Oooops. Didn't mean to publish this one without writing a bit about the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.
Vientiane was actually a big city. We thought it would be more like Luang Prabang, but it was a real city. The population is still small; Laos only has about 6 million people total, about 75% of whom live in the countryside, but the city was alive and well. There was a pretty clear difference between the people who lived in this city and those who lived in the country. The city folk were more "Western" though we still saw many of the Asian characteristics that we've come to know. Cooking on the street, eating on the street while sitting on low stools, and bargaining in the markets were still very common sights. One uncommon sight for Laos was seeing police and military. Nowhere else but in the capital city did we see any police or military. And in the city, it was very common.
We did visit a great place in Vientiane. It was called the Buddha Park and it was constructed by a wild kind of artist. He envisioned a place where he could merge a lot of different religions. Hence, he reflected Buddhist, Hindu and other religions in the sculptures he placed throughout the park. Vishnu's, Krishna's, Buddha's and other imagery were all arranged in an awe-inspiring way. The guy was thought of as a kind of mad-scientist but as an artist. The biggest piece of art was the round (representing the earth) globe that we could enter and walk through. It had 3 levels representing hell, earth, and heaven. It was dark inside each level but some light managed to shine through the small windows for the 2 upper levels. But hell was dark and when we shone a light and the flashes from the cameras, we saw many figures that looked hellish. They were fighting or disfigured or in excruciating positions. It was quite a sight and a bit creepy too. The level of earth was much more comfortable to view as was heaven. After reaching heaven, we could exit the globe and sit on the outside of it and look out on the entire park from the elevated position. The park was really an interesting sight and place. Many people, including the neighboring monks, used the park as a quiet sitting place to relax and read.
We met a few monks, some of whom were novices, who requested some help with their English and their English homework. Of course, Laurie got to talking and the monk surprised us when he pulled out a cigarette and started smoking it. We know that monks are not supposed to do that and that he was breaking one of the several rules he agreed to follow. As this trip has progressed, much of the Buddhist mystique has been dispelled. Many novices seem to be in it because, if they are the eldest son, they are expected to join for some period of time, and if not the eldest, they may have joined for the cheap and good education. All good reasons for joining, but it seems the principles of being a novice or monk may be abused or neglected at times. In other words, they ain't perfect and they is human...just like the rest of us. While it has been great to learn about the religion and try to see its effect on the people in general, it has been interesting to see its flaws and/or weaknesses as well.
One thing I was looking forward to learning about was how the government (socialist/communist) interacted with and affected the people's lives. While we were in the countryside, it didn't seem to affect them much, but of course, we just got a cursory look. So I thought we might get a better picture of the communist situation while in the city. Unfortunately, we didn't. Well, maybe that's not the best way to look at it.
From our few days there, it seemed that capitalism was in effect. Shops were bargaining: individuals were deciding how much to pay or to accept; much of the markets and streets didn't look too different from Bangkok (smaller yes, but in the capitalistic sense, no); people were dressed however they wanted and mostly in western styles, though the ladies did wear a similar kind of skirt. Life in general didn't look too different than what we saw in Thailand and Cambodia. Again, we have been on the move, so we have gotten decent looks, but I can't say that we are experts or anything like that; but things looked pretty similar. I can't say that the communism/socialism has made much of a difference from the democratic/capitalist countries. Rather than thinking, "What is the difference?", maybe we can say that there isn't much of a difference these days. I do know that China has given a lot of aid to Laos to help build up its infrastructure, but so has Thailand. I also know that Laos' #1 export is hydroelectricity and China is the #1 importer of it....I wonder why they gave so much aid, hehe.
I'm not sure how the government works or how big decisions are made. I did see that the government is trying to increase per capita income, but is that by making the rich richer and thereby affecting the average? Dunno. Another question I never got to answer for instance, was if the people get to vote for any of the members of the government. Well, I'm not sure; I never found out. But in terms of daily life, it doesn't seem to be an oppressive government in the way that our textbooks taught us about Russian Communism, and I look forward to being able to compare Laos to Vietnam because Vietnam is also Communist and seeing how its form of communism reflects itself in daily life.
In general our time in Laos was absolutely amazing. We had such a great time and it had a great feel to it. We felt safe and comfortable every moment we were there. The people were very kind and welcoming, and the pace of life was extremely easy-going. We will miss Laos and will have wonderful memories of it. If we could return and visit again, we surely will.