Laos is a fascinating little country located smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia, wedged firmly between Thailand, China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, the official emblem of its power was the rare albino elephant, a mascot recently re-adopted by the communist government in Vientiane. Laotians are pleasant, mellow people, always smiling and offering a friendly “sabadee,” and the lumbering yet enigmatic elephant seems a fitting symbol for their laid-back society. But there’s much more than meets the eye to this lazy jungle paradise.
Because of its strategic location, Laos (actually pronounced “Lao” by backpackers and other politically correct travelers) has been a pawn in many of the region’s military conflicts. Even Dax, who is our resident history expert (no matter that my undergraduate degree is in history—he knows more), was unaware of the extent of the “Secret War” which our country conducted in Laos during the 60’s and 70’s. Both the US and Vietnam had agreed at the Geneva Accords to stay out, but neither had any intention of letting the other gain a foothold in the country. Thus, each conducted full-scale covert operations. The Vietnamese were more brazen in their defiance, deploying more than 60,000 personnel to eastern Laos, while the US sent in small teams of CIA operatives, “advisers,” and military personnel to spearhead a Lao defense. Many of these undercover Americans had to renounce their citizenship, deny any association with the government, and agree to suicide if captured. In this bizarre war, no one wore uniforms. Nothing was official. The ultimate black op. The secret American airbase in Long Cheng was one of the busiest airfields in the world, but did not appear on maps and is not currently open to visitors. The country is the most heavily bombed per capita in the world and hundreds of citizens still die each year as a result of encounters with unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Along with this checkered geopolitical past, Laos has long borne the nefarious distinction of being one of the world’s foremost producers of opium, a vertex in the famed Golden Triangle. According to recent reports, the government claims the country to be officially poppy-free and therefore devoid of heroin and opium as well. We certainly hope this is true, but our brief experience indicates otherwise. Ever since we entered Vietnam, Tom has been regularly approached with offers of illicit goods and services and Laos was no different. Actually I take that back. It was different. Whereas before he was only approached if alone or with one of the big boys, the enterprising dealers in Luang Prabang drove up on their motorbikes and offered their wares even when he was flanked by his wife and all four children. Now before you conjure up any frightening images in your mind, understand this about Southeast Asia: the drug peddlers we’ve encountered aren’t the sleazy, scary type, but amiable, clean cut businessmen who wear windbreakers and are happy to walk away when you say no. This doesn’t mean we condone their activities or want to chat with them, just that we accept them as part of the landscape and don’t freak out when they approach.
We’ve grown so accustomed to the dealers, that at times our reactions might seem strange. On our last night in Luang Prabang, we met with our traveling friends, Tim and Rea, to say a final goodbye before our paths diverged. We’ve followed similar paths through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and run into each other at least four times along the way. As they’re soon heading to Australia and we’re going to India, this was going to be our last meeting for the year. After a nice dinner together, we hung out on a street corner and chatted until most of the town had gone to sleep (this is about 10:30 in Laos). We reminisced about places we had been, discussed the Lao kids, and laughed about all the drugs we had been offered. We even changed one of our favorite hawker refrains, “Hello, Banana?,” into “Hello, Opium?” We said our final goodbyes and parted, sad that we wouldn’t be seeing each other again soon, but glad that we had formed a new friendship. Our little clan hadn’t made it 50 feet down the road when a little man pedaled by on a bicycle and furtively yet cheerily asked, “You want opium?” After a pregnant pause, we all burst into laughter. The dealer, only mildly surprised, stared at us for a moment and then rode away.
These propositions have led to candid family discussions about drugs and drug use, not much different than those we have at home. The kids know drugs are dangerous and forbidden, yet at the same time, we want them to understand the reasons for their prevalence in some of the areas we’ve traveled. Their accessibility does not speak as much to the character of these countries as to that of their tourists. For a long time, Westerners came here specifically for cheap drugs, and if our powers of observation are accurate, some still do. In Vang Vieng, where we went tubing on the Nam Song River, the tube proprietors practically begged the backpacker crowd to refrain from drug use, but in a town where you can get “happy” pizza, their pleas are largely in vain.
The bottom line is if travelers didn’t want drugs, then locals wouldn’t sell them. Until our fellow foreigners stop buying, we’ll have to put up with the solicitations. We like to tease Tom that something about his appearance prompts the offers….perhaps the goatee or that dangerous look in his eye? We just have to remind the kids that once we get home, the proper response to “You want opium?” isn’t to laugh uncontrollably or tease their dad about his grooming habits.