I’ve recently returned from ten days in Laos, a truly fascinating and stunningly beautiful country. This is the first of what I hope will be a short series of blogs about Laos. One of the poorest in Southeast Asia, it is leapfrogging into the 21st Century in fits and starts. Laos has many things holding back its development. It has no coastline, so all trade must pass through its surrounding neighbours. The majority of the country is mountainous, still clad in dripping tropical forest, and much of the land has still to be cleared of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordinance (UXO), a deadly legacy of the USA’s ‘secret war’ between 1963 and 1974, when they dropped over 260 million bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed, per capita, country on the planet. Still, six decades later, people are killed or lose limbs every year through old UXO. Laos has some of the worst roads on the planet, but more modern high speed rail than the United States. Most transactions, from hotel booking to hiring an electric motorbike are still done in cash. With the low value of the Laos kip, the smallest banknote you can you can usefully carry is the 1000 kip note, which is worth about 5 cents (US) at the time of writing. Laos is the only country I know where I can become a multimillionaire after visiting an ATM in the morning, and have blown it all by mid-afternoon.

A farmer and her buffalo, near Luang Prabang, Central Laos.
Kam la and her buffalo

The lady pictured above is Kam la. She and her husband, Boon Tham, are farmers in Central Laos, a little outside the former capital of Luang Prabang. I passed them on my small hired motorbike as they were walking along the new highway that connects Central Laos to Northern Thailand, so I stopped to have a quick chat. Their buffalo had a sudden urge to go for a stroll early that morning. They had finally caught up with her almost at the shores of the Mekong and now faced an eight kilometre plod back home.

A small herd of domestic buffalo, Luang Parabang district, Laos.
A small herd of domestic buffalo, Luang Parabang district, Laos.

Domestic water buffalo (Bubalis bubalis), aka domestic asian buffalo, are descendents of the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) native to Indian and Southeast Asia. The domestic variety are still commonly used for meat, milk and ploughing rice fields. The wild variety is now pretty rare; the few remaining populations are small, widely scattered and most are in decline. habitat fragmentation is a significant cause of decline. Like so many other wild species with domesticated relatives, the junglefowl and domestic chickens, and Scottish wildcats and domestic cats being obvious examples, they are also suffering from inbreeding with their domestic counterparts. Domestic water buffalo are generally smaller than their wild counterparts, with proportionally shorter horns. Wild water buffalo have the largest horns of any known bovid. Unfortunately, despite the large areas of wilderness, no known populations of wild water buffalo exist in Laos.

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