Laos is full of amazing cultural and natural wonders. This small landlocked county has a surprising amount of biodiversity, and a rich history stretching from prehistoric cultures to the 1975 revolution and beyond.
The critically endangered freshwater Siamese crocodiles live in central and southern Laos, in the wetlands river system. Adults are olive green and can reach up to two meters long and weigh 70kg. They are elusive in the wild, don’t attack humans and breed in April and May, just before Laos’ wet season. Agriculture, pesticide use, and the damming of rivers have led to habitat destruction.
Rural Lao people are by and large rice farmers, but they often supplement their diet by hunting and gathering in the rice paddies and the forests. It’s not uncommon to see a woman picking greens out of the ditch to serve with a bowl of khaopiak. Slingshots and nets are used to hunt for birds, frogs and fish. Snails are gathered from the rice stalks and everything from snakes to rats are fair game for the barbecue.
A history of narcotics
Laos has a long complex history with drugs like opium, magic mushrooms and marijuana that have been cultivated for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. During the secret war, US soldiers began buying drugs for recreational use and until quite recently drugs were freely available for purchase in the markets. The staple noodle soup, fer, used to have marijuana included in the list of ingredients. The Lao government has since made the sale and use of drugs illegal and have encouraged opium farmers to grow crops such as coffee instead.
Patuxai or Victory Gate is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Laos, situated opposite the Presidential Palace at the end of Lane Xang Avenue. The large arch is based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Forming the centerpiece of Patuxai Park, the monument is dedicated to the Laos people who were killed in the fight to gain independence from France, as well as the nation’s earlier occupiers, Japan and Siam. The exterior embellishments feature symbols of the Buddhist religion, including stupa-shaped towers and lotus leaves, along with statues of nagas (mystical water serpents) and animist kinnari (half-female and half-bird figures). For a small fee, visitors can climb to the top and enjoy a panoramic view of the Vientiane and see across the Mekong River to Thailand. Sometimes called “the vertical runway, it was completed in 1968 with funds from the US Government that were intended to be used for a new airport.
Monks and novices
The majority of Lao people are Theravada Buddhists. Almost every man has, at some point, lived at a monastery and served as a novice. Buddhist lent which falls between July and October, is a common time for boys to take up the saffron robes and earn merit or good karma for themselves and their mothers. While nuns exist in Laos, they are few and far between and often take up the cloth late in life after their husbands die.
UNESCO World Heritage sites
Laos has two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The town of Luang Prabang joined the cultural list in 1995 to protect the fusion of Lao and European architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wat Phou and several associated settlements in Champasak joined the list in 2001. The thousand-year-old Khmer-era temple was originally created to honor the Hindu gods but was later changed into a Buddhist temple.
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