When I first meet people and they find out that I travel as much as I do, they all have questions to ask, and they are usually the same. What is your favourite country? Where would you go back? Most beautiful country? Most amazing this you have seen? But my favourite is; which country has the best people? I love being asked this question because it means I get to tell people about a nation which most people know very little about.
I’m sad to say that when I mention the country Laos, a lot of people reply with, “What’s that? Is it a country?” Situated in the very middle of South East Asia, and bordered by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Myanmar (Burmer). The Lao People’s Democratic Republic gained independence from France in 1949 (though France remained in de-fecto control until 1953), and has since been a single-party socialist republic – basically, it is a democracy, but the two candidates who run for government are both from the same communist party. Being under communist rule, the country was closed to tourism until the early 1990’s (I can’t remember the exact year, but it could possibly be ’92).
So that is a very brief history of Laos, but I would like to pay attention on how they were effected by the Vietnam War. After the United Nations declared that the United States couldn’t cross into the North of Vietnam, and vis versa, the Vietcong went underground and built and expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to gain access yo the South of Vietnam. The US Army found out what the North were doing, though they didn’t know where exactly the trails were located. In an attempt to stop the North, the US Army dropped 80 million cluster bombs, a bomb which is dropped and opens mid fall, releasing and scattering over 100 smaller bombs over Laos. Of these smaller bombs, 10-30% did not explode, and many are still buried, in fields, rivers and trees, and still active. These are know as unexploded ordnance (UXO).
If you visit Laos you will notice that there are a large number of people missing limbs. This is due to the unfortunate fact that all these bombs are being stumbled upon by locals all over the country, and just by chance are exploding and leaving thousands amputees, or dead. This can happen a number of ways, whether it be by a bomb being unknowningly buried under a fire, and one day the fire gets just a little to hot and triggers the bomb. It could have been stuck up a tree for decades, and one day someone decides to shake to tree to get some fruit and the bomb hits the groud, exploding infront of them. The most unfortunate situation is when a child is involved, which is the majority of cases. Although selling scrap metal is illegal in Laos, many still do due to the difference the money would make. Children enjoy going searching for scrap metal to sell, and they do this by digging in the dirt with a hammer. One hit with a hammer and a bomb can explode in the childs face, leaving them if not dead, then with lost limbs and horrific injuries. I was explained all of this by the staff at The COPE Centre in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, an organisation which assists amputee patients with treatment costs, providing prosthetics and raising awareness about UXO’s in Laos. If any of you reading this is ever in Vientaine I would highly recommend paying a visit to the centre, where you can explore the exhibit, purchase some gifts (including some very good Laotion mountain coffee), make a donation or buy a prosthetic for a patient. Or if you wish to visit the website, make a donation, or read a patients story, here is the link : http://www.copelaos.org/
So all this considering, plus the fact that 33% of the 6.5 million population live below the international poverty line, which means less then US$1.25 per day. So there is no denying that the people of Laos have had it tough and are definitely at a disadvantage compared to a lot of other nations, but the one thing you will notice about them is that they are always smiling! Whether they are sitting in the markets and smiling at you as you walk past, laughing with friends, or children playing on the edge of the Mekong Delta and waving as you past by, they are always happy! Even though they have a lot less then a lot of other people, they are the happiest people I have ever met, have so much personality, honest and incredibly friendly. They are also incredibly forgiving, being Buddhist. Despite having the US Army’a cluster bombs continue to devastate Laotion lives every day, they hold no grudge against anyone involved and are so welcoming to all forgieners. I’m not sure there are to many other nations that would do such a thing.
After being fortunate enough to visit Laos and experiencing the culture and it’s people, I couldn’t help but notice how much everyone complains about such petty things once I arrived home. It’s quite fustrating to have to hear someone whing about how they don’t want to go to uni today, or that their coffee was too hot, or something else equally as superfical, and all I can think is that there are people in other countries, with next to nothing, yet they are a hundred times happier then the majority of people in the developed world – and that is why they are my favourite people! Because they can see the good in their situation, and know that complaining and sulking is not going to do them any good. I think we can all take a lesson from the people from Laos, and maybe smile a little bit more and everyone may just be a little bit happier!
(Below) A Buddhist Nun leaving a temple situated in a cave along side the Mekong Delta.