Week 9: Laos

This week in our history classes we learned more about the ancient kingdoms that existed before modern-day Thailand. Political culture is in many cases closely related to ethnicity and cultural heritage which, due to the mixing of cultures and kingdoms in its early history, has made learning about Thailand especially interesting.

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Jumping back to 1200 AD, the kingdoms of Lanna, Sukhothai, and Payao encompassed most of the region of Thailand with their influence spreading to smaller tributary kingdoms that would offer money and military assistance. You might remember that in about my second week here we went to the ruins of Sukhothai to see what was left of it after years of wars and shifts in power. In other neighboring countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, you also had the Khmer Empire as well as some other larger ones that frequently fought amongst each other. One interesting thing about the wars that were fought between these kingdoms is that oftentimes the victor wasn’t interested in land, but in people, which meant that fallen kingdoms would be practically emptied as the people were taken as reward. An implication of this is that the people in the region, depending on where specifically you are, share a lot of genetic similarities.

This is something that we have especially been focused on as we have been talking more about the history of Laos in preparation from our trip there this week. Amidst all of the wars that took place in the early history of the Southeast Asia history, it seems like the area of Laos has continually been taken over either by the Tai kingdoms of Lanna or Sukhothai or by the Burmese. Today in Laos it is not uncommon for people to have a lot of Thai ancestry, or for them to even be predominantly Thai ethnically.

My first impression of Laos as we were flying in to the city of Luang Prabang was of just how beautiful the countryside was. Luang Prabang is a smaller city within Laos with a population of a little over 50,000 people and is also a UNESCO protected site. Flying in, the little city was tucked away between the jungle and the mountains so it did really give the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world.

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One of the things that we did while we were there is visit a museum that talked about the massive amount of leftover unexploded ordinances (UXO) covering the entire country. These were left over from the Vietnam war during which America dropped millions of bombs on Laos, sometimes using the country as a place to get rid of extra bombs that planes may have been carrying. The result is that the country has an estimated 2 million UXO that remain.

The danger of this is that many people are uneducated as to what these are and when found, if not properly handled, they are still highly explosive and can severely injure if not kill someone. It is not uncommon for children to stumble upon these and suffer fatal or seriously debilitating injuries. Going to the museum helped me realize that for each country that is still struggling to develop and fight its way to the more developed world, there are truly a myriad of reasons that they may find it especially difficult to do so. It had previously never even crossed my mind that Laos might still be suffering from the effects of war in the form of UXO and how decades later it is still affecting the lives of everyday people.

We also had time to do some things in and around the city that were a little bit more light-hearted, of course including seeing some more waterfalls, and I think that I genuinely have lost count of how many waterfalls I’ve been to this summer. Perhaps at the end of everything I’ll make a compilation showcasing all of them. We also had some time to bike around the city and visit some of the weaving villages located on the outskirts of the city.

On Friday I had my birthday here which of course is always exciting and we ended up biking around once more, just doing some exploring. I do have to say though that I had a pretty cool moment as I was biking with one of the guys and we decided (and by “we” I mean that he made a sudden turn and I timidly followed him questioning him the whole time) to veer off the path down a dirt road going down the hill to see what was down it. We got to the point where the path was too steep and narrow for us to keep biking down, so we walked them down to the bottom of the trail and came to a little opening where it was absolutely covered in butterflies! I had this magical little moment where I watched all of these butterflys float through trees and undergrowth. The trail also cut to a river where there were some cute little Lao kids playing and splashing in the water, and as we turned around to head back them came up to us, just smiling and staring. There was unfortunately a language barrier, but that didn’t stop them from following us back to the main road and then chasing after us on our bikes for as far as they could. It was a cool little peak into the lives of some people here and it made me smile at just how universal being a child is no matter where you are.

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