Laos: Happiest People in the World You’ve Never Heard Of

In Laos, the locals have an expression akin to the Western quips of “Let it go,” “No problem,” or “Never mind,” or even the more modern “Whatever”: “Bor pen yang (ຮ້ານ ບໍ່ເປັນຫຍັງ).” It’s such a ubiquitous saying that a bar in the capital city of Vientiane bears it as its name. And for the Lao people, perhaps nothing better captures their joyful desire to move on from troubles quite like the thoughtless declaration.

Coming from The Philippines, I’m very familiar with this kind of expression. My native tongue’s version is “Bahala na,” which translates to “Come what may,” or if someone really wanted to pursue its etymology, “Leave it to God.”

I’m certainly not the first to be fascinated by these expressions that seem very much opposed to the workaholic, go-getter way of life of the developed world. And it’s well-known that these developing countries that live by such words, are filled with smiles. I simply hope to tread the bridge connecting the words and the smiles, and shed some light on one of South East Asia’s more muted stories: the Lao people.

Indochina’s Best Kept Secret

Once known as “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants,” the oft-overlooked (People’s Democratic Republic of) Laos is home to about 7 million people—a paltry figure considering a land area roughly the size of the United Kingdom. I first visited the landlocked nation in 2016, as part of a big trip across the region. While I always make it a point to read about a country before I arrive, I admit I didn’t do my homework for Laos. Perhaps it was travel fatigue, a mindless nod to its similarities with neighbouring countries. I’d gotten “templed out” in Thailand and Myanmar, and had noodles coming out of my ears by the time I left Vietnam.

I guess I expected more of the same—a tiny shrine here, an oversized pagoda there, conical hats, and the soundtrack of two-stroke engines over lush landscape. And I was right, all of those were present. But what I found to be most interesting were a people that quite frankly rarely make it into that conversation of impressions the region’s travellers often have:

“I found Indonesians aggressive,” one would say.
“Apart from the tuk-tuk drivers, Cambodians are so sweet,” says another.

This discussion of stereotypes is a guesthouse favourite—the gentle Burmese, the Vietnamese who’ve been through a lot, the relentlessly hospitable Thai, etc. And rightfully so, as the people we meet make a massive difference to our travel experience.

But I’ve noticed that Laos and its people are often missing from this narrative. Not exactly surprising for one of the region’s least-visited countries, tallying just over 4 million tourists a year. The mystery intrigued me.

“You don’t need to travel far to make people happy. When you make people nearer to you happy, people farther away from you will surely come.”

People in Laos

As a Filipino, my “people standards” are pretty high. We’re quite famously some of the most cheerful in the world. But what I’ve noticed from my visits to Laos is that the people, language barrier and all, have often made me feel at home. Many times not in words, but in shy, curious smiles. Isn’t that one of the best indicators of a warm welcome? To not even have to hear it said, but just feel it?

Some would probably try to explain the jovial nature of the Lao through belief systems rooted in animism and Theravada Buddhism. The ruling communist government has certainly allowed the religiosity to remain, or even flourish. I have no issue with that, but I’d add that the happiness has much to do with history and geography—with the country being composed of a cluster of “weaker” cultures straddled between stronger ones in the region. I think the Lao are still figuring things out between themselves, and they’re all smiles about it.

The days I spent between bustling Vientiane, to the jewel of Luang Prabang, and up to isolated Muang Ngoi, I was greeted with the same bashful smiles. From the ladies at the market eager to let me try things my palate couldn’t handle, to farmhands knocking back bottles of BeerLao at the crack of dawn, I’ve always felt an unapologetically simple and slow pace of living. A vibe that couldn’t be starker in contrast with the infamous chaos of nearby megacities Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh.

There’s even a joke local tour guides make, that the ‘PDR’ in their country’s official name stands for “Please Don’t Rush.” I couldn’t agree more. Time slows down whenever I’m in Laos, and the people don’t seem to want it any other way.

Laos On the Horizon

Flip through a half-decent travel guide and there’ll be a mention of “The Secret War,” a footnote in the country’s troubled history, laced with romantic accounts of CIA operatives furiously scribbling down notes at their favourite café corner tables. Five decades later, with most of those cafés fallen victims of Father Time, it seems the only secret I’ve uncovered is the joyful collective heart of the Lao.

As one of South East Asia’s premier destinations for eco-tourism, my hope is that these people’s innocence and nonchalance don’t prevent them from implementing the right laws (not limited to environment) as their government matures. I hope they can cultivate a strand of discontent, a growing desire for improvement, an openness to the ideas of the global world that will lead to more gains for their country.

Close ties to China and Vietnam have already opened the floodgates to development, but has also reportedly set aside some conservation efforts. Technology continues to creep in, with smartphone shops popping up everywhere, even in small towns where it’s a chore to find more than one kind of beer. And from the ornate temples of Luang Prabang, to the sleepy riverbends of Si Phan Don, tourism continues to stretch its dark capitalist shadow. Double-pricing for foreigners is rife, and may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some travelers.

I hope the Lao people have enough time. That their willingness to welcome the world comes with a measured apprehension, and not seen through rose-tinted glasses. “Please Don’t Rush,” right?

Laos Motorist

Travel Mindfully

As a child, my father used to sing to me a song called “Que sera, sera”—“Whatever will be, will be.”

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that we can leave a place better than we found it. Whether it be by putting money in the local economy or just being open-minded in our cultural exchange with our hosts. If there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm from Lao people in their interactions with foreigners, I say give them their space, and accommodate them once things get more comfortable. They’re still getting used to us.

From the outside looking in, it’s so easy to just leave things to time and the political weathervane in a country like this, hoping and praying for the best. “Que sera, sera.” Well, I hope not. I hope we can challenge ourselves to be mindful of our impact as visitors. From choosing a place to stay (look up eco resorts), to going with an ethical tour operator. Trust me, it makes a big difference here.

“Bor pen yang,” sure. It’s one of the best places in the world to just go with the flow. But if there’s a better way to do something, why not do it? The Lao people so openly and generously share their happiness. Let’s try to return the favour by helping them move forward the right way.

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