Notes from the Field

A Drive To Vang Vieng

September 16, 2009

We started the drive to Vang Vieng early in the morning. It takes about three or four hours to get there from Vientiane on Highway 13, a long one-lane road that is bumper-to-bumper until you reach the city outskirts. Once out of the Lao capital, it becomes windy as Highway 13 stretches north. As the four of us – all born outside of Laos – drove north, we saw ducks and chickens being carted up country in large wooden baskets strapped to the back of buses. Black smoke wafted out of tailpipes and right onto the ducks and chickens. We made our way further into the lush, green countryside, crossing bridge after bridge, and road signs began to warn of steep turns, as we lurched from side to side. We saw young boys herding water buffalo and a road crew starting repair work to the highway in preparation for the 2009 Southeast Asian Games that the Lao PDR will host this year for the first time.

Ahead of the 2010 Southeast Asian Games, development begins on a riverfront boardwalk along the Mekong River near Vientiane.

Ahead of the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, development begins on a riverfront boardwalk along the Mekong River near Vientiane.

During the drive, it was hard to imagine that this was the same country that is known as the most bombed country per capita in history – a tragic legacy of the Vietnam War here in Laos. After communicating with the driver through my co-worker for the first half of the trip, I realized that he understood some basic English, and learned that he had taken English-language classes through the U.S. cultural centers back in the 1960s. Now he runs a rental car business with his sons. His tale reminded me of the generation gap I’d heard about in this country between older men who know some English and their children who were taught anything but. Until recently, some say it was easier to find a Lao adult who speaks Russian than English because of the extensive scholarships awarded to Lao youth to study in the former Soviet Union. These days, English-language training has proven valuable, especially for those wanting to work in the booming tourism industry or in international trade and commerce.

Once we arrive in Vang Vieng, I could see instantly why this town attracted so many during the rainy season. If I could have talked my co-workers into it, I would know first-hand how it got its reputation for water and adventure sports. Dozens of rafting and kayaking tour shops line the roads, almost as numerous as the bright yellow Beer Lao advertisements that sponsor everything from restaurant tablecloths to mobile phone recharging stations. As backpackers milled along the city streets, I counted more hostels than I had ever seen on one street before.

River view from Vang Vieng central.

River view from Vang Vieng central.

This adventure sport hotspot is also where The Asia Foundation is supporting citizen and local government groups to learn how to test, examine, and monitor their water resources. They are already aware of the importance of maintaining clean water for their health and livelihoods, but want to know more about better water protection methods. The preservation and protection of water resources in this lush, still-unspoiled country is clearly essential. The partners on our project work hard to ensure that their environment and resources are healthy and aren’t depleted so that they remain for future generations. I, having grown up in India, have witnessed increasing desertification and water depletion due to deforestation and erosion, and I’ve seen the resulting impact on farmers’ livelihoods in the once-famous bread basket of India. Seeing the rich and valuable resources in Laos made me want to reach out and protect the beautiful green trees and high waters myself before they were gone.

View from the top of a cave south of Vang Vieng.

View from the top of a cave south of Vang Vieng.

Laos has a reputation for its quiet, far-away beauty, one with a low-key atmosphere. But rapid changes are coming to parts of the country. There is an eager, younger generation itching to catch up to what their neighbors have and to what they see on TV. They are moving to the cities for work and opportunity. Ensuring that these modern changes are for the betterment of Laos will require increasing the capacity of local organizations and citizens to manage and protect their natural resources. Looking further up Highway 13, I could see where the road continued on its long way to the Burma, China, and Vietnam borders, and where I hear it is barely a paved road.

Bulbul Gupta is The Asia Foundation’s Grants Manager for Programs and Private Philanthropy.

View all posts by Bulbul Gupta

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