Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Notes on Laos

Luang Prabang, Lao P.D.R.

-- Laos is a prototypical "reformed" Communist country, which is to say that Laos is a capitalist country in which the members of the Communist Party control every piece of the machinery of government, which they use to skim the profits. The Communist flag, the famous yellow hammer and sickle on a red background, flies on government buildings and was flapping outside my hotel window.

-- Laos' former status as an adjunct of the Soviet block appears in small but telling ways. The satellite TV in the hotel carries a Russian-language channel. Aeroflot and other Eastern Bloc airlines like Malev, the Hungarian carrier, have offices or agents here. One hotel on the water front, the Lane Xang, is a Soviet dinosaur now trading on its retro cache. A smaller hotel further inland, the Asian Pavilion, was, in another life, the Constellation Hotel, the favored haunt of U.S. and British spies and the setting for John Le Carre's thriller The Honourable Schoolboy.

-- The ethnic distinction between Thais and Laos is minimal. Most of the population of northeast Thailand is ethnically Lao. The distinction may be entirely political. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents use the words "Thai" and "Lao" interchangeably.

-- The Thai and Lao languages are mutually comprehensible. They are closer than Spanish and Portuguese (although the alphabets differ somewhat). But even the minor linguistic differences are fading, because Laos watch Thai television and read Thai gossip magazines.

-- To the extent that Lao culture is dying in the face of its great neighbor, the Lao government can blame itself. The Communist censorship of Lao media is total, and you don't have to speak a word of Lao to see that the one state-run television channel is a boring propaganda arm. The news is particularly stultifying, with video coverage of Very Important Communists chairing meetings and giving speeches at conferences. I'd watch Thai soap operas, too.

-- The principal English-language newspaper, The Vientiane Times, isn't much better, but it's tabloid journalism compared to the paper chloroform of the KPL News, the Communist Party paper which, curiously, can only be found at a handful of locations, one of which is the lobby of the old-school Lane Xang Hotel. Old habits must die hard.

-- Laos contains an unusually large number of Swedes. And, therefore, Volvos. I don't get it, either.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read your post and book reviews and think that you’re a wannabe travel writer filled with hatred and a John Kerry sense of knowing it all.
Good luck

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

I suspect that's the first and last time Paul will be compared to John Kerry.

Pay attention in school, or you'll get stuck in Laos.

2:48 AM  

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