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Opinion: Laos, Discovering the Hidden Gem of Southeast Asia

Opinion: Laos, Discovering the Hidden Gem of Southeast Asia

Laos has no coastline borders making it the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and China. With the current population of slightly over 7.7 million and around 1 million people live in the capital city of Vientiane. The rest live across the 17 provinces in the country. Strategically located in the heart of mainland southeast Asia or Indochina and it is traversed by the Mekong River. The country is also known for its mountainous landscape, French colonial buildings, hill tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries. Its capital city is home of the Pha Tat Luang, a Buddhist temple, where a reliquary reportedly houses the Buddha’s breastbone. The city also hosts the Ho Phrakeo Museum, the Patuxai war memorial and Talat Sao or the morning market where people can buy food, clothes, crafts and a lot more.

 

Identifying Laos Own Cultural Richness

 

Laos has a lot of cultural similarities with its immediate neighboring countries. However, the country has its own unique cultural heritage and richness. By identifying those cultural values, Laos will be able to leverage the position of the country not only in Southeast Asian region but also in Asia at large. It can use that cultural strength for diplomacy and tourism promotion. Even as Southeast Asians, little did we know about Laos, its people, its tradition and its heritage. Religion plays significant roles in Laotian society; Buddhism and Hinduism have been the major influences on the cultural and scholarly life for centuries. Looking into Laos’ cultural resources, we are discovering that most of Laos’ cultural heritage is well kept and stored in the Buddhist monasteries throughout the country. There aren’t so many museums built in the country the most significant two being the Haw Phra Kew in the capital city of Vientiane and the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, which house much of the remaining Lao art and cultural items. As of today, Laos has three UNESCO Cultural Heritage sites: 1) Town of Luang Prabang, 2. Vat Phou and associated ancient settlements within the Champasak cultural landscape and 3) Megalithic jar sites in Xiengkhuang—Plain of Jars. Highlighting these three alone should be enough to discover the hidden gem of Laos and utilize them as the country’s products for cultural diplomacy and tourism promotion, which hopefully will bring in a lot more tourists from the region thus creating more income sources not only for the country but also for the people living around those cultural heritage sites. And there are still more to it when we discuss Laos’ cultural performing arts, literatures and arts and crafts. One of the most enchanting performing arts that needs to be highlighted is the Phralak Phralam dance performance, the localized Ramayana version that attracts thousands of people annually.   

 

Learning and Benchmarking from Its Neighbors

 

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are Laos’ neighboring countries that are reasonably successful in leveraging their cultural heritage and use them for cultural diplomacy and tourism promotion, which obviously aims for bringing in a lot of income from the tourism and hospitality industries. Looking at their success stories, Laos can learn and benchmark what these three countries have done and accomplished over the years. By strengthening its cultural values and resources, not only Laos would be able to increase the number of international tourists coming to the country but also help develop other supporting sectors directly and indirectly related to tourism such as agriculture, transportation and education. The improved agricultural activities would be able to supply the higher food demands in the tourism sector. The specific education in tourism and hospitality will equip the young Laotians with the necessary and relevant knowledge and skills to support the industry. And the established transportation system will improve the mobility not only the domestic tourists but also international visitors from one point to another, the very good example of this would be the Laos’ semi high-speed train that connects the capital city of Vientiane to Boten, the northern city of the country via the UNESCO Cultural Heritage town of Luang Prabang that began operation in 2021 and makes Laos more accessible for tourists.

 

Regional Partnership and Promotion

 

Building regional partnership with its neighboring countries will bring in a lot of economic and financial gains in the long run. The semi high-speed train is a good example of bilateral partnership between Laos and China. the $6 billion Chinese-built railway line bringing hopes of an economic boost--the 414-kilometre route, was open December 2021, which took five years to construct under China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. Some farmers along the route used to take three to four hours to send his produce to Vientiane by road, but are hoping the new railway will cut this delivery time in half. This is also a good opportunity to promote agricultural tourism for both domestic and international tourists. In addition to that transportation infrastructure, Laos can pursue regional partnership with Cambodia and Thailand to promote its cultural and tourism industries, encouraging more Cambodians and Thais to visit Laos to learn about their cultural similarities. Laos can also utilize its ASEAN chairmanship 2024 to encourage the ASEAN communities to visit Laos to discover its hidden gems and both cultural and natural potential for tourism.

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