* A wayward Marxist state of mind

By Susan Cunningham

Granted, it’s a small, goofy police state.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. You probably shouldn’t invest money there. Understandably, few foreigners have been so inclined, even though the last country to succumb to communism, in 1976, was also the first, in 1986, to give up on a command economy. Landlocked, Laos is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Per capita income runs around $337 per year. Flush with the new spirit of free enterprise, the military and revolutionary elites are enjoying the rewards of corruption with a vengeance.

So what? It’s still a terrific country for tourists. Laotians are chatty and relaxed, with neither the rapacity of the Vietnamese nor the trip-wire tempers of the Cambodians. Much of the countryside is wild and untended and the jagged karst mountains suck your breath away.

Whether on the plains or the highlands, most of the 4.5 inhabitants live much as they always have. In fairy-tale villages, they spend their days subsistence farming, weaving intricate sarongs and chewing areca nuts. They die of tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery and in childbirth. In the evenings, they dust off the satellite dish for a nightly three-hour dose of electricity and Thai soap operas. What’s more, about 40 percent of Laotians aren’t Lao, but minority people. They belong to the Hmong, Mien, Lao Theung, Khmu, Black Tai and many other tribes–and often dress in photogenic handmade attire.

So why do only 200,000 foreigners visit each year? The country suffers from a serious lack of publicity. No Hollywood movies or Club Meds have been set here. There are few books about Laos and the good ones are densely academic.

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