26.03.2008 - 28.03.2008
Any country that calls itself a people’s democratic republic probably isn’t democratic, and Laos has been a one-party state since 1975. As in China and Vietnam, political opposition and free speech are not tolerated. As in China and Vietnam, private property is permitted and, economically, anything goes.
As we travelled through Pak Beng, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, there was no evidence at all that we were in a one-party state. Even the policemen seemed relatively benign.
Communism arrived in Vientiane, but we had to go looking for it. The first floor of the Revolutionary Museum is made up of a permanent collection of photographs and objects from the various wars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They provoked a pleasant nostalgia for the language of Soviet Russia. The grammar was similar: no reference to the US was complete without the stock epithet ‘imperialist’; any Lao on the side of the Royal Lao Government or the US was a ‘puppet’ or a ‘lackey’. Members of the communist movement, the Pathet Lao, were referred to as Comrade X or, occasionally, Hero Y.
The images were similar, too. There was a sculpture of a military hero looking uncannily like a Transformer. There were the familiar posters of Marx and Lenin, together with unfamiliar (to me) posters of Ho Chi Minh and Kaysone, the fat thug who became the PM after the 1975 revolution. Mao did not get a mention. In other rooms were photos of factories and dams. It was exactly what you would want of a revolutionary museum.
Given that the Lao PDR has normalised trading relations with the US, is a member of ASEAN and wants to be a member of the WTO, the propaganda could do with an update.
It was good to be amused by the captions, because if they had told it straight the story would have been too tragic to bear. The population of Laos fell from three million to two million between 1960 and 1970. Of the two million remaining, one third were displaced within the country. Schooling stopped. The US spent $2m a day, on average, bombing the PL and Viet Cong over a nine-year period. They dropped two million tons of ordnance. Much of this did not explode, and it still kills and maims children as it ignites 40 years too late. (There is a BBC Radio documentary on he subject here.)
If they failed to find their target, bombers were instructed to jettison their payloads before landing. Thus the US routinely bombed what would have been their allies, had the US ever possessed the candour to declare that it was at war in Laos. They also dropped huge amounts of napalm to defoliate the cover for the Ho Chi Minh trail (which is partly in Laos).
The communist atmosphere stepped up once we arrived in Lak Sao, on the border with Vietnam. Lak Sao is a new town, or model town. It has a population of 50,000, most of whom are invisible. It is perhaps 15 degrees cooler than in Luang Prabang. The ambient temperature is not a communist policy, but it somehow feels related.
We are taken to a restaurant, accurately named the Onlyone. It is huge and empty, with the atmosphere of a funeral parlour. All that is missing from a Soviet-era Russian restaurant is hand-picked Komsomol members to lie to the tourists. Our tour guide doubles as the waiter.
Our hotel has a state-run smell to it. The lights don’t work. The bathrooms are dirty. The mosquito protection on the windows has holes in it. A cavernous foyer is starkly lit by fluorescent strips. A fridge holds the hotel’s minuscule stock of beer and soda. There is no wine or spirits – not even lao lao, which has hitherto been ubiquitous. The floors are hard, the beds harder. My bed could be a snooker table. The hotel management ignore the few guests. Our tour guide, in cahoots with the management, sits drinking with them and watching some awful Lao soap. At 8.30pm, it feels like the middle of the night. Since we are only here for a night, it is all amusing.
Actually, the parallels with communist Russia are not so strong. In Laos, people still smile at the slightest opportunity. The food at the Onlyone restaurant was not merely edible but decent. And you get the feeling that, so long as people do not get too interested in the government, the government does not intrude in their lives. All the more puzzling that dinosaur hotels like this cling on.