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May 14, 2012

I’m currently in Laos, where the temperature is approaching 40 degrees Celcius. It’s a bit of a shock after an extended Scottish winter. Tomorrow the government will present the final Diagnostic Trade Integration Study that i’ve been working on over the past few months.

Vientiane seems busier every time I visit. The first time was in 2003, when it felt like little more than a village. The roads were rutted and the traffic was mainly tuk-tuks and noisy old bangers — unlike today, where Landcruisers roam the clogged streets.

There were virtually no banks, let alone cash machines. Now, curiously, they seem to everywhere. I noticed about four within 200m on the road outside the hotel.

It’s probably the one place i’ve been over a period of a few years that’s noticeably boomed. Most of the 7% average annual economic growth over the past decade has been concentrated in the capital, Vientiane, and much of it comes from a boom in hydroelectricity and mining.

Having visited several rural areas last year, the upturn isn’t mirrored throughout the country. As in so many developing nations, some people make it into the middle class and subsequently do all the things that Europeans or Americans take for granted like going to the ATM or fiddling with their iphones. Any backpacker who only sees Vientiane could be forgiven for thinking everything’s dandy.

But almost a third of people languish below the poverty line. Nutrition remains a  big problem, with around two-fifths of children underweight and a similar proportion stunted.

During a trek last year we visited a village of Lantan tribespeople near Luang Namtha in the north, emerging from the dark of the Jungle via a system of irrigation channels. We crossed a river on a tilting bridge made of vines then teetered on narrow paths cut between a series of rice paddies before coming to a fence where pot-bellied children with no trousers toddled toward us. A little naked girl held a wicker tray of wrist-bands, following us along a lumpy mud path to a hut which the tour company had built to house visitors.

A smiling lady brought out cokes and more wrist bands, motioning to me to buy one. We sat indoors eating vegetables from banana leaves on the floor while the ladies and children waited patiently outside. We bought three wrist-bands for 50p each.

We could hear coughing from inside the woven huts. Small men with their ribs showing wandered around. A water pump, built with German aid, was inscribed “April 2011”.

Like everywhere, it’s easy to be fooled by the journey from the airport into the capital. First impressions can be deceptive, and aggregates, especially gross domestic product, are sometimes almost meaningless.

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