Laos and my work…

Last week, we had 15 minutes to present our up-coming work and the country where we will stay to the other group members. I decided to do this presentation without using any computer device since I guess I will hardly have access to computers and projectors in Laos. Furthermore, I realized during my last weeks in Bad Honnef that I personally like analog presentations and I’m often much more involved and interested than with the usual power-point slides.

So I ended up drawing a huge map of Laos. I then invited my colleagues to come with me on a spontaneous trip to Laos. I used small cards with icons to illustrate our journey and I now photographed these for my blog-documentation…

We took the plane from Cologne to Laos and when we arrived at the airport of Vientiane, the first thing we saw was a huge sign, written in Lao. Unfortunately, none of us speaks Lao, so we didn’t understand what the sign was saying. But also one third of Laotians older than 15 are not able to read the sign: illiteracy is high and the level of education in general low.

From the airport we took a tuktuk to our hotel and we were surprised of how relaxed the city felt. Even though Vientiane is the capital of Laos, it has nothing of the usual hectic of other south east asian metropolises. It seems that in Laos, time passes much slower and an old quote says that “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice, and the Lao listen to the rice grow”.

We ate at the night market next to the Mekong. We found a huge variety of different  food with mostly local ingredients. More than 80% of Laotians are working in agriculture and agriculture accounts for more than half of the GDP even though only 4.01 percent of the country is arable land.

The next morning, we had to go to the hospital in order to get our last rabies vaccination before we left to the north. The health system in the rural areas of Laos is poor and healthy life expectancy was at only 54 years in 2006.

We then took the boat to Luang Prabang. Here, heavy rain welcomed us: the rainy season has started early this year. Laos has tropical monsoon climate with the rainy season from May to October/November and a dry season from November to April. Luang Prabang is UNESCO world heritage and it is called the city of thousand temples. Around 70% of the Laotians are theravada buddhists, but mostly practicing a typical “laotian buddhism” which is a mix of buddhism, animism, ancestor worship and belief in ghosts and spirits.

We only had 10 minutes left, so we took the bus and went south again to Vang Vieng where we went trekking. Laos has some of the most significant forest areas remaining in Southeast Asia and it is named as the land of million elephants – even though only around 500 elephants are estimated to still live wild.
On the trekking tour, we also visited a village of an ethnic minority groups and learnt that there are over 50 minorities in Laos – living more or less peacefully next to each other. On the way, our guide also told us to take care and not leave the path since there still are millions of unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam war. Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history – over 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973.

Unfortunately, we had to leave Laos. As many other tourists, we took a lot of photos on our trip, we walked through the country in shorts and tops, had some beers, made waste, used facilities and so on without thinking too much of it. As many other s, we also just visited the three most famous tourist attractions.

Tourism is the fastest growing industry in Laos: it increased from 80.000 visitors in 1990 to a little less than 2 million in 2010. Facing the negative impact of tourism on the one hand and the concentration and benefit on only few areas on the other, the Lao National Tourism Department (LNTA) started a new project in 2009: the Sustainable Tourism Development Project (STDP). The expected impacts of the Project are the development of a sustainable, culturally and environmentally sound, pro-poor approach to tourism in the GMS and the preservation of natural and cultural heritage.

My work will mainly be within the Provincial Tourism Departments (PTD) of the provinces of Xieng-Khouang, Sayabouli and Phongsali. I will work with experts from GIZ (who are consulting the departments with marketing, information and interpretation) and I will basically support them with everything considering Design: making maps, exhibitions, websites, photographs, souvenirs and train locals in Design.

And why am I doing this? What is my motivation? To make it short: I’m very much interested in what I can learn from foreign cultures. Then I’m also interested in sharing what I know with others – also in the context of development work. I like to find out how development work works and in how far can I (with my work but also the whole project in a bigger picture) give positive impulses? And since I love traveling but am also very much considered about the impact on our environment and local culture, I love to find out more about “good” tourism…

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