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Laos, the small China of tomorrow

by Antonio Talia, images by Pascal Meunier, LUZ

Seven million inhabitants, zero landings on the sea and widespread poverty: until recently, Laos was the Cinderella of Southeast Asia, a small state that emerged from French retreats in the post-Colonial period, victim of a secret war unleashed by the CIA along the Mekong, crushed between much more powerful neighbours such as China, Vietnam and even Cambodia. Yet, its surprising history and geographical location at the centre of a new, great trade game between the Far East and the Indian Ocean have laid the foundations for an economy that is on its way round the neck on an annual growth of 8% and for a development that other nations in the area are almost beginning to envy. On the other hand, what can be expected if not unexpected upheavals from a country where a prince claiming the crown comes to power as leader of the Communist Party?
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Between' 64 and' 73, while American campuses protest the whole Southeast Asia is on fire. The war in Vietnam is widening to include all neighbouring nations and Laos is located in the difficult pivotal position of the so-called "Ho Chi Minh Trail", an integrated supply system that pierces thousands of kilometres of jungle to provide North Vietnamese communists with vehicles, weapons and fuel.
In Washington, some people have been reminded that Laos - with its internal divisions between warlords and local nobles - could be "a great place to have a war": the result is that over two million tons of opium trafficking and CIA covered bases are unhooked over nine years on Laotian territory, making it the most bombed territory in history.
In 1975 the war ended with the fall of Saigon and the equilibriums of the area were redefined also in Vientiane, capital of Laos; Prince Souphanouvong, an aristocrat educated in France who mastered eight different languages and in the meantime became a communist guerrilla warrior, took office as the first president of the Lao People's Democratic People's Republic of Laos. The "Red Prince" will remain in charge until 1986; the Laos is now a small tile that in the Southeast Asian domino depends in everything and everything on the Vietnamese.
These were the years in which China on the one hand and Thailand on the other fuelled mysterious local guerrillas to overthrow the Laotian government, but in the meantime, with a series of progressive openings to the market economy, the country began to project itself towards a new era. The single party remains in power but the barriers to foreign investment fall, four "bridges of friendship" open to re-establish relations with the Thais, political exiles are encouraged to return with their capitals, so much so that today one of the hotel-resorts in the background of the sumptuous former capital of the kingdom Luang Prabang is owned by Princess Manilai, a member of the old royal family.
villaggi turistici in laos
The voice spreads and in a few years the Laos becomes a privileged destination in the underground circuit of backpackers, improvised walkers and bustle-hunting for "real" emotions from Southeast Asia: In addition to the all-inclusive package transgressions of Bangkok and Pattaya, as well as the tourist-formed ruins of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear, Laos has gained a reputation as an adventurous and underground destination that perhaps only rivals the musical scene of the Jakarta basements or, in other ways, Nepal.
Bo pen nhang, "Take it slow", one of the mantras of the laos, is now turning into "we are getting faster and faste ": impromptu tourism of the past decades is becoming organised, with increasingly sophisticated guided tours to historic wonders such as Luang Prabang - a complex of over 50 villages that in some areas can be visited on the back of an elephant and offers numerous temples and monasteries in which the tradition of Theravada Buddhism has been preserved in a much more authentic way than in more famous places - or the Buddha Park, in the heart of the city.
With the return of the exiles' capitals - and massive foreign investment - everywhere hotels are built to measure for Chinese and Korean visitors, but also resorts with a more western taste: the government decided that 2018 will be the year of tourism in Laos and to accredit the nation within increasingly sophisticated circuits is launching initiatives such as the Dansavanh Tournament and next November's national games, dedicated to sportsmen who want to try out specialties such as rock and marathon, but also experiment golf courses increasingly widespread throughout the territory. With its mountainous territory, Laos is developing a kind of national obsession for golf, in an attempt to attract players from the rest of Asia, Europe and the United States, and perhaps also to show off its growing prosperity.
attirare il turismo in laos
Tourism and other industries such as textiles and construction are increasing internal consumption and liberating the most hedonistic side of society, embodied in characters such as Kai, singer and pop band leader Overdance: the girls lao reproduce her look and dream of a dream wedding like the one the musician staged in 2009; the boys are inspired by the other members of the group - Jeng, Ek, Ard and Tui - and wait for the weekend to show off their jackets, ties and combing crest.
The main driving force behind this development is Chinese interests. Let's take for example villages such as Ban Napia, which so far have been based on the tenacity and despair of the locals, capable of transforming the legacy of the war into a means of livelihood: during the conflict, the B-52 dropped an average bomb every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for the duration of nine years. It is estimated that some 80 million bombs have remained unexploded, resulting in years later in a trail of victims that continues to this day. The most affected province of Xieng Khouang, together with other areas, has developed an entire parallel economy based on the excavation, neutralisation and recycling of devices. From spoons to lids, from tables built on mortar remains to sheets recovered from military posts, each house houses products made from military objects. Just as the inhabitants of Ban Napia and many other villages have been able to exploit the past despite them, the old Ho Chi Minh Trail and the adjacent routes, along which military supplies were once transported, are now becoming a crucial economic corridor.
templi in laos
The immense project of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping is called "One Belt-One Road": these are infrastructures and means of communication with a total value of one thousand billion dollars that will wind through 60 different nations to definitively consecrate Beijing's vision of a new globalization 2.0.
While the Trump administration in the United States is calling itself out of the Trans Pacific Partnership - an economic pact that should have linked the two shores of the Pacific in an immense market with reduced tariffs and barriers - China is taking on the role of major sponsor of the movement of goods, aware of the need for new markets to which its products will be increasingly quickly spilled.
In Laos, this vision translates into a high-speed railway line that will cut the territory from north to south, from the borders with China passing through the capital Vientiane to a new bridge of friendship with Thailand, a 6 billion dollar project capable of crossing a 70% mountainous territory full of unexploded bombs, and then flow into another corridor that will arrive to the ocean and beyond, up to and including through Laos, by 2021, Beijing will thus ensure direct access to the Strait of Malacca, where much of the oil needed to fuel its economy passes.
Beyond the railway line, the other major engine of development is energy: thanks to its position the Cinderella of the area suddenly found herself playing the role of "battery of Southeast Asia". The numerous dams on the high course of Mekong - at least ten Chinese-designed dams, but there are also Thai projects - are moving resources and capital, while villages separated from the rest of the country suddenly become huge open-air construction sites, which according to the government will be able to generate billions of dollars to reinvest in education and health care.
il futuro del laos tra innovazione e forza economica
Through these revolutions, Laos plans to leave the UN list of less developed nations by 2020.
In Vang Vieng, now connected to Vientiane only by a road scattered with holes, trucks, bulldozers, concrete mixers and Chinese workers have already arrived, and are building three tunnels through the mountains overlooking the Nam Song River.
The works for the dams change the face of places like Xayaburi, until yesterday a town of 16 thousand inhabitants and today a building site with lots of roads and airport.
What impact can this change have in the space of a few years on a nation that has lived the same way for centuries, between rice paddies and rivers? Many former farmers have received compensation for expropriation of land used for rail or hydroelectric projects and are reinventing merchants. Reconverting the metal of American bombs for other uses becomes an increasingly less widespread business. In several areas, the renminbi, the Chinese currency, is now circulating freely and is used to trade in parallel with the lao kip, the local currency.
In Vientiane, the Lao Securities Exchange, the first (and only) Laos stock exchange, opened six years ago.
il vecchio e il nuovo si incontrano
Most of the population practises theravada Buddhism, but all the lay people also believe in an ancestral animist religion called Sasana Phi, where offerings dedicated to spirits of traditional places such as rice paddies, rivers and waterfalls are practiced. Perhaps dams and railroads will be able to carry a better karma without disturbing spirits too much.

Certainly, the "Bo pen nhang", the "Take it slow" of tradition, looks more and more like a memory.

potenza economica del laos

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