Tourist threat to the land time forgot

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 1995, 12:00am

THE Lao People's Democratic Republic is at last open for business. But only during office hours. Each day at 5 pm sharp the shutters come down at the border crossing with Thailand on the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge.

After a decade and a half of communist isolation Laos may be opening its doors a little, but the security chain is still on.

As a country which has a long history of being pushed around by its more assertive neighbours, it is not surprising the Lao Government acts with a cautiousness bordering on paranoia. A virtual collapse of Lao's centralised economy in the mid-80s, followed by the collapse of its patron the Soviet Union, forced Lao's Communist Party to adopt what it calls chintanakan mai - new thinking.

But like its neighbour, Vietnam, the Laos government remains wedded to socialism - seeing capitalism only as a way of filling in the gaps Marxism was unable to plug. As authoritarian, one-party regimes go, Laos has one of the least offensive. It is a country with only three known political prisoners, former government officials who in 1992 were unwise enough to write to the foreign press calling for democracy.

'The place just seems to float along on a sea of apathy,' one Western observer in Phnom Penh commented.

'It's not that there aren't people who don't disagree with the government. It's more that they can't be bothered to make a fuss.' The capital Vientiane is like no other capital in Southeast Asia, a gentle, charming city in which chickens run in the streets just a few blocks away from what passes as the central business district.

If it seems like a country town, it is because it is. Most of those in power are rural people. Most city folk fled as refugees when the Pathet Lao came to power.

Add in a painfully slow bureaucracy, three hour-lunch breaks and a nation whose clocks and watches appear to run without minute hands and you see why nothing happens in a hurry in Laos.

While it makes life for the foreign business community frustrating, it may be that the in-built Lao caution will eventually prove the country's saving grace.

Luang Prabang, the country's third largest city, has become a test case for whether Laos can succeed where its Asian neighbours have failed, developing without destroying the environment. With a next to impossible road link to Vientiane, the old royal capital of Luang Prabang had been preserved in mothballs. Situated along a stunning peninsula between two rivers, with 60 pagodas and some excellent French-influenced Lao architecture, Luang Prabang was out of reach of the tourist hordes.

But change is in the wind. An airport terminal and improved runway are under construction to replace the tin-roofed shed that has served passengers up to now on the twice-daily Chinese made Yak-7 flights from the capital Vientiane. Thailand has dreams of linking its northern region with Laos and Burma creating a grand 'tourism triangle'.

The prospect of unrestrained tourism hitting Luang Prabang is a scary one. Laos officials are plainly worried too and seem sympathetic to the idea of preserving Luang Prabang as a destination for boutique tourism.

Of course once the airport is built the authorities do not have to open it for unrestricted traffic any more than they have done on the Friendship Bridge. The question is for how long they will be able to resist the temptation.