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Vientiane, Laos - Ruined By Capitalism
Laos - Communist Or Capitalist?
Officially, Laos is a communist country, and has been since 1975, however in recent years the affects of capitalism have become more evident. The New York Times did a story on the growth of capitalism in Laos, back in 2009. In the story they quote President Obama as saying "I hereby determine that The Laos People’s Democratic Republic has ceased to be a Marxist-Leninist country.” Similar statements have been made about other communist countries such as China and Vietnam, as they have opened their doors to foreign trade and investment. In many ways this would be seen as a positive development for a communist republic, however I had a chance to witness the dramatic changes to Laos over the past decade, and I find it to be disturbing.
Vientiane Laos, July 2001
It was my first trip to a communist country, and as I expected, Laos was very different than Thailand. The capital city was so small that tourists could walk from one end to the other in a short period of time. The streets were quiet, with very little traffic, and everything was amazingly clean and organized. The influence of French Colonialism was evident in the architecture of the buildings and the monuments around the city. It was like stepping back in time, to a European city in a previous century.
As my wife and I walked through the city we noticed that the people were all staring at us, as it turned out we had unknowingly caused quite a controversy. My wife was wearing a low cut, tight sleeveless shirt, that drew a lot of attention to her chest. While this would not be out of place in any western country, or even in neighboring Thailand, the fact that my wife was Thai, and looked like a local, had caused somewhat of a stir. Apparently the local culture did not permit women to wear sleeveless shirts, and it was preferred that women wear long traditional dresses with a specific sash.
This conservative culture was nothing like that of their neighbors across the river in Thailand. We didn't see any bars with girls working as prostitutes, and the nightlife was little more than a few cafes and bars where tourists could have a quiet drink. The people were poor, yet they seemed to be content, it almost seemed as if they had very little interest in money, unlike Thais, they were not constantly harassing you to buy something.
I fell in love with this quiet little city, and I felt as if it would be somewhere that I would like to settle down someday. It was just over the bridge from Nongkhai where my wife is from, and the cost of living was much less than in Thailand. It was cleaner, safer and more relaxing than anywhere else I had ever traveled. The only concern was that it was such a quiet little town, that it was likely to get boring after a while, but I certainly couldn't wait to return to Vientiane.
Vientiane Laos, July 2010
It had been almost a decade since my last trip to Laos, and I was really looking forward to returning to Vientiane. Unfortunately the Vientiane that I had fallen in love with had seemingly ceased to exist. The once quaint little capital that I had known years earlier, is now a bustling mess of tourists, touts, taxi drivers and hookers, all scrambling to get a piece of the action. Tourist dollars are up for grabs, and unlike the communist atmosphere I had noticed on my first visit, now the stench of capitalism is in the air. The cost of food, accommodation and transportation is as high as the major beach resort areas of Thailand, yet unlike places like Phuket, there is no beautiful beach, just a dry river bed where water once was, before dams choked the life out the mighty Mekong.
Crime is on the rise in Vientiane, there are bars with prostitutes catering to sex tourists, and reports of violence and theft are becoming more common. The cost of living has increased, and the quality of life has gone down the toilet. The locals have become focused on making a quick buck off the tourists, and their behaviour has gown more aggressive over the years. The average taxi fare is more than double what it would be in cities like Bangkok or Saigon, for just a short journey. I am afraid that capitalism has ruined Vientiane, and this will have been my last visit.