Thursday, August 15, 2013

The beautiful people of Laos.

This is our third visit to Lao PDR and even though some of the destinations on this trip are not new we are still enthralled. It is really the people that make us feel so welcome and make the country such an attractive destination. Most of the people with whom we have come in contact, are polite, happy and content.

They seem to exude a real sense of dignity and a joy of living. They may not be wealthy or prosperous but they do seem calm, tolerant and self possessed without being restrained. They have ready smiles and a positive outlook in most circumstances.  We have learnt much about the country and developed a respect and admiration for them from the conversations we have shared.

We have heard life stories first hand. What may be considered sacrifice and hardship by many is instead perceived as satisfying and it breeds contentment. The owner and manager of the beautifully restored shop house on the riverfront, in which we stayed in Pakse, volunteered the story of the property and her own life over breakfast when we commented how much we loved the building and the renovation.  It had been her family home until she was sent to France to study on a scholarship as a child and only a few years after she returned to Laos the whole family fled the ‘strife.’ They abandoned all their property only to have the government return it to them some 10 years later when her brother was invited to help rebuild the economy and he was eventually appointed to lead the Chamber of Commerce. Some time later he rallied all the siblings and suggested that they convert their family home into a boutique hotel. They funded renovations and designed the interiors themselves and now it is the epitome of elegance and charm and a truly affordable and luxurious little gem right on the riverfront. Rather than regret all the lost years, she in her mid sixties was glad to be home and living a simple, productive and fulfilling life. One could sense her joy for living as she watched the sunrise over the river and shared meals with the staff in the lobby.

Another fine example of the Laotian spirit is the young “song tao”* driver who we had the good fortune to meet plying his trade at the bus station. He was keen to round up passengers and approached us not with the usual “tuk tuk” but by explaining that he could drop us in the city centre and for the standard local fare. In addition to battling the traffic with a vehicle full of exhausted travellers with too much luggage, in the sweltering heat, he loaded and reloaded the mountains of possessions those from more remote regions had arrived with. This included a compressor and other unrecognizable items in outrageously heavy sacks and bags. Nonetheless he politely asked us to relocate to the cabin when it became evident that we passengers would not all fit in the back due to the enormity of the load. While driving he initiated a conversation apologizing for his limited English, pointed out his family home, explained his family situation and happily answered our incessant questions; sharing his experiences and life story and exchanging views with us. He explained that he drove 7 days a week to be able to put himself through a business course at university, which he attended in the evenings 5 days a week. Despite having to backtrack to find other passengers’ destinations and off load all the cargo completely unassisted, he offered to drop us at the door of our hotel rather than the central point we had agreed to when we got into the vehicle and was positively delighted that this was our third visit to his home country. We were astounded at such service and with a smile and all for a 3-dollar fare.

Communism and Buddhism strike me as odd bedfellows but some how there is no tension… or maybe it is just that we don’t see it. They do have in common a concern for the wellbeing of the people and this is perhaps the very thing that enables the Laos maintain their strong family values and quiet, polite self-assuredness.  

We enjoy the fact that everyone drags out whatever limited English they posses and gives communicating their best shot. Our garbled attempts at hello and thank you; the only phrases we know in Lao, are consistently met with smiles and genuine delight.

Not for the first time we are wondering if it would be possible to work here at some point in the future. We certainly see lots of expat workers around the place!

* NB “song tao” = a pick up with bench seats running down both sides and used as shared taxis and goods carriers throughout Laos and Thailand

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