Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lao or Laos ...?

We arrived in Luang Prabang, Peoples Democratic Repulic of Laos, early one August evening to possibly the most laid back international airport in the world.

As Laos suffers rather badly from people never having heard of it, this post provides a very brief history as best I understand it.

Laos is a former French colony in SE Asia which was captured by the Japanese during the second world war. It was briefly returned to the French after WW2 before regaining it's pre-colonial independence in the early 1950's.

The country is sandwiched inbetween China (North), Vietnam (East), Thailand & Burma (West) and Cambodia (South) with the ethnic majority Lao people (80%) being the same stock as the hill tribes of NE Thailand. It's also home to a number of minorities such as the Hmong who in the main still live a tribal existence unchanged for hundreds of years.

About the same time as the Vietnam War (or American War if your perspective is Vietnamese) there was a communist uprising in Laos. I was headed by the Pathet Lao who were supported in turn by North Vietnam and an unlimited supply of Chinese and Soviet military hardware. Fearing the supposed domino effect of communism taking hold throughout Asia, the US supported Laos in a so-called secret war against the communists for over a decade.

Throughout the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese continued to use the Ho Chi-Minh Trail (in Southern Laos) to allow it's troops to bypass the demilitarised zone (DMZ) seperating South Vietnam to wage geurrilla warfare on US forces, despite continued ariel bambardment of the trail. It's in part due to this fact that a small nation who have never declared war on anyone became one of the worlds most bombed in history.

After the US pulled out of SE Asia, both Vietnam and Laos became communist states (Laos a rather more peaceful one) - and both countries still retain a single party system, despite the fact they adopt a capitalist approach.

Today's Laos is still one of the worlds poorest countries, with an average annual salary of just $300 USD per capita. It also suffers terribly from the UXO (unexploded ordinance) that litters the countryside and claims 1500 lives per annum.

So those are the facts; however the first question most people have is "Do you say Lao or Laos?". Confusingly, I'd heard both in equal measure before we left the UK.

It turns out the country was always called simply Lao before the arrival of the French. The s being added by them to fit in with French language rules i.e. you don't pronounce the last letter. This means that the only change was designed simply to keep it the same. Which is not really a great help.

So I still don't have an answer (the only local I asked just shrugged), but on balance I'll be sticking with Lao for the next couple of weeks, as we find out what Luang Prabang has to offer the weary traveller ...