People in Laos have a way of finding fun in everything they do

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Editor's note: Ann Ostendorf of Cape Girardeau is taking a year to travel through England, Pakistan and Asia. This is one in an series of articles she is writing about her journey.

aos is possibly the best-kept secret in all Asia. Most Westerners probably don't even know where it is. I didn't a year ago. Those who do probably remember it from the heavy bombing it received during the Vietnam War.

These two facts don't exactly promote a booming tourism industry in a country. But the lack of a tourism industry is partly why Laos is so pleasant to visit. It has, so far, been spared the development that makes parts of Thailand and Malaysia look strangely American.

While Laos continues to be one the poorest countries in the world, it's not easy to see poverty in the people you meet. The standard of living is basic but without the luxuries development brings. People here have kept a respectability and a certain sophistication that often accompanies one living a simple life.

Laos is nestled away in the center of Southeast Asia. The only land-locked country here, it is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). It is a country the size of Great Britain but with less than one-tenth its population. The 5 million Laotians would barely be enough to constitute a city in China.

Two-thirds of the country is forested, much of it primary, hiding within it a wealth of plant and animal diversity and a colorful assortment of hill tribes. The pristine natural beauty and relatively small population, both native and foreign, is usually what lures travelers to this remote destination.

Inevitably, though, it is the lifestyle and attitude of the people here that causes visitors to remain longer than they expected or anxiously await the time when they will be able to return. Being in Laos feels less like traveling and more like visiting people who welcome you into their homes.

Comedians in a pickup truck

Laos is probably my favorite place of those I've seen. So for me to say the clouds opened up and the sun came out for the first time in weeks as I crossed the border from China into Laos, that may understandably arouse suspicion. Yet this is exactly what happened.

In one step I left the gloom of one communist country and entered another that seemed at first glance almost a tropical paradise. Everything was different, from the bright floor length wrap-around skirts the women wore to the flip-flops flapping down the dirt road. Even the buildings were different. No more square blocks of concrete covered in white tile. The money exchange was no more that a wooden hut. The little restaurants lining the street at the border were built of what could be gathered from the area, namely bamboo.

The only hint the year wasn't 1802 was that I was sitting in a plastic lawn chair sipping a Coke.

As I sat waiting a ride from the border into town, I realized I couldn't speak one word of Laotian. I got out the guidebook and proceeded to teach myself what I've found to be the most helpful phrases to a traveler: Hello, thank you, how much? and numbers one to 10. I practiced these on a good-natured girl who humored my attempts at her language until my ride appeared.

This ride was a pickup lined with a bench on each side of the bed and covered with a sort of steel cage. Men on the roof and men on the ground tossed luggage, produce and various bags and boxes back and forth trying to prove that everything could fit on the roof if only the right combination could be found. Huge sacks of rice too heavy to be lifted were slid between the feet of passengers packed shoulder to shoulder along the sides. These doubled as seats for the last four lucky passengers.

The whole vehicular contraption looked a bit like a metal-covered wagon from some futuristic wild west.

After the initial trauma, no one seemed to notice the horrid ride we were experiencing anymore. Two ladies began to provide some entertainment. Even though I couldn't understand the words, I could tell they were with telling jokes or good-naturedly making fun of people. The comedy routine had most of the passengers, including me, in stitches. Even the most uninterested man had a smile on his lips.


Their antics were interrupted by random high-pitched shouts of "Aieeeeeeee!" from the ladies. If you listen to any conversation too long in Laos, you're bound to hear this expression. The closest translation I could discover is "I'm happy and life is good. I think I'll just let out a little shout to let everyone know it."

The light-hearted episode in the truck during my first hour in the country was an attitude I kept seeing repeated. People here had a way of finding fun in everything they did. If something couldn't be enjoyed, then it wasn't worth doing. This didn't make people shy away from work and unpleasant tasks; rather it forced them to find enjoyment in everything they did. When a tire blew halfway through our journey, no one complained about the delay or that they had to crawl under the dirty old truck, but they joked and laughed about the unlucky circumstance. Because most people in Laos face life with this attitude, being around them was easy and enjoyable. I don't think I ever smiled at anyone who didn't smile back twice as big. It was impossible to walk down the street without every child dropping what they were doing and coming to greet me. The shouts of "Sabadee!" (Hello!), the frantic waving and the huge grins made me feel like they had been awaiting my arrival for weeks.

Visits to the villages

After a few days in the north of Laos, I learned that it was easy to visit some of the forest hill tribes from Muang Sing. I headed to this small town on my never-ending quest to find interesting ethnic ladies. It's not that the average Laotian woman is boring, but the women of the hill tribes were much more fascinating to me. They looked and lived a life that has all but disappeared in the world. They live in the forests where they have basically everything they need to survive. But every couple of weeks they come into town to do a little shopping at the market. These women still wear their colorful traditional clothes every day, not just for special occasions. A trip into market is the only excuse needed to don their best and brightest garments. Anything that shines dangles from the elaborate headdresses -- old coins and silver trinkets to bits of soda cans. Each tribe could be distinguished by their clothing. Some wore long, navy blue coats fringed with scarlet around the edges. Others wore short, pleated skirts with rainbow-colored bands tightly wrapped around their calves and shins.

The market is always the best place to get sneaky photos of these women who understandably don't appreciate cameras being shoved in their faces. Most women aren't easily distracted while shopping, and these proved no exception. I could stealthily hide myself in a dark corner or on the roof next door and snap away. Sometimes I followed a woman around watching her toss bunches of vegetables over her shoulder into a woven bamboo basket kept on her back via a forehead strap. I spent hours wandering around the market imagining myself dressed in ethnic clothes buying some supplies and produce to take back to my family in the forest.

At my age, I certainly would be the head of a sizable family. In fact, several women kept pestering me to buy their hand-made baby clothes, certain I couldn't refuse a souvenir for my child. They refused to believe I didn't need these because I had no children. When I finally bought a colorful embroidered baby backpack, they were sure I needed the hat and booties to match.

Next: The life of village women and a trip down the river.

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