A Country of Extremes: 5 Areas Where Laos is at the Top of the Charts
It’s funny but there are plenty of people in the world who don’t even realize that a country called Laos exists. An isolated landlocked country with a turbulent past, it takes up a small place on the international map and sits on the backseat in international affairs. But those who have actually been here and got to know the place will tell you there is no forgetting it once you’ve been visited—indeed, Laos is a country of extremes that leaves its mark on you forever.
Let’s look at a few interesting characteristics of this tiny, seemingly insignificant country.
1. Most Bombed Country in the World
Sadly, Laos is the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam War, the Laos government played a neutral part but was seen as a threat due to their communist government.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail also passed through one corner of Laos, making that region a specifically sensitive area during the war. So somehow in the big scheme of things, they became the target of a secret war played out by the American military.
Poor ethnic villagers who had nothing to do with the fight (and really nothing to do with the outside world at all) were bombed relentlessly, as if a target for pilots letting out frustration with a war they seemed to be losing. In Vieng Xai, over 23,000 people took refuge in an extensive network of caves.
Many of the bombs still exist today as unexploded ordinance, causing a huge problem for the poor people of Laos. Much of the land cannot be farmed or used at all because no one knows where the unexploded bombs and land mines are, and hundreds die every year, killed by a long past war they never wanted a part of in the first place.
While the world’s miseries aren’t exactly the most tempting aspect of travel, it’s important to visit places like this to understand how policies at home affect the world…and to see how nasty the war machine can be. In this aspect, Laos’ gruesome history is very eye-opening.
2. Most Dangerous Motorbike Conditions
Another extreme for Laos is the dangerous motorbike conditions; the country has one of the highest rates of annual motorcycle deaths in the world. Again, this isn’t exactly the kind of thing that will bring you running for a visit, but don’t let it concern you too much—just realize the risks you take if you decide to drive a bike in-country.
Never drive at night, as road conditions can be horrible and drivers quite wasted. If you drive in the daytime, be extremely cautious and don’t ever be one of those wasted drivers.
Laos is the most ethnically diverse country on the Southeast Asian mainland, with 49 different ethnicities and more than 160 different ethnic groups. There are more than 80 distinct languages spoken throughout the country even today, creating a cultural smorgasbord for anthropology enthusiasts.
Many of these groups live the same way they have been living for thousands of years, and there are multiple programs set up with the intent to preserve these cultures and put tourist dollars back into their communities so they are not completely destroyed by the rapid pace of globalization.
Try visiting the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang to find out more about the different ethnic groups in Laos.
4. One of the 10 Poorest Countries in the World
Laos is among the poorest nations of the world, and while the capital city holds potential for living like a king on very little, most of the country’s citizens live in extreme poverty. Most Lao citizens survive on subsistence farming. Another issue with the unexploded ordinance mentioned before is the black market for scrap metal, which leads to poor villagers taking the risk of playing with bombs as they dig any and all metal they can find out of the ground.
This is another reason to bring your cash into Laos—not only does your dollar go a very long way towards a comfortable stay but the people need your money. Avoid giving money to the children begging on the street though; it teaches them to ask for handouts from foreigners rather than making it themselves.
The exception here is when you see victims of unexploded ordnance hobbling down the street with missing limbs. The programs for helping these kinds of people still have a ways to go, and for some there is little other option, so I always give them a spare couple thousand kip or so.
Donating to local organizations is perhaps an even better way to help out. Or, if you’ve got the ambition, consider building a business in Laos that provides jobs and catch on to the momentum of a developing country.
5. One of the Most Biologically Diverse Places on the Planet
Laos is a biologist’s dream come true. In fact, every few years or so, it seems another animal once thought extinct is found roaming the mountains or rivers of this wild country—some as large as the rediscovered warty pig. Other large mammals like the saola deer and the giant-antlered muntjak are being found for the first time ever.
The government is keen on protecting this resource and has designated 20 national Biodiversity Protection Areas, making up of 12% of the country’s land mass. One of these regions, Nakai-Nam Theun, is considered the world’s foremost important biodiversity conservation area.
As they say, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for extremes of culture and nature in Laos—the more you learn about this country, the more fascinating it reveals itself to be. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in the mountains, villages, and the capital, I can honestly say there is a surprise around every single corner.