Laos: First Impressions
In mid-June I took an 11-hour train ride from Bangkok to Nong Kai, a town on the edge of the Thai-Lao border. From here I took a 3-minute tuk tuk ride to the Thai border immigration building and exited Thailand. Along with all the other people traveling to Laos, I boarded a full bus (some people even standing) which then drove us across the Mekong river on the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Along the sides of the bridge were flags, at first only Thai flags, but halfway across the Mekong they changed into the red and blue flags bearing the white moon of the Lao PDR. From the bridge the bus headed towards the Lao border welcome center. I saw many residential dwellings outside the bus windows, but my view was soon obstructed by lush greenery. The tunnel of greenery surrounding the bus then opened up to reveal my destination, and in front of it, alongside the Lao flag, flew the flag of the working-class; the crimson banner was hoisted high, and upon it the golden hammer and sickle.
Prior to leaving the U.S. I had built up certain expectations based upon the limited resources I could access from the West, but these expectations were flawed as they had never been concretely tested - I had read about Laos but had not been there. To fully convey my first impressions, I feel it is only appropriate to first lay out my expectations before arriving.
Laos is a developing country: I expected there would be notable poverty, wealth inequality, lacking development and infrastructure, and little to no access to certain products and services (especially those from the West).
Inflation has been drastically rising along with a fuel crisis due to the Ukraine War: I expected there would be long queues for fuel, and desperation on the part of those workers relying on fuel imports. That the government would step in to help fix the crisis, and that foreign currency would be restricted.
COVID-19 has been dealt with strictly, but in a distinctly different way than in China: I expected mandatory public masking (both inside and outside), sanitization stations, thermometers, and restricted activities and services due to the pandemic.
Laos is a Marxist-Leninist Republic led by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP): I expected people would feel strongly, either for or against the ruling LPRP. That some people and youth would identify openly as Communists, and that there would be open and proud displays of Communist aesthetics and art, as well as other open displays of Communist influence in the superstructure of society. Although Laos is a developing country, there would be plenty of public services available to the people.
Laos is a developing country. There are in fact signs of some wealth inequality and lacking development, but far fewer than originally expected. Luxury cars drive along the same roads as beat-up hand-me-down motorbikes. Large luxury houses along dirt roads. Many modern projects are just now well underway, but just across the street from them one can see rundown housing and small businesses; a reminder that the country is still in the early stages of Socialist development.
There are clear signs of foreign bourgeois who have come to “earn” their riches. There are many onlookers who would take this opportunity to critique Laos, but it is important to understand that this development, as in other Marxist-Leninist republics such as Vietnam and China, is a calculated and intentional factor in the vital early stages of Socialist construction and development.
Foreign products are not as rare as I had expected, but can be hard to find depending on the product, and cost a premium compared to local products of similar quality. For example, a small can of Pringles can be purchased for nearly $2 USD, compared to local bags of chips costing around $0.50 USD. Foreign appliances and electronics are more common than foreign branded food with brands such as Samsung, Huawei, and Apple being found in every electronics store. Unlike consumer items, these products tend to be similar in price to back home.
Inflation & Fuel are an issue. Inflation has been on the rise in Laos. According to the Bank of the Lao PDR it is at a 22-year high of 23.61% as of June 2022. A major reason for the high inflation is the decline of foreign currency coming into the country through tourism, which was completely shut down for public safety due to the COVID pandemic. The decline of incoming foreign currency, combined with inflation, has drastically impacted state-owned enterprises.
The energy monopoly Electricité du Laos (EDL) has reported massive losses, with inflation playing a key part. EDL buys energy from foreign investor-owned dams in foreign currency, then sells the energy in Lao Kip. The high levels of inflation make it harder to buy energy in foreign currency and be profitable. EDL acknowledges it cannot charge the Lao people higher prices, which would either bankrupt the people or leave them without energy, but because of the negative margins, the government has to borrow money to keep EDL running. The borrowing is usually done in foreign currency, so this problem becomes cyclical.
The government has tried to rein in the currency market in order to bring the foreign currency exchange down to the bank rate, but thus far has seen little results. The black market currency exchange currently exchanges the Kip at around 17,000 to the dollar, while the official bank rate has held consistently at around 15,000 to the dollar. The government has also restricted the use of foreign currencies in many transactions in order to further strengthen the Kip.
There are visible signs of fuel shortage in the country, but the situation has continued to improve since early July. Lines for gas stations often span into the streets, and prices are high, but since the government began taking action to lend money, institute reforms, and grant certain exemptions to fuel importers, the lines have continued to shorten by the day. One factor that has helped soften the effect of the shortage is that many Lao people have means of transportation which do not rely on gasoline, such as electric motorbikes, bicycles, and walking.
Where is COVID? Laos has done incredibly well controlling COVID, and this can be seen by the new case count of July 8th, only seven cases in the whole country, with a population of over seven million. For the entirety of the pandemic, Laos has only had 757 deaths, a death rate of 0.01%, compared to the 0.3% death rate in the United States.
When I arrived, the country had already relaxed quite a bit on mandates and lockdowns, the only thing I have been required to do so far is be vaccinated to enter the country. People still wear masks and there are thermometers with built in sanitizer dispensers at large gathering places, such as the malls. These measures are clearly working for the Lao people and the numbers show that.
“Full confidence in the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party… it can fully restore our country”. The first thing one will notice in Laos is the Party flag flying everywhere. It's almost otherworldly to see the hammer and sickle of the people flying high, including in front of the embassies and foreign brand stores. Other than the Party flag and museums, there is little display of communist aesthetics.
It is encouraging to see how many people are involved with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Youth Union (LYU), the youth wing of the LPRP. The LYU comrades are easy to spot since they wear uniforms - blue shirts with the LYU patch on the left arm. One of the members told me that, while she does not consider herself a Communist, she enjoys the work that the LYU does, the work of helping the community. “By helping the people, we show them the way forward”. Though I find it curious that she didn’t identify as a Communist, her response and the quote at the beginning of this section both struck me as deeply Communist in nature, as well as inspiring.
The public works are, perhaps as a result of the country being still very early in its Socialist development and construction, not what most westerners would imagine when they imagine a Marxist-Leninist Republic. The museums have highly irregular schedules, the public parks have broken benches and walkways, and the national library has cracked tiling and ruined books. While this was the opposite of my expectation for these places, it makes sense given the economic and developmental status of Laos, and ties into the first point that Laos is a developing country. But Laos does exceed in how clean the city, streets, and sidewalks are kept. Additionally, the mindfulness to plant Dok Champa trees, the national flower of Laos, along the sidewalks which give shade from the sun. I have yet to explore the public services, but hope to in the near future. Due to COVID, public transportation has been limited or closed temporarily, but there is also the new high-speed rail train recently constructed in partnership with China which I hope to go see soon.
There has been a recent push in the anti-corruption campaign by the LPRP with Phankham Viphavanh, the prime minister, publicly admitting many faults of officials and state-owned enterprises. The LPRP is highlighting the real issues of corruption found in the government to the public and taking steps to punish and eliminate those actions. This is promising to the strengthening of the Party, state-owned enterprises, and the country.
Overall, the Party is active and following similar actions to those found in China and Vietnam. Even though the superstructure feels like it's lagging behind, it makes sense due to the base currently at play here in Laos.
The Lao people are struggling under current circumstances - a result of many centuries worth of oppression and exploitation, and more recently that of imperialist aggression, which saw the country bombed more heavily by the United States military than any other country in world history. Despite this oppression, genocidal aggression, and the struggles it forces upon them, the Lao people are strong and happy people. Battling COVID, they have shown the correct leadership of the LPRP, even with extreme inflation and fuel shortage there haven't been mass demonstrations like other places in the world at the moment. The Lao people have confidence in the LPRP, and it is with the LPRP that they have the strength to move forward in building Socialism.