In the 1970’s 80% of Laos was covered in jungle and forest. Today it is closer to 40% despite government objectives in their national plan to increase this again. Just 4% is thought to be agricultural though that probably doesn’t include the numerous small holdings that are everywhere. Most Laos people own their land (sort of) and 75 % are self sufficient.
A trip to the countryside from Luang Prabang involved a 4 hour bus ride travelling slowly in the public bus. At 4 euro it cost less than the ride to the bus station and as I arrived early I was allowed to sit in the front with the young monk who was travelling home to see his mum for the first time in three years. Generally one is not allowed to touch monks so he cannot sit in the back with the others but his brother wanted him to practice his English so I got the more comfortable seat.
every where along the road we could see building and new ribbon development, especially just outside the town where there were plenty of fine houses to compete with those we have been building in Ireland. Not so well finished, to be sure, but solid and attractive designs. Certainly not so well furnished, in fact probably no furniture at all which is pretty much like the rural houses.
I’ve been in a few villages now. These houses come in three main materials: teak, bamboo and breeze block with either shredded bamboo leaves on the roof, tiles or corrugated iron. They may be on stilts with underneath used for the animals or storage or they may have breeze block on the ground floor with wood or bamboo for the second floor. Again, no furniture. Not even a bed. Often not even a mattress and if there is anything it will be something like the cushions we put on our garden furniture. but, depending on which tribe you come from there may be a television, generally showing Thai TV. UK noticed the the inside walls of the head man’s house were covered with posters of pretty woman. (Not naked of course. There is one of the shorts, bikinis and bare chests that are everywhere to be seen in Thailand.)
Most villages have at least three different tribes there but the different tribes congregate in their own section and have their own style of house. Generally each family has it’s own house with two or three rooms but some tribes have bigger houses with more than one generation sharing. Family is everything in Laos. Boys are especially tied to their mothers and often send home money if they leave home. Like I said before, the rural economy is largely self sufficient. They will collect food from the forest such as fruit and herbs and grow a range of fruits and vegetables. rice will be grown for home consumption and to sell in the local market.
There is quite a lot of fishing, either with small hand held nets or long nets strung across the river but boats are not needed for this as the river is shallow. There are also many buffalo roaming around (very tough to eat) as well as hogs, goats and the ubiquitous scraggy chicken with her brood behind. I also saw a guy half way up the mountain making charcoal and bamboo, teak and sand and gravel being collected for building materials. There was a young woman learning to weave but I think that was for a shawl as it didn’t look special enough for the tourist trade and there was one guy making Lao spirit, probably also for home as well as local sale.
The main trade where I was staying seemed to be brooms. a variety of pampas grass is collected from the jungle, then dried and tied to a bamboo stick to make a broom.
Not so long ago most of the mountain people were growing opium but the communist government have been quite successful in stopping this. Coffee will often grow in the same parts and many families are relocated to more lowland areas and given a little land. At first the older people resist this but in fact they soon discover that living in a larger group gives the children a chance of education, access to basic healthcare and a few other advantages that they learn to enjoy. the Lao government understands that villages work better than isolated dwellings in most instances, just as Irish planners working with an Taisce’s would promote village life. It is the only chance of providing basic facilities for people. ( they may also need to move mountain people to build dams for hydro electric power for export to China or Thailand and sometimes, because of corrupt practices, the people are not adequately recompensed but generally peoples lives are improved by the move.
Some villages are also picked out for tourism development by a near by travel agent. Mueng Noi shown in the photos was one such town that has been receiving tourists by boat for the past 5 years. Wooden huts with balconies (and bathrooms) have been built with river views. It seems the main thing we tourists require is a hot shower which are generally available even if a bit feeble. It’s a pity we don’t also top a top sheet as most beds only have a synthetic blanket to sleep under, summer and winter alike. Thank goodness I was lent a silk sleeping bag liner to travel with! for food is the lovely Lao food, mainly some sort of vegetable soup with noodles and or chicken, pork or buffalo. Most places also seem to have an Indian restaurant or alternatively every where in Laos tourists can get baguettes. Tourist breakfasts are superb if you like omelettes with baguette and fruit. The Lao people never eat any of this- only rice, or noodles with meat and vegetables. Pretty healthy food really.
With improving education some leave this simple village life altogether and move into the towns for work. This is a global pattern of urbanisation which seems to be the only way providing the material benefits that people seem to want. Most families have a monk in the family (to earn spiritual benefit for the family that will improve their luck) and someone working in the town to send back money.
I’m told you can’t tell poor people that money won’t make them happy but seeing this life style you have to question what is poverty? although I’m sure they exist I haven’t seen people that seem hungry. Nor do they have to work any harder than we do. In fact probably considerably less hard. Those doing physical work of farming (without machinery) or building, take plenty of breaks and work pretty slowly. I’ve heard it said that Vietnamese plant rice, Cambodians watch it grow but Lao people just listen to it grow!
All the children work from the time they can walk but they are working alongside their parents and seem to want to help out. It’s not like slave labour, it’s just fairly natural. they have plenty of time to play too and can often be seen in the water or on their bikes. Young and old children all together, all seem to be nice to each other and you never see children crying or alone. they seem happy. Their parents too have plenty of parties and celebrations and live is very communal. To be alone would not be possible here and they think I am very strange.
I suppose the main problem with such an economy is when something goes wrong like sickness or injury. these people may also be vulnerable to climate change if the river floods, or, as this year, the winter is especially cold and long and people don’t have blankets.
It will be interesting to see how things work out here. Like all of South East Asia the economy is growing fast. I’d say there was a property bubble developing here, especially as so much depends on tourism which can be very fickle. I’m told none of the facilities I am enjoying were here even five years ago and I’d say it will be difficult for tourists to find this simple life style here soon. already they say the beautiful Luang Prabang is Disneyland.
BUT, with 75% self sufficiency, even if that is basic, they might just far better in the face of a global crash. In Ireland we have just 5 days food in the country if communications suddenly fail. maybe I should buy a small place here before the Chinese beat is all to it!