Urban Society

Urban Society

With a population of somewhat over 250,000 in 1985, Vientiane is the only city of any size in Laos. Three provincial capitals have populations of more than 20,000--Louangphrabang with 20,000, Savannakhét with 109,000, and Pakxé with 50,000. The 1985 census classified 15 percent of the population as "urbanized," but this figure includes the populations of all district centers, most of which are little more than large villages of 2,000 to 3,000 persons. The expanded marketing and commercial opportunities resulting from economic liberalization in 1986 have somewhat stimulated urban growth. Vientiane planners anticipate an annual population expansion of 5.4 percent through the year 2000, and many of the more rural provincial capitals also are growing at a significant rate in the early 1990s.

Urban centers, for the most part, have developed from villages that expanded or grew together around an administrative or trading center. Louangphrabang is the historical capital of the kingdom of Lan Xang, and Vientiane and Pakxé are also centers of earlier kingdoms. Migration of the Lao Loum into the region resulted in the establishment of muang, semi-independent principalities, which sometimes formed a larger state entity but which always preserved a certain autonomy as a result of transportation and communication difficulties. Many of the original districts, have since become district centers, and the word itself is used for this political division. Although district centers rarely had more than a few thousand people as the mid-1990s approached, they serve as secondary administrative posts and marketing centers for the surrounding villages and are the location of the medical clinic and lowersecondary school--grades six through eight--for the vast majority of the rural population.

Population displacement during the Second Indochina War caused growth in some cities--Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and the main lower Mekong Valley towns--but depopulation of centers in the eastern liberated zones. Xiangkhoang was destroyed by bombing in 1969, and Xam Nua and Phôngsali were virtually depopulated. These provincial capitals have been revived since 1975, but their geographic isolation inhibits rapid growth. The capital of Xiangkhoang was relocated twenty kilometers north to the village of Phônsavan. Administrative centers of several districts were also relocated after 1975 in order to make them more central to all villages in the district.

Historically, towns were located along major rivers or in upland valleys and were primarily populated by Lao Loum and small populations of Vietnamese merchants, artisans, and civil servants (imported by the French), as well as by Chinese and Indian traders. Migration of refugees during the Second Indochina War brought an increased minority population, which grew even faster after 1975 because officials of the new regime, many of whom were Lao Theung and Lao Sung, moved into administrative posts in Mekong towns. So many Chinese and Indian merchants left Laos during the war that these groups accounted for only a small portion of the urban population in 1994. Many Vietnamese who were sympathetic to the RLG also fled, although an unknown number of advisers from North Vietnam were posted to Vientiane and other major centers. The Vietnamese population was nevertheless unlikely to exceed a few thousand in any towns other than Vientiane and Savannakhét.

All provincial capitals were centers of marketing, administration, education, and health care, but not of manufacturing because there was virtually no industrial production outside the Vientiane area. As of mid-1994, each capital had at least one upper-secondary school-- often the only one in the province--along with specialized technical schools for agriculture, teacher training, or public health. Almost every province capital also had a hospital, but the quality of care and the availability of medicines--although greater than that in villages--were frequently limited.

Everywhere, the basic village character of society is evident. Even in Vientiane, a substantial number of the inhabitants are paddy rice farmers, either as their main occupation or as important supplemental work. Government officials' salaries are inadequate to support a family, and many officials rely on family members to secure their basic rice supply by farming. Cities and towns are also important markets for vegetables and fruit produced in the nearby villages; the trade volume remains small outside of Vientiane but has stimulated the gradually increasing market orientation of rural producers.

Traditional festivals and religious ceremonies are observed in towns much as in villages and are often organized on the basis of a neighborhood, which is typically defined by the boundaries of a formerly separate village. Family life-cycle ceremonies frequently draw guests from outside the neighborhood but rely on close neighbors and relatives to help with food and other preparations, as in a village.

Between 1975 and 1990, urban amenities such as hotels, restaurants, and cinemas were virtually absent outside of Vientiane, Savannakhét, and Louangphrabang. A few towns had government-operated guest houses for official travelers and one or two restaurants with a limited menu. Travelers in most district centers and even some provincial capitals could find a meal only by making arrangements with a family or the caretaker assigned to the guest house. Town markets are also limited in size and number. After the economic reforms of the late 1980s, however, private restaurants and hotels opened in most provincial centers and larger districts. Official travel increased, and more important, Laotian merchants, foreign delegations, and tourists again began to travel within the country.

Sanitation services and utilities are not widespread. As of mid-1994, only a few of the larger towns had municipal water systems, and none had sewerage services. Electrification is a limited but important feature of urban life. Outside of the Vientiane area, Thakhek, Louangphrabang, and Savannakhét, most district centers did not have electricity in the early 1990s. Even in towns, electric power is limited to a few hours a day. Automobile batteries and voltage inverters are widely used as a power source to watch television or listen to a stereo cassette player.

The presence of a foreign diplomatic and aid community has had a significant effect on the economy of Vientiane, both in terms of direct aid and through employment of Laotians by the missions and as domestic help. In response, Vientiane merchants stock imported consumer goods such as electronics, clothing, and food, items purchased by Laotians much more than by foreigners. A once dormant service sector of automobile and truck repair, tailors, barbers, and hairdressers has begun to revive. Patrons at restaurants and the six disco establishments are also predominantly Laotians, reflecting the increased income available to private-sector businessmen and employees of foreign organizations. Foreign assistance in Vientiane during the early years of the LPDR helped to develop several upper-secondary schools and technical-training schools and improve the two main hospitals.

However, Laotian cities failed to attract the rural population, as cities do in other countries, because they offer little obvious economic opportunity and because the rural areas offer the possibility of making a decent living within communities that had not been socially or economically fragmented by the forces of modernization. Further, the government initially had explicitly anti-urban policies. Other towns had experienced less in-migration than Vientiane; this pattern is likely to change if economic opportunities arise in secondary towns or if competition for land and forest resources--or restrictions on access--increase to the point of reducing the rural standard of living. Nevertheless, even if a town does not dominate the region, it has an impact on the lives of people living in the surrounding area. The larger the population of a town, the greater the town's impact on the region. For example, farmers within about fifteen kilometers of Louangphrabang grow vegetables for sale in the town market. In Vientiane, this radius expands to forty kilometers; some village residents commute up to thirty kilometers each way to government or private jobs in the capital. Through these contacts, new ideas and material goods filter into rural areas.

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