Slipping Into Laos Reviews
Sep 30, 2007
The most south-western mountainous province in the modern-day People’s Republic of China was named “south of the clouds” by a Tang emperor during the 8th Century AD. Chinese imperial dynasties from that time onwards thought of Yunnan as being the edge of their world, beyond the clouds and south of Schezwan (Sichuan). With over twenty different ethnicities represented (including Naxi, Yi, Tibetan, Mosuo and Bai), much of Yunnan’s cultural diversity comes from its history as a major trade route between Tibet and South East Asia. The Mekong River ("mother Kong") rises in Yunnan Province and flows approximately 4,800 kilometers through or along the borders of neighboring countries Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The mighty Mekong is the only river in Asia to have two capital cities on its banks - Vientiane in Laos and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. With the assistance of the Asian Development Bank in 1992, the six countries listed above (including Yunnan Province, China) entered into a program of sub-regional economic cooperation, designed to enhance economic relations among the independent nations. The program has contributed to the advancement of infrastructure to enable the development and sharing of the resource base, and promote the freer flow of goods and people in the sub-region. It has also led to the international recognition of the sub-region as a growth area. A phenomenal tourism boom over the past decade is attracting visitors from all corners of the Earth.
Kunming (commonly referred to as “the City of Eternal Spring”) as Yunnan’s provincial capital has an efficient, international airport, which busily serves as a gateway hub for south-west China and other parts of the Asian continent. Civil aviation in Yunnan has witnessed recent, rapid development. At least one hundred air routes operate including international routes to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Dhakka, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Macao, Mandalay, Seoul, Singapore, Vientiane, and Yangon. These days, Kunming Wujiaba International Airport can now accommodate ten million passengers per year. Yunnan also has local airports equipped with advanced telecommunication and navigation facilities in Xishuangbanna, Mangshi, Simao, Zhaotong, Baoshan, Dali, Lijiang, Diqing and Lincang.
Daily flights from Kunming to Vientiane in the Lao People's Democratic Republic take around two hours, with one way tickets costing 1100 RMB ($US150). Tourist visas are available upon arrival for $US30 or they can be arranged in advance through the Laos Consulate in Kunming. Alternatively, a sleeper bus to Luang Prabang (Louhangphrabang) leaves Kunming south bus station every evening for only 280 RMB ($US40). Allow up to thirty hours this way. Independent excursions, particularly in the north-east, are definitely not recommended because, although officially a neutral country, Laos was host to a secret war between the USA and Vietnam thirty to forty years ago. As a result, Laos earned the distinction of being the most bombed country in the history of modern warfare.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Lao PDR is now enjoying peace and stabilizing its political and economic structures after two decades of isolation from the outside world. It is characterized by a high degree of geographic, cultural and linguistic diversity. The country's rich traditions survive, including respect for cultural / religious beliefs and practices, and utilization of consensus in decision-making. The first constitution since 1975 was promulgated in August 1991. It reaffirmed the monopoly of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) on political power as well as the goal of a market-oriented economy. Restated in the Sixth Congress (1996), the Party has sole responsibility to lead the country and government under the Constitution.
In July 1997, Laos became a member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, in which it is regarded as a land-locked least developed country. ASEAN aims to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors to promote a prosperous and peaceful community of South-East Asian nations. It also seeks to promote regional peace and stability through the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. ASEAN was established in 1967. Its founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The Association now comprises ten countries - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
ASEAN has ten Dialogue Partners - Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States of America. The United Nations Development Program also has dialogue status. ASEAN holds an annual ministerial meeting for its foreign ministers, which is followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Post Ministerial Conferences (PMC), which is attended by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN's dialogue partners. Annual summits at ASEAN Head of Government level are also held. Additionally, ASEAN leaders meet with leaders of the “plus three” countries (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) as a group as well as individually. Since 2002, ASEAN leaders have also held an annual summit with India.
Dialogue Partners Australia and New Zealand participated in a leaders’ summit for the first time in November 2004 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-Australia and ASEAN-New Zealand dialogue relationships in 2004 and 2005 respectively in Laos. Insofar as other visitors are concerned and on a separate note, an online ASEAN Tourism Forum has been established and dedicated to the further development of tourism in ASEAN Countries by providing a platform to discuss news and views. All tourism stakeholders in ASEAN countries are invited to participate for better understanding and transparency among members. Laos is one of the least visited countries on our planet, but isolation so far has meant that Lao PDR retains a remarkable serenity and timeless charm.
With a population of only six million, the country is relatively sparse. The upper regions claim eighty per cent of the inhabitants. The small capital city of Vientiane sits on the banks of the Mekong River, home to one hundred and forty thousand people. Vientiane is usually considered to be charming & picturesque, boasting an ever-increasing number of cafes, restaurants and souvenir stores catering for the continuous flow of adventure seekers, quite often on a budget. The following list of foreign embassies indicates the nationalities present; Australia, Belgium, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Cuba, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, the USA and Vietnam.
The British Embassy was closed in 1985, and responsibility for UK representation to Laos passed to the British Ambassador in Bangkok. This has not deterred a steady stream of Brits from bringing their strong, hard currency pounds sterling into adjoining Laos. Although the official language is Lao, English is widely spoken, especially as a medium for business. Being previously a protectorate (outpost) of France, it is not unusual to see official tourism literature and other advertising produced in English, French and Lao. The most popular destinations tend to be in northern Laos. Much of the serene former capital, Luang Prabang, and its Buddhist temples are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are about thirty two historic pagodas within easy walk of each other.
In the southern section of the country towards Cambodia is the province of Champassak. The capital, Pakse (Pakxe), is situated at the confluence of the Se River and the Mekong River. Pakse means “mouth of the Se” and is a busy trading town. The province also houses much of the Bolaven Plateau, an area that is home to a number of ethnic minorities. Further south is Si Pan Don (“Four Thousand Islands”), where the Mekong reaches up to fourteen kilometers wide during the rainy season and the Khone Phapeng Falls. May to October is the wet season. It does not rain constantly, but a raincoat or umbrella could prove to be a useful fashion item. November to May is the dry season, so take a hat & sun cream. From December to February, temperatures can drop considerably.
Expatriate writer Warren Rodwell has been in China since 2002, and teaches university postgraduates in Chengdu. Many of his feature stories, reviews & photographs have been published online or in hardcopy media form. Warren also narrates documentaries & administers various websites as part of his efforts to internationally promote western China and other diverse cultures.
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