Laos with Xieng khuang(Phonsavan) in the highlands just north of the long narrow part of the country
Laos in Context
Laos first emerged in the region as Lan Xang or the ‘kingdom of a million elephants’ in the 14th century. Despite some bursts of independence, the kingdom generally found itself paying tribute to more powerful neighbours, including the Siamese and Vietnamese. Geography ensured Laos was sucked into the Vietnam War and a lengthy civil war culminated in a communist takeover in 1975. After many years of isolation, Laos began to experiment with economic reforms in the 1990s.
Orange Seller – Phonsavan
Bordered by Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos today has a population of 7 million in an area of 236,800 squ km making it one of the least densely populated areas of the Asia. The majority of the population are Lao or Khmu and 8% being of the Hmong tribe – the Hmong will feature strongly in this series of blogs. 95% of the population are either Buddhists or Animists (Sprit worship).
Economically the World Bank rates Laos as one of the least developed countries in East Asia, with more than 75% of people living on less than US$2 a day. More than three-quarters of the population still live as subsistence farmers and the total GDP per capita amounted to US$2300 per person in 2012. Major exports are timber products, garments, electricity and coffee in that order. In recent years tourism has become one of the main generators of foreign income.
Phonsavan (Xieng Khuang)
Having arrived in hot and steamy Vientiane last week I have taken the long and winding roads that seem to run endless ribbons across the sparsely populated provinces to the green and cool highlands at just over 1000 m and Phonsavan in Xieng Khuang Province – actually I cheated and flew.
Phonsavan has a population of 60,000 – it is a low rise sprawling town spread out with its two parallel main boulevards for about 4 kms. There is a handy concentration of accommodation and little restaurants at one end of town and that is where I sit now on my balcony over looking the green pine clad highlands. It is famous for the near by Plain of Jars and has a slow trickle of intrepid international travels who make the journey to visit the site. I have just missed the wet which ended about 48 hours before I arrived but it is getting more chilly at night as winter approaches. The climate is:
- November – March: Pleasant daytime temperatures although can be cold (below freezing possible) at night due to altitude.
- July-August: Wet with high humidity
- April – June: Hot with temperatures up to 40C.
I live in Namchai Guest house, one of the most modern buildings in town with a large double aspect room and balcony with good view – we will ignore the recycling yard and dark road with dubious comings and goings on the other side.
To date I have seen a variety of wild life – the most beautiful butterflies and a strange variety of dead animals in the market – but have yet to see a single one of the 14 million elephants.