National Geographic : 2015 Aug
Life After the Bombs 113 “You get 60 channels on it,” he said as we ad- mired his satellite dish, “but you must pay for the electricity.” His mobile phone helps attract new business, “but even after you purchase it, you must pay to talk into it also.” Laos, with a population of fewer than sev- en million, now has almost five million mobile phones. At Ban Pak-Ou, a northern village on the Mekong River, fishermen stand motionless in their pirogues silhouetted in the amber light, the water around them glimmering like bur- nished bronze. It’s like peering back through the centuries, except that each man is chatting into his cell phone as he fishes. Vientiane, the capital, once was a scruffy town. Now it’s a scruffy city with 12-story buildings. Once silence prevailed, punctuated by the sounds of falling rain, babies crying, people laughing, monks chanting. Today everything happens in a soupy buzz of air conditioners clattering, genera- tors buzzing, motorbikes whining, horns blaring. The country’s economy is growing by nearly 8 percent a year. The flag of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, with its Soviet-style ham- mer and sickle, still flies alongside the national flag, but the government’s leaders, whose role was once to enable the Vietnamese to pursue their Marxist-Leninist war of national unifi- cation, now play a different part: as enablers in the creation of a Southeast Asian free-market zone. Laos aims to graduate from the ranks of the least developed countries on the UN’s list by 2020. In Laos the rich are getting richer, and even in the remotest areas, among the humblest people, I encountered an access to possibilities of the outside world previously unimaginable. Near the Vietnamese border in central Laos, I saw a young man heading home on his motorbike with a satellite dish cupped under his arm. In mountain villages I saw flocks of schoolchildren in their white-and-blue uniforms. I also saw re- furbished places of worship wherever I went— Buddhist temples, to be sure, but also many animist shrines and a few Christian churches.