Laos: A People’s Democratic Republic travelogue
A new bridge over the Mekong River north of Luang Prabang, Laos, part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. | Eric Gordon / PW

Five overnights in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic hardly make me an expert on Laos, one of the world’s few Communist Party-run countries, and one that readers seldom hear much about. But last month, I had the opportunity to visit two cities in Laos, the old capital of Luang Prabang and the new capital Vientiane, as well as smaller villages in the environs, on a trip that also highlighted the “Ancient Kingdoms” of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

I had traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel back in 2019 on a three-week grand tour of Vietnam and felt confident that with OAT again I would be introduced to places and people far beyond the normal touristic delights of gourmet dining, architectural wonders, and pleasant beaches, vistas, and cocktails.

Laos is a landlocked country slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, long, narrow, and mostly mountainous, nestled along Vietnam’s western border. Laos also shares borders with Myanmar, Cambodia, China, and Thailand. A common feature of all these nations is the mighty, life-giving Mekong River. In the north of the country, which we did not visit, the famous “Golden Triangle,” a long-famous outpost for illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking, was once the site whence came the herbal intoxicants that American G.I.s consumed in large doses during the Vietnam War. This area, along the Mekong at the junction of Laos with Thailand and Myanmar, is now equally famous for its casinos, owned by a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur.

The geography of the country largely determined its place in the world. Without appropriate flatlands for large-scale agricultural plantations, the French were unable to exploit its people and extract precious resources to the extent they did in Vietnam and other of its colonies. The small population was spread throughout its heights and valleys, with some 50 officially recognized ethnic groups and over 80 languages, and the few roads made long-distance travel rare and cumbersome. The French recognized the Lao royal family.

Laos was one of the three component countries of what the world once knew as French Indochina, along with Cambodia and Vietnam. All three had been occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and then the French, with American help, tried to recolonize them. They were roundly defeated by Ho Chi Minh’s Communists in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The long struggle for national reunification in Vietnam under Communist leadership attracted U.S. imperial attention beginning with the Eisenhower administration. Eventually, the U.S. dropped more bombs on the countries of Southeast Asia during the so-called Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War) than the Allies dropped during the entirety of World War II.

In an attempt to evade U.S. detection, the Vietnamese established supply routes for materiel and troops outside of Vietnam—the famous “Ho Chi Minh Trail” stringing along the borders with both Laos and Cambodia. But the U.S. uncovered it and soon started bombing Laos and Cambodia as well, which had not been parties to the war. The Laotians call this the “Secret War,” because the Nixon administration hid its actions there as long as possible. When it became known that Nixon was also bombing Cambodia, in May 1970, campuses and cities all over the U.S. exploded with rage.

Early in 1975, the Americans and their puppet regimes fell in both Vietnam and Cambodia. In Laos, the U.S.-backed King Sisavang Vatthana abdicated the throne on Dec. 2, and the Lao People’s Liberation Army entered Vientiane. As other royal family members escaped, the king, queen, and crown prince were sent to a “re-education camp” and died, their gravesites unmarked. The royal palace in Vientiane has since been restored as a tourist destination.

Characterizing Laos today

What kind of country did the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP)—the Communist Party—inherit in 1975?

In the first place, both the Vietnamese and the Lao parties were more Soviet-oriented, as opposed to Maoist, or China-influenced. So there was no “Cultural Revolution,” as in China, which set out to destroy ancient culture and religious sites or decimate whatever urban, educated classes the country had. (The Maoist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia took that latter course.)

In the early years after 1975, the Lao party, led by its General Secretary, Kaysone Phomvihane,  followed the Soviet lead of state enterprise. But a tenth of the population had been killed in the imperialist and anti-monarchy wars, with perhaps another fifth with severe injuries and disabilities. Perhaps half of the population had been displaced from their villages by war. Only a fourth of the population could read and write, and UXOs—unexploded bombs—made a return to normal life impossible or at least perilous. Farmers and children could lose a limb, or sight, or their life with their next step.

And Laos was almost entirely a society of subsistence agriculture, sparsely populated (only three million or so after the war). Even a capitalist economy barely existed, with virtually no infrastructure. How to build socialism under such conditions of severe underdevelopment and recovery from war?

It took another half-dozen years for the LPRP to change course, adopting a system of “market mechanism with state management.” If the country and its people were to prosper, they needed to urbanize and industrialize. For work, schooling, healthcare, and to escape still war-torn, mine-infested fields, relocation of the population into governable villages, towns, and cities would be needed. Many times, in our talks with Lao informants, we heard their stories of resettlement in areas with better soil, better transportation access, and better potential for a decent life, even in some cases to clear scenic areas for national nature parks. Compensation for lost homes and farmlands was erratic, sometimes not meeting the needs of the new semi-urban life which they were obliged to adopt.

Over time, the population grew, to some 7.5 million now. Where the poverty rate in 1975 had been 50%, it is now 18%. And Laos now has an 84% literacy rate. By some measures, Laos is considered among the region’s fastest growing economies, helped by major hydroelectric installations and an enhanced tourist market.

The sleek new high-speed Boten–Vientiane train | Eric A. Gordon/PW

The influence of neighboring China is strong and pervasive. It was as part of this superpower’s Belt and Road Initiative that in 2021 the 414-km high-speed Boten–Vientiane railway opened, running from the northern border with China through Luang Prabang (where we boarded it) to Vientiane. Such an infrastructural advancement cuts days off travel time in this craggy country, tunneling through mountains that once stood in the way of road traffic, and facilitating the movement of people and goods from China down through the heart of Southeast Asia.

But it’s still a largely agrarian society; agriculture amounts to a whopping 51% of the national GDP, with four out of five people engaged in farming. Most land is privately owned (collectivization never seemed to be instituted here), and most people have their own home. But as prices go up in the towns, many people stay with their parents even after they marry. The government still has not made public education entirely free, though there are subsidies for the extremely poor. Farmers grow rice and other crops, perhaps plant a teak tree, to earn money for schooling and to support their families.

In such a society, the growing number of people with higher education—some educated abroad—cannot necessarily find suitable employment. About 85% of businesses are private, but of those only about a quarter of these are locally owned by Lao investors. Some 52% of the products sold in Laos are imported from Thailand.

We heard stories of graduates being asked to “volunteer” probationally for anywhere up to 10 years before getting officially hired, yet after the age of 32 or so, if you’ve never worked, you will probably never be hired. Some young educated Laotians find work abroad.

A cruise up to Mekong River to the Pak Ou Buddhist cave | Eric A. Gordon/PW

As for general freedoms of thought and expression, we learned that discussion of politics or the royal family is off-limits in public. Laotians have to be careful what they say. We were not surprised when some of the responses to our questions of people we encountered seemed evasive or incomplete. In a school, for example, someone asked how Communist values and ideas are transmitted to the children, and all we got back was the vague statement that teachers follow a set curriculum. We did hear some grousing about government leaders living in huge mansions, corruption, and decision-making taking place at high, distant levels. Unsurprisingly, Laos does not have what might be called a lively, independent press.

Unlike other socialist countries I have visited, I noted scant propaganda in the public eye. At our first stop in Laos, Luang Prabang, I saw only the occasional hammer and sickle flag, mostly as a personal statement. On a riverboat tour up the Mekong to visit a revered Buddhist cave, I saw only one or two out of dozens of boats flying the flag.

In a village where we met with the village chief and various other officers, we learned that you had to be a Communist Party member to run in an election, even though there were only 15 party members in this village of 600 residents.

The mighty Mekong

The principal effect of Chinese policy on Laos concerns the 2,700-mile-long Mekong, which begins in China, runs over 500 miles in Laos, through Cambodia, and down to the delta into Vietnam and out to the South China Sea. The Mekong is the 12th-longest river in the world, and the third-longest in Asia. The 90 million people living along the route of the river concentrate their activity on fishery and agriculture, for which the river supplies irrigation. Longboats—some of them houseboats—carry goods and people, plying up and down the river at all times.

In the 1890s, the French authorities cleverly determined the borders of their colony in Laos as comprising both the east and the west shores of the Mekong, still to this day giving Thailand, to the west, no say as to how the waters of the Mekong can be used. Laos keeps the west side an undeveloped preservation area with no permits for cutting timber. There are few mahogany trees left, a major export in the past, along with ebony, rosewood, and teak.

In the upper segment of the Mekong, the Chinese have built 11 dams already. Downstream, another 11 are planned for the river, three of them already in use. The main purpose of the dams is to create hydroelectric power. The one in Laos constitutes the top industry in the country, surpassing tourism, gold mining, and agriculture. With its industrial sector still so underdeveloped, Laos exports 95% of the hydropower it makes.

The dams don’t necessarily impede river traffic—not completely, at least—as locks allow for ships and fish to pass from one level to the next.

But like dams elsewhere in the world, these too present problems. Control over the flow means that the river is getting dryer every year. Recalling a similar issue with the Mississippi, owing to drought and global warming, ocean water in both river systems is now creeping up the delta because of low river flow, imperiling the downstream water supply and agriculture.

And building the dams in the first place means relocating certain villages. The dam near Luang Prabang is 820 meters wide and 32 meters high, quite a substantial footprint. Adequate compensation was not always forthcoming, but the residents were forced to take it. If they were unable to acquire land in the areas to which they were assigned, there was no work for them, so some wound up leaving to work in Thailand or elsewhere.

Finally, the dams are owned by foreign companies for a 20- or 30-year term, after which ownership reverts to Laos. The first one was completed in 2019 and is seen as one of the most modern dams in the world, with technology from Australia, at a cost of $3.8 billion. China is the biggest investor in Laos, but Laotians worry about borrowing so much money that will eventually have to be paid back, plus interest.

Monks and novices collecting their daily alms | Eric A. Gordon/PW

Before I move on, I should point out that similar dams—in the U.S., for instance—have also been constructed without much consultation with local folks, also involving resettlement, and also resulting in unforeseen ecological damage. Some are even being dismantled now. So we should be careful where we point our fingers.

Some thoughts about Buddhism in a Communist-governed country

Our group visited the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Heritage site pleasantly situated alongside the Mekong. The U.N. designation is a boon to attract tourists, but at the same time imposes limits on construction, improvements, and even the building of bridges across the wide river. But people who live here like the historical quaintness, like Virginia’s colonial-era Williamsburg.

One morning, as an optional activity for our group, we arose at 5 o’clock to go feed the monks and novices with alms. In the dark quiet before sunrise, we stationed ourselves on low stools along a curb outside a temple and waited for hundreds of barefoot monks to parade by, solemnly, silently, single-file through the streets, dressed in traditional orange robes. We each were given a sash to wear across our chests, a sign of good intent. We each held a bowl with about a quart’s worth of sticky rice, and as the monks passed, we grabbed a small handful of rice to place into their larger collection bowls. These alms would be their food for the day, offerings accepted without question from us, who were total strangers, after all, nor with any thought as to the cleanliness of the offering hands. Local residents make a custom of daily support for the temple monks, appreciating the learning and wisdom nurtured there. It’s a source of calm and continuity to the inhabitants of the city each morning.

What a manifestation of trust and goodwill in society, of humility and good karma! Might we even say, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need?” There are more monks in Luang Prabang than anywhere else in the country, perhaps because it was here that Buddhism was first introduced, and it had been the royal seat and capital. In Buddhist countries, many government leaders are Buddhists themselves. Many Laotians have gone through periods of weeks, months, or years, as monks, unlike the Christian assumption that the reclusive lifestyle is expected to be a lifelong commitment.

The ruling LPRP maintains a policy of religious harmony rather than forced atheism. Buddhism is seen not so much as a religion, but a philosophy, a practice, that does not contradict communist ideology. Government officials sometimes ask for advice from monks. (The Dalai Lama several years ago claimed he is a Marxist!) Perhaps, as in other societies with very different systems, the assumption is that what the government doesn’t provide, charity through faith communities will. And perhaps, as in other systems, government is happy to tolerate, or even promote a construct of belief that favors attitudes of humility, acceptance, and grace.

Another visit some of us made was to a highly creative project called Big Brother Mouse. It’s a center filled with books, where anyone can come—mostly younger people—and tourists drop in for them to practice their English. Mastery of English is considered a priority for advancement and future wellbeing. I met a young man, and we started conversing. I asked how old he is. “Twenty-five or 26,” he answered. He doesn’t know his exact age because when he was born, to Hmong parents in the countryside, there was no system of recording births. Only later, when babies were customarily born in hospitals, would a birth certificate be issued.

Regional dress featured at TAEC | Eric A. Gordon/PW

He’s never been out of Laos and estimates that 90% of the population has never been out of the country, although there’s no legal restriction against coming or going. His goal is to be a guide once his English is more competent. A native Hmong speaker, he calls himself 75-80% fluent in Lao, as he often encounters words he does not know. He comes from a family of 11 children, both parents illiterate. As a child, he became a monk for a time, mostly to gain a rudimentary education, though he’s not a Buddhist: He’s an animist. He wants to go to America one day. For a couple of years, he lived near Vientiane but prefers Luang Prabang, where there’s less pressure and quieter. He’s also studying Chinese, because the main groups of tourists in Laos are Chinese, French, and American. In other conversations with Lao people, I learned that most, including our local guide, had never been outside of the country.

The compact, lovingly maintained Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC) features displays of ethnic and regional dress and crafts from all over Laos, each group with its distinctive designs—typical of a mountainous country with few roads, where in every other valley you might encounter a different ethnic community. One of TAEC’s major concerns is the way high-fashion houses of couture around the world have shamelessly appropriated the patterns native peoples had developed over centuries. Indigenous textiles and dress, meticulously conceived and woven, then dismissively passed over as “folk,” now become, in cheapened imitation, the latest rage on the runways of Paris, Milan, and New York. Concerned spokespersons for the communities are trying to figure out ways to earn compensation for these ancient, stolen designs.

At Thinkeo Primary School near Luang Prabang. The children sing “Old MacDonald” as a treat for their visitors | Eric A. Gordon/PW

In schools, we learned, Lao is the standard teaching language, but special attention has to be given, in just about every part of the country, to students who speak other languages at home.

On to the capital

Our valiant tour leader Mai (whom we met in Bangkok, our first stop of the trip) intimated that Luang Prabang was the jewel of Laos and that the main reason we were visiting Vientiane, the capital, was so that no one should wonder what we might be missing. With 600,000 residents and growing, it is the commercial and economic capital of Laos as well as its political capital. Here one could see more government buildings, and on them, more frequently, the hammer and sickle flags of the ruling party.

A highlight is the royal family museum, in the palace where the last planned 1975 coronation never took place. It is more than an homage to one family, however, featuring intricately fashioned glass mosaics depicting episodes of Laotian life, and a series of stone tablets illustrating the evolution of Lao writing, all the way back to 1170 in its ancient form. Lao is closely related to Thai and is mutually understandable. In fact, Laos also accepts the Thai baht as currency; and everywhere, of course, the U.S. dollar—crisp and clean, preferably—is welcome.

Vitrines display photos and mementos, along with gifts presented to the king by ambassadors and visitors. One prize that caught my eye was a moonrock fragment mounted on a plaque, a gift from the U.S. “as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor [carrying] with it the hope of the American people for a world of peace,” signed by Richard Nixon, 1973—a year when his aerial bombing of Laos was very much still in progress.

As we departed, I asked our local guide, “How come in this Communist-governed country the royal family is treated so respectfully—no references to their wealth, exploitation, feudal lands?” His answer (paraphrased) was serene and almost spiritual, I thought. “They don’t attack the royal family because they know there are still people who admire them. But by making them into sort of politically neutral historical figures, they feel that in a generation or two, they’ll just recede into the past and no one will care much about them anymore. In the meantime, a lot of tourists want to see this place.”


Also in the capital city area is COPE—Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Since 1972, more than 20,000 civilians have been injured or killed by UXOs (unexploded ordinances), so COPE was founded to provide prostheses and physical rehabilitation to survivors and educate visitors about this continuing crisis. Of the over 270 million bombs dropped by the imperialists on the Lao people, roughly 30%—an estimated 81 million—failed to detonate. Of these, only a small percentage have been cleared.

So ubiquitous was the American bombing campaign in the region that deactivated and repurposed bomb parts can be seen in the unlikeliest of places: retaining walls, canoes, planters, doorstops, handicrafts, kitchenware, or even as load-bearing supports for traditional-style Lao homes built on wooden stilts.

The majority of these still extant munitions are buried under people’s homes or in farmlands. Because the economy is largely agrarian, tens of thousands of farmers and their family members face considerable risk whenever they work in the fields.

Even as Laos was hit by bombers aiming for traces of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the rest of the country became a dumping ground for U.S. planes heading back to their bases in Thailand. It was not safe to land with the payload still on board, so it was simply emptied on Laos before the pilots crossed back into Thailand. Planes also dispersed Agent Orange over the land, ostensibly to clear vegetation away so the HCM Trail could be better seen, but with horrible consequences, in both animal and human birth deformities, ever since.

Although many nations and private entities have lent their support to COPE over the years, the U.K. has been its most dependable funder. The film shown about the Center and its work, with stories of people who survived the bombings, was produced by the U.S. State Department! When I read that, I thought, Jeez, they should be funding this entire center and all its branch offices around the country with every last dollar’s worth of treatment and equipment!

On our trip, a fellow passenger, Sally (not her real name), told us that in her early 20s, she had been an officer working in intelligence, based in Thailand, analyzing data, and from it ordering sorties over this or that area. Only in later years had she come to understand the horrifying long-term effects of what she had been asked to do. I sensed in her reflection a profound remorse, which I understand is a common reaction when U.S. vets return to these besieged lands and meet face-to-face the suffering they were responsible for. (I had a similar experience with a Navy vet on my 2019 Vietnam tour. He was only 19 when he was last in DaNang, a small coastal village—now, he said, facing the waterfront of tall office and apartment buildings, all he recognizes of the place is the sea.)

Living with disability, Tuma with local guide Jet | Eric A. Gordon/PW

We met Tuma, born in 1950, one of those paraplegics caught up in the war. “I fought on the Royal side in the 1968-73 civil war, with support from the CIA. After months of training, I and my 15 buddies were sent to the front line. Someone stepped on a land mine and only I survived. I was unconscious, and when I woke, I was informed they had all died and I had lost both legs.” Tuma has worn out more than a dozen sets of prostheses since then. For 20 years, he used crutches to get around, but now he’s more mobile with his electric wheelchair.

Although he had been a royalist, he was not sent to re-education camp at war’s end, both because of his handicap and also because he was not a high-ranking officer. Others that he knew were forced to go, and some were able to leave the country. Eventually, in the year 2000, he met and married a fellow handicapped woman, blind and with one leg, and they have one daughter.

One of our group asked if he thought the U.S. owed the Laotian people reparations. Perhaps it was a touch of the Buddhist in him that responded. “The past is past. Our main concern now is maintaining peace and friendship with all peoples.”

Next year will mark half a century since Laos won its independence from imperialism. As far as the country has yet to go in terms of spreading the benefits of socialism to all its people, it must be given credit for what it has already achieved under the most trying of conditions. Some in our group wondered, what if the Americans had won? Would Laos, or Vietnam, or Cambodia, be something like Taiwan or South Korea now? That might be another article….

Two comprehensive articles on Laos by Michael Christopher here and here were helpful to my understanding of the country’s history.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.