January 2008

The People’s Democratic Republic of Lao comes in at 159 out of 175 according to a magazine article I read today.


Recent Australian volunteers have told me they were given a most warm reception my the Lao Ambassador in Canberra during their pre-departure training. He was generous with his time and put on a BBQ at his residence.

 The ambassador was really excited about showing the volunteers a home video he had of an ASEAN meeting from a few years ago. The video turned out to be of the famous ASEAN talent contest, where foreign ministers are required to perform at the end of the conference.  The Lao Ambassador thought they would find it really amusing to see Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Alexander Downer, belting out some number. I’m pretty sure that the talent contest isn’t accessible to filming for the general media. It’s impressive that someone from the Lao delegation snuck in a video camera.

Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are very similar in culture, not that any of them would admit that.

Each country’s National Museum has a map of South East Asia showing the size of their empire at the height of their power. The map always has the three countries of modern day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia joined together as one big country. In the Thai museum they claim this was once the size of Thailand, and likewise Laos and Cambodia make similar claims in their national museums.

The other common feature of all three countries is the “Palace of the Emerald Buddha”. The Emerald Buddha has been passed between the three countries over the centuries as they respectively conquered each other. It now resides in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. There are Wats (temples) dedicated to the Emerald Buddha in both Luang Prabang (Laos) and Phnom Pehn (Cambodia) where replicas are displayed.

The Lao people are pretty shitty about the Emerald Buddha being taken away from them. My understanding of it’s history, though sketchy and from forgotten sources, locates the Emerald Buddah’s origins in what is now North-East Thailand. This area was formerly part of the Kingdom of Lane Xang (Laos’ old school name). At some point Laos decided to relocate the Emerald Buddha up to their capital of Luang Prabang. When the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand’s old school name) conquered Laos they retook the Emerald Buddha and brought it down to their capital of Bangkok. Somewhere in the intertwining years Cambodia (I don’t know what they went by back in the day) made a smash and grab for the Emerald B and stashed in their crib in Phnom Pehn.

I told a Lao friend that I saw the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. He asked me how much they charged to see it. He thought that the Thais were probably charging a lot of money to see the Emerald Buddha. Money he thought should rightfully belong to Laos.

There is a lot of resentment in Laos against Thailand. Lao people think that Thais are up themselves. Thai people reciprocate in thinking Laos is backward and poor.

The most amusing thing I find about the highly sort after Emerald Buddha is that it’s not actually made of emerald. But I guess it’s not what it’s made of, it’s the spiritual meaning behind it. Or perhaps it’s not the spiritual meaning but more the fact that it’s mine and you stole it from me.

These hostilities are pretty superficial. When it comes down to it Lao people absolutely love Thai soap opera. The British are to Australian Soapies as Lao people are to Thai Soapies. Thai people reminisce of Laos being like the good old days in Thailand; simpler times and more traditional culture.

What all three countries most notably have in common are really friendly people. On a friendliness ranking I’d my personal experience ranks Cambodians first, Lao people second and Thais third. To give you a ballpark comparison to Australia try this exercise; think of the friendliest person you have ever met in Sydney (or substitute for your state or territory capital of choice). Got someone in mind? Well that person is still not even close to being as friendly and the grumpiest person you will ever meet in Thailand.

The kids you find in these countries are especially friendly. If you’re walking around town you’re bound to eventually be greeted by the following in quick succession; “Hello!”, “How are you?”, “I am fine!”, “My name is!”.

Angkor Wat Quick Fact

Angkor Wat houses Buddhist and Hindu statues because the king at the time of its construction worshipped both. It’s a pity that Australian high school history is so Eurocentric.

Vietname War Quick Fact

In Indochina they don’t call it the Vietnam was, it’s called the “American War”. Of course we couldn’t call it that in Australia because we’d get confused which American War we were talking about.

The World Health Organisation statistics for Lao PDR for 2005 say the average life expectancy at birth for male/females is 59/61 years old. This is a stark differencce of 20 years when compared to Australia’s 79/84 years old but it wasn’t so long ago that Australians faced a similar life span. Australia’s life expectancy at birth from 1901-10 it was 55-59. In 1920-22 it was 59/63*. Australians lived as long as the people in Laos do now only two to three generations ago. My grandparents would have faced something even worse by being born in China during the 1910s.