By now you've probably picked up a bit of info about our present and past projects...
For those of you who are interested...and have the time... here's a bit about the country itself:
LAOS... the Lao PDR, or Peoples Democratic Republic, in the center of South East Asia, is totally land- locked and uncomfortably sandwiched between burgeoning China and barely functional Myanmar (Burma) to its north, domineering VietNam across the Annamite Range to its east, distressingly poor Cambodia to its south and often politically unstable Thailand to its west.
The mighty four-and-a-half thousand-kilometre long Mekong River rolls through the country, which lies almost entirely within the Lower Mekong Basin.This lush tropical land, almost exactly the same size in land area as the Australian State of Victoria and where summer temperatures hover around a humid forty degrees, is so mountainous that only 4% of its land is arable.
Prey to its geography, Laos is equally a victim of the convulsions of its modern history. Lulled into naivety bycenturies of soft despotic rule by an hereditary elite, Laos was ill-prepared for the turmoil brought by 19th and 20th century colonialism
First came the French who were guilty of doing little more than nothing, leaving a legacy of an infrastructure and development void. Then came the Americans who did a great deal more, none of it either good or useful. Under the auspices of the now not-so-Secret War, Laos, though technically a neutral country at the time of the Viet Nam conflict, suffered heavy bombardment, by the US Air Force during the so-called ‘Secret War’ with recent official figures showing more than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, mostly along its eastern border with Viet Nam; ostensibly to disrupt supplies travelling along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This outnumbers the total quantity of bombs dropped per capita on both Germany and Japan during the whole of World War 2. The legacy of this was an unquantifiable amount of Unexploded Ordinance (UXO), mostly cluster bombs, left randomly scattered, which to this day still cause fifty to sixty casualties a year, most of them children.
The political end result of all this human tragedy was that Laos, ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, transmogrified with difficulty, into the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos, a Communist entity much influenced by big brother neighbours, VietNam and China. For almost 15 years, under a hardline communist regime, the economy was flatlining... people were close to starvation. Since the early ’90’s, under a somewhat more enlightened administration, the Lao PDR has been going through the same painful switch to a ‘socialist orientated market economy’ as its two communist neighbours China and Viet Nam. Even so, 75% of the Laos population still earn less than $3.00 - $4.00 a day and the country remains on the UNDP’s list of least developed countries. With virtually no tax base, and no money for infrastructure development, the government has had to and still does rely heavily on foreign aid.
Although many people stay in touch through inexpensive mobile phones, land communications remain extremely sparse. In the whole country there are less than seven thousand kms. of rudimentary paved roads serviced by a dilapidated, although modernising bus fleet. There are no rail lines. Although perhaps here would be a good place to mention that the Chinese have been working, since April 2011, to build a 421 km high-speed railway from the Laos-China border through the heart of the country to the capital Vientiane and then onward into Thailand and Bangkok. Projected to be finished in 2020 and able to carry passengers and freight at 200+kph, this will be the first high speed rail in SE Asia and will form part of the Asean-China rail link, which begins in southern China’s Yunnan province and runs to Singapore through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. This will almost certainly have a revolutionary impact on transport in Laos.
Economy, Health and Education:
Three quarters of the Laotian population work in subsistence agriculture and manage, just, to scrape by on between $3 and $5 a day. This leaves the government with practically no tax base from which to derive funds for infrastructure, medical or educational projects.
Consequently the Laotian economy is massively dependent on foreign aid and investment, so life is frequently a hand-to-mouth struggle for a large part of Laos’s six million people who are made up of around fifty ethnic groups. Lao’s main exports are timber, hydroelectricity, coffee, tin, copper and gold.
Health services are sparse and out-dated, poorly equipped, under-staffed and unhygienic. Average life expectancy is given as 56.
Village schools, where they exist, are spartan, often with raw cement floors, tin roofs and crowded classes; the only teaching aids are a blackboard and chalk. Many students walk to and from home for long distances to attend lessons and for many years it was rare for pre-primary-aged village children to have even seen an illustrated book.
Religion, Ethnic Minorities:
What has perhaps eased the blows to the Lao people caused by the upheavals of colonialism and 20th century war is their very vibrant spiritual life; more than a dash of spirit worship peppers their strong Theravada Buddhist beliefs. In the former northern Royal Capital of Luang Prabang there are more than thirty wats (temples), the oldest dating back to the mid fifteen hundreds, and an ever-changing population of around 3000 novice monks. Daily life for the general population revolves around Buddhist practice. It is impossible for even the most casual visitor to be unaware of this religious depth to daily life. It is apparent in the constant presence of the orange robed monks and novices in the streets, the formal religious activities taking place in the various wats almost daily...to which the public are always welcomed.
The majority Lao Loum constitute half of the population. The next largest group are the Hmong, a socially marginalized people who have come as economic and social refugees from southern China over the last two hundred years or so and whose diaspora is spread throughout neighboring countries. They number more than 300,000 and practice slash and burn agriculture. There is also a sizeable population of Khmu. Despite their cultural and religious differences the entire pot-pouri of ethnicities manages to rub along fairly well together