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which should remind of the independence from the French in 1975. The other landmark is the Pha That Luang (lao: big Stupa) a Buddhist stupa, which is the national symbol of Laos and can be found on every banknote and also in the national coat of arms.

 

 

W as in Women’s clothing

Lao women of all ages and social classes wear the traditional Lao “Sinh”. It can be found in many different colours and with even more different patterns. Often the Sinhs are woven, sometimes also stitched and due to modern times some are produced by machinery. That explains why the price range is huge. A Sinh can cost about 100 000 Kip (12 Euros) but also several million Kips. On special occasions like weddings, women wear a matching blouse to the Sinh.  Often Sinh and blouse are in the same colour. But in Laos the Sinh is not just reserved for special occasions, it’s also everyday wear. Lao women often combine a Sinh with sport shirts. Also the school uniform for teachers and for pupils consists of a Sinh and a matching blouse.

 

X as in Xieng Khuan

Xieng Khuan, also called Buddha Park, is located 25 km outside of Vientiane. The park consists of many cement statues of Buddhist or Hinduist mythology. It’s a popular attraction for locals. Tourists do not come here very often, that is why a visit is always something special. In 1958 the park was constructed by monks, today it has the atmosphere of a derelict temple complex. Directly at the entrance there is a three-floored building which looks like a pumpkin. The floors symbolize hell, earth and heaven. Who ascends through the narrow and dusty inside the roof can see the above the whole park. Also impressive is the 40-metre-long sculpture of a lying Buddha. In total you can find nearly 200 sculptures in different sizes.

 

 

Y as in Yao, Khamou and Akha

Though Laos just has about 7 million inhabitants it has a huge ethnic diversity, about 50 different ethnic groups life in the country which has the size of about two thirds of Germany. The seclusion of many regions and villages, mainly in the mountainous north of the country are the reason why ethnicities like Yao, Khamou or Akha, besides the Hmong the hugged ethnic groups in the country, can preserve most of their culture and lifestyle.  Laos is a multi-ethnic state in which a lot of different languages are spoken, not all ethnicities speak the official language Lao, what makes it mainly difficult for schools to provide homogeneous education.

 

Different ethnic groups in Phongsaly province. The ethnicities do not only differentiate in clothing, but also in language and culture. Source