Laos – “The Land of a Million Faces”
When you have heard it you must see it; when you have seen it make a judgement with your heart. (Lao proverb)
“Laos”, or the “Lao People’s Democratic Republic”, used to call itself “Lan Xang“, the Land of a Million Elephants (and White Parasols), when it was a unified kingdom (1354 to 1707). After having been able to live and work closely together with Lao inhabitants for four months in Team VII one thing became clear: It is not the elephants that I keep in mind when I think back to Laos. In my mind, it is the people and their stories that make the country so remarkable – a million different stories told by a million different faces.
Editor’s note: The narratives below are collated from the author’s informal chats1 with Lao people or from her personal observations.
We are sellers
Some of us have shops. During daytime, we sell self-made as well as imported products such as groceries, fabrics, baskets, and souvenirs. During nighttime, we live and sleep on our premises.
Others have stalls along the street or at several markets in town. The ones who sell at the morning market usually get up at sunrise to harvest fields and patches. Then they head to Vientiane city center and sell their crop to many Lao people. They do their shopping early in the morning to get fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, or meat for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Particularly restaurant and soup kitchen owners visit the market every day. Right after they finished their shopping, they start cooking to be able to serve Lao noodle soup, sticky rice, morning glory, and lots of other Lao delicacies at noon.
The ones who sell at the night market start setting up their stalls in the early afternoon. From 5 to 10 p.m., they sell paintings, electronics, jewelry, clothes, and food. Especially the falang2 like strolling across the market to buy souvenirs for their friends and family at home.
The majority of us work from Monday to Monday. We do not have vacations or holidays. People depend upon us and we depend upon them. It is a give-and-take from both sides.
We are drivers
The majority of us call their TukTuk a second home. As a TukTuk driver, you spend your day on the streets, always on the lookout for new passengers. In Europe, one would probably call us taxi drivers. Usually, we build our vehicles ourselves by equipping a motorbike or scooter with an attachment on which our customers can sit while their ride from one place to another. As we are many drivers in Vientiane, which is the capital of Laos, we do not have passengers continuously. In such cases, we chat with our colleagues while waiting for the next fare. Our custom consists of locals and tourists. The size of a TukTuk varies, depending on the number of people we want to carry. For two or three volunteers of the Lao-German-Technical College, a small TukTuk is sufficient. A bigger one is needed when seven young ladies, e.g. the AfC-volunteers who live out of town, want to head back home. Still, whatever the case, we do our best to accommodate the passengers – even if that means driving down a bumpy and muddy road in the Lao countryside.
If we do not drive TukTuks, we work as bus drivers for travel agencies. This means: Driving back and forth between the northern, southern, eastern, and western parts of Laos. Passengers can either take our mini-vans or the usual coaches. They commute on a daily basis and carry between 15 and 70 people from place A to place B. A heavily travelled route is the eight to twelve-hour-ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, for example. The passengers’ luggage gets transported on the roof. During the ride, there can sometimes be hazardous driving conditions especially when it rains cats and dogs in the mountains. We are used to those situations, but our customers – the tourists in particular – oftentimes struggle with the givens.
If we do not drive a bus, we offer transportation on the water. As a boater in Luang Prabang, we bring people from one riverside of the Mekong to the other. One can compare us to a TukTuk driver: Our customers are either Lao nationals or tourists from all over the world. Also, we build the boats on our own and alienate several objects to equip our means of transportation: Side-mirrors from cars serve as mirrors for steering the boat; car seats provide the passengers with comfortable seating arrangements. In the south of Laos, near the border to Cambodia, the Mekong river stretches out for miles in width, and Lao inhabitants as well as foreigners are even more dependent on barge traffic here than in the north. Around Don Det, one of the 4,000 islands in the riverine archipelago Si Phan Don you can visit down there, many of us boaters bring tourists from the mainland onto the many different islands.
We are teachers
At the Lao-German Technical College, we teach the subjects we majored in during our studies. Those can range from the “usual” subjects like English, mathematics, and physics to more specific ones that go with a certain technical training offered by the college. Our school days are not very different from those of other teachers in other countries: We start early in the morning, between seven and eight o’clock and finish our lessons in the afternoon. Some of us also teach in the evenings in our second jobs. At noon, we all have lunch together. There are plenty of possibilities to get food: On campus, we have our own little “canteen”, which is outdoors. Down the street, only a few minutes away from college, there are a few families who cook and sell delicious noodle-soup and other Lao meals in front of their house. That is where most of us spend their one-hour lunch break. Afterwards, we continue teaching our students who are between 14 and 25 years old. From time to time, there are meetings at very short notice and we have to cancel our classes. A thing you might notice when looking at the photos: When we are on duty, we have to wear uniforms. Their style and colors vary depending on the day of the week.
What we appreciate the most: We are not just colleagues who meet each other in school. We are also friends who spend their free time together, who celebrate festivities like the international Teachers’ Day and who have a friendly connection to their students. Why is that so? The answer is easy: As many of us come from villages far away from Vientiane and can therefore not live with their families, we have the possibility to reside next to the college in a teachers’ dormitory. So, for the ones who are not united with their parents and step-parents, brothers and sisters, cousins, ants and uncles, we are happy to serve as their Vientiane-family.
We are children
…and we are many! Like all children, we love to play. If our parents have enough money and there is a market nearby our home, they can afford toys. If not, we take what we find in our environment and make them ourselves. This can be fun!
Usually, we are outdoors because of the numerous things to discover. Still, some of our friends prefer to be inside watching TV or videos on their parents’ cell phones. It always depends on where you grow up. In the countryside, being outside is the biggest part of our lives. Since our parents and grand-parents (who look after us) give us space and are not too strict, they let us make our own experiences. So we learn from our mistakes and become autonomous quite fast. Nevertheless, we help our family members with their work when needed and sell various products in the streets. What we like about our life here in Laos: The scooter rides! Sometimes, our whole family sits on one single motor scooter. Imagine – five persons on one vehicle! Another enjoyable part of our Lao everyday life is school. We are happy having the chance to learn calculating, reading, and writing. Above all, we are able to meet our friends there.
We are students
If we do not live too far away from civilization, we become students around the age of six. In primary school, we learn how to read, write, and calculate. Unfortunately, not all of us are able to attend class. We also live in rural or mounainous areas with only a few inhabitants and no existing school. If we do not get taught by our parents or other people, we remain illiterate. In bigger villages and towns the situation is different. Even though many schools are poorly equipped, we have access to education, and that is worth a lot. Certainly, there are also model schools which serve as beacons of orientation for other institutional facilities.
At Sikeud Primary School, for example, we have lunch at school and Activity Time in the afternoon. We can choose from diverse activities such as “Hula Hoop”, dancing, singing, and chanting. All of us wear school uniforms. We even have a library with many interesting picture books! Some we even wrote and drew ourselves!
After five years at Primary School, we attend Lower Secondary School. A few of us move on to Higher Secondary School, which is comparable to High School. At the age of 14, we graduate and then either start to work or – if possible – continue our school career at a higher institution of education to get trained in a specific field of expertise. We older students in the photos below attend the Lao-German Technical College at Vientiane. We complete a two- to three-year apprenticeship which combines lots of practical training with classes that teach the theoretical framework. At the college, we also have access to a library, a canteen, and useful tools and appliances.
We are workers
… and we represent a variety of services Lao people offer, be it construction, hairdressing, or gardening.
As a construction worker, we work on construction sites that can be fairly dangerous due to the climbing on the scaffolds made of bamboo. Especially in the summer, the weather conditions can be tough, which makes the job strenuous. Gardeners, agricultural workers, and fishermen share the same fate – 40 degrees, a humidity of over 60 %, and scattered heavy rain. Nonetheless, we withstand the hardships and keep smiling true our the motto of muan.
We are Hmongs3
… and amongst others one of the multitudinous Lao ethnic groups. In the photos below, you can see us celebrating Hmong New Year, which takes place at the end of the twelfth lunar calendar month. As indicated below, many of our people wear traditional clothes at this special time of the year. The Hmong who live in the city put them on when they go to the New Year festival itself, but not for work. Others who live in remote mountain villages wear their costumes throughout the year. We spend hours, days, months sewing those garments. In the end, the colorful outcome can definitely be shown as much as possible.
During Hmong New Year, several customs are practised. When strolling around the festival, you can listen to our traditional music. Moreover, the older girls and boys play the famous Hmong game “pov pob“. We line up, face each other, and throw a ball back and forth. As we do not know our counterpart, we chat while throwing the ball hoping to find our life companion eventually.
Children, students, teachers, gardeners, woodworkers, construction workers, Hmong people, drivers, sellers … Laos has a million faces. This article only showed a few of them, so there are still plenty to discover. Now that you have “heard” it, go and see to make your own judgement – with your heart.
Text & photos by P. Hopp
1 Getting into conversation with Lao people happens quite fast – and be it with hands and feet as only a few speak and understand English. In my experience, most Lao people are very interested when encountering a foreigner, so chatting to them is a matter of course. Chatting itself is a prominent feature of social cohesion and friendliness in Laos and belongs to the Lao mentality.
2 “Farang“ (colloquially [falàŋ]) is an informal Thai and Lao expression that denotes a (white) “foreigner”.
3 This ethnic group has been chosen due to my frequent contact with Hmong people: Not only did I teach several Hmong students, I also lived next-door to a Hmong family with whom we had close contact throughout our stay in Laos.
(Note by the editor: “Hmong history I-III”, a 3-part article by the author’s fellow-volunteer Dilara Erdogan will be published on this blog later this summer.)