Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 15 January 2011

Laos seeks prosperity in private enterprise

By Claudia Hammond
BBC News, Laos

Communist Laos is one of the world's poorest countries, but the government is now beginning to experiment with capitalism in the hope it could bring prosperity.

Mae Bounnam
Asian elephants have been used as beasts of burden for centuries

It was just after dawn when I took a motorised canoe across the brown river to meet 48-year-old Mae Bounnam.

As the sun began to rise, she made her way down the path from the jungle where she had been sleeping.

Mae is an Asian elephant, who has been rescued from a working life spent logging to become part of the new spirit of private enterprise in Laos.

The communist government is now encouraging private business and this elephant village outside the pretty town of Luang Prabang, famous for its Buddhist temples and orange-clad monks, is attracting plenty of tourists, keen to have the chance to see elephants close-up.

The old name for the kingdom of Laos supposedly translates as "the land of a million elephants". But although fewer elephants than that remain now, it turns out that with the addition of an accent the name translates as "valley of the elephants", so there probably never was a million.

Mr Lid and Claudia Hammond riding on elephant Mae Bounnam
When charging, elephants can reach speeds of 50kph (31mph)

Mae was blinded in one eye after it was slashed by a branch during her old job, and another injury has left her with a small hole in her right ear. But she is so vast that when her keeper, or mahout, and I ride her bareback she carries us as though we are as light as babies.

Then it is time for what he tells me is her favourite part of the day, and I ride from the muddy banks straight into the deepest part of the river where she appears to take pleasure in falling to her knees to dunk me.

While her barefoot mahout, Mr Lid, sits behind me casually playing with his Blackberry, I take a scrubbing brush and clean the leaves and dirt off the surprisingly delicate skin on her head and back.

In a country where employment opportunities are still few, working in tourism is one alternative to subsistence farming.

Safety songs

A day's drive west brings me to a region once again dominated by farming, but which feels as though it is poised for something new.

A defused US bomb being used as a bell at a school in Laos
The old ordnance has its uses, but the threat of unexploded bombs remains

The area surrounding the town of Phonsavan is the most bombed in the world.

During the so-called secret war between 1964 and 1973, the US spent $2m (£1.3m) a day dropping bombs on this part of Laos in a failed attempt to prevent communism from taking hold.

The equivalent of a plane-full of bombs dropped every eight minutes for nine years.

On the so-called Plain of Jars, which contains hundreds of mysterious giant stone pots made over 2,500 years ago, I saw bomb craters the size of swimming pools.

Local people make use of the old ordnance. Rocket cases are used as window boxes and defused cluster bombs serve as ashtrays in cafes - one of which is even appropriately named Craters.

Yet thousands of items of unexploded ordnance remain and from time to time children still lose limbs from explosions after picking up the old cluster bombs, which look like shiny yellow tennis balls. The first safety songs they learn at school are not about crossing the road, but about the dangers of touching any metal they might find.

More than half the farmers in the region say they would like to expand their operations if it were not for the fear that cultivating more land might disturb an unexploded bomb.

An international charity, the Mines Advisory Group, is going through the painstaking work of trying to clear the area, and their spokesman tells me one fringe benefit is that the involvement of local women in this brave and vital job is improving the status of women in the town.

Map of Laos

Looking at the job adverts in the local papers, it is clear that there are few opportunities apart from jobs with the developmental organisations working here.

Yet in this town new infrastructure is being built.

Walking around the flat, dusty town it is clear that there are high hopes for the future.

Not far from the old market where tiny birds are spatchcocked and barbecued, ready to eat whole, there are brand new buildings housing development corporations, each set back from the road with a grand driveway.

There is a dual carriageway with new street lighting which was put in just weeks ago. Yet as I walk along the pavement in the evening, barely a car or motorbike passes me on this perfect new road.

It almost feels like a larger town that is in limbo, waiting for a bigger future. But investment into the region is coming - from China, South Korea and Thailand - and people seemed optimistic. A few days ago the Laos stock exchange opened for the first time, starting with just two companies.

There is a sense that Laos is moving on from the old battles and hoping to follow its neighbour China into times of new prosperity.

The Hmong leader Vang Pao - who died recently - will be mourned by many, but his death also breaks one of the last links with the Indo-China wars.

In recent years he called for a new era of "peace, prosperity and reconciliation to return to Laos". People here Laos are hoping that private enterprise will provide the solution.

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