Laos is a beautiful, rural landlocked country in Southeast Asia, roughly the size of Utah and bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and China.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit for the first time. My friend had been teaching English for two years in Savannakhet, a city in western Laos. Fully immersed in the culture, he had fallen off the map a bit and I joked that he was Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz come to life, but he was really just enjoying his time there. The flight took about 26 hours total, with a two-day layover in Thailand, before I reached the Savannakhet airport, a small sleepy edifice surrounded by dusty roads and genial people.
I unknowingly landed during Pi Mai — the Southeast Asian New Year celebration that brings a smile to even the most solemn of faces and stretches over five days on average. Shops are closed while the streets overflow with partiers on motorbikes, the most common form of transportation in Laos.
The celebration begins early, often before waking roosters have begun crowing, and stumbles on deliriously until well past midnight. Everyone was welcoming and barbecues with beer-chugging, happy-go-lucky locals were commonplace. It all created a cacophonous tapestry, a festival the likes of which I had never seen before.
Laos is poor but picturesque, with expansive, sprawling landscapes and delicious food. Three-quarters of the people are subsistence farmers, and Laos often finds itself bullied by its larger neighbors. Their proximity to Vietnam awarded them the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in the history of the world during the long war there.
During the Vietnam War Laos was considered to be the key to Indochina. Some called it a domino that, if toppled by the wrong forces, could cement the stranglehold of communism. The Vietcong were relentless, bold and calculating, and did not bother to contain their fight inside Vietnam’s borders.
The Ho Chi Minh trail allowed many North Vietnamese fighters to venture into southern Laos, attracting a massive, clandestine U.S. bombing campaign in response. There were about 580,000 bombing missions in Laos from 1964 to 1973, and our B-52s dropped over two million tons of ordinance. The U.S. wanted to defeat the Pathet Lao, a Communist group allied with the Vietcong. Maoist ideologies appealed to many working-class farmers who lived lives with nothing but the bare essentials.
The war ended in 1973, but Lao people born generations after the dispute are still feeling the effects of the war.
An estimated 100 Laotians die every year from unexploded bombs and mines, while many more are injured. The Pathet Lao took complete control of the nation two years after our 1973 cease-fire, Laos remains a Communist-led one-party state
But despite the traumatic U.S.-Laotian history, I was treated with nothing but generosity during my visit, a heartening reception that surprised me and reconfirmed my belief in the goodness of humanity.
The weeks there were a pleasant blur. My friend and I drove motorbikes around, I tried goat for the first time and met expat teachers from around the world.
There was the Swedish bar owner who stays in Laos for two weeks at a time with his Lao girlfriend. The other two weeks he spends in Sweden working on a cruise ship. I met a Frenchman who runs a bakery with his vegetarian Lao wife. I met a Lao man with dreadlocks named Schmitt, who moved to Oregon at the age of four. He has since returned to his homeland, Laos, with his American wife, who is from Oregon.
Schmitt has an encyclopedic knowledge of Lao history and he proceeded to tell me everything he knew. I learned of Siam and the Golden Triangle and how Lao people are called the “star people” because they traditionally lived in the mountains close to the heavens. He explained the European occupation and the lingering effects of the Vietnam War.
The 1975 revolution overthrew a corrupt monarchy and replaced it with the equally corrupt communists. Now there is only one party, rigged elections and the absence of freedom of speech and criticism of the government. Laos today, Schmitt says, is a different bottle serving the same wine.
But even if not much has changed politically, the people remain resilient, friendly and welcoming, even to a visiting American like me. The past was rarely brought up, as Laotians tend to focus on the present, having fun, and living through another day.