A few facts about Laos for those who know little about it:
Shaped like a palm tree and covering roughly the same area as Great Britain, land locked Laos is hemmed in by China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia. It is pronounced "Low", rhyming with cow (the "s" was added by the French when they were establishing French Indochina and has since been dropped).
It is only just emerging from nearly 300 years of war with Burma, China, Siam(Thailand), France and the USA and after 20 years of virtual isolation from the outside world, it is a priviledge to be welcomed over its' threshold. With a population of just 6 million, to look down upon a city here is to see more trees than buildings. And to breathe in the rainforests here is to breathe at the very source of the exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide. These awesome photosynthesis factories churn out oxygen that makes you feel light headed it's so good.
With regards to politics, it seems that Laos has been used as a pawn in the big boys'games, first between its' neighbouring countries and then between world powers in the struggle between right and left wing ideologies. The history of the struggles between its' neighbouring states is a baffling account of rulers and usurpers and tales of mighty battles on elephant back. Strange names abound and the cycle of war and peace seems endless. Interestingly, creativity seems heightened in the period immediately after war and many great pieces of art and leaps in social development occurred at this time. The cycle of war and peace also serves as a stark reminder that the neat divisions between countries that we mostly enjoy today weren't passed down to us with the earth. They had to be established. Laos was very nearly carved up into Vietnamese or Chinese territory and I can only speculate on the politics that prevented this from being so.
At the time of the french arrival in the late nineteenth century, the land that was later to become Laos was under the control of Thailand, or Siam as it was then known. Through a sucession of Siamese-French treaties, the Siamese eventually relinquished control of all the territory east of the Mekong River, retaining everything to the west. Interestingly, it was the french who then united the separate principalities and created one colonial territory, naming it Laos. Think for a moment of the magnitude of the confusion that must have occurred at this time with regard to establishing territory. Remember that Laos rubs shoulders with no less than five countries. Add to that the british and the french with their colonial desires, followed by a dash of Amercicans dropping bombs like ice into the mix and the Laos that is served to us today is one fascinating cocktail!
Continued in the next entry.....