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on 20 December 2000
Dervla Murphy listens to the places she visits. She enters into a dialogue with them, then invites the reader into the conversation. She writes as if talking to an intimate, a fellow traveller. Her style is direct and uncluttered - no one who pushes a bike round the world has time for frills.
At 67, Dervla Murphy is still repairing punctures. Her tour of Laos was frustrated by an injured foot; when she tried to use her bike as a wheeled walking aid, it proved a recalcitrant companion, every bit as independent as herself.
From the first page, Dervla Murphy makes clear one of the tenets of her faith: if you travel, do so as an individual - don't allow the tourist industry to define you as a 'passenger' and package you like goods in transit. Assert your own individuality, that way you'll respect the uniqueness and individuality of the places you visit.
Murphy rails against the invasive nature of Western economies. Her fierce adherence to individuality and personal autonomy shines out against the efforts of slick tour operators. These market Laos to 'visitors', who are progressed routinely down the days of a holiday with anodyne efficiency. Murphy's is a rambling adventure - she could drive a tour guide to drink within the hour.
Laos is an ancient culture, knocked about a bit by various military protectors. It is now exposed to a more pernicious invasion - the get rich quick attitudes of Western-influenced tour operators. Sex tourism is on the increase. 'Wives' - of both genders - can be bought and sold. A pretence of cultural superiority - and a very real economic one - is maintained; Thai television advertises skin-lightening cosmetics!
Laotians are instinctively friendly. Over the years they've learned to resist, passively, with a smile. Murphy gleefully describes the pot-holed roads as "a plot to sabotage tourism".
But the roadside trees have been felled to make way for the automobile - people used to gather in their shade, linger, and talk. A slow life in which people had the time to respect one another has been eroded in favour of the hermetically-boxed speed of the car. Yet children in Laos still climb tress - they get to explore a world and take risks in ways denied Western children. Except now, of course, they're being sold cigarettes... and being sold to tourists.
Murphy reminds us there is more to travel than getting there fast, getting drunk cheap, getting laid easy, then getting back without either catching anything or being caught. She conjours the atmosphere and adventures of travel, has time to meet people - fellow travellers, businessmen, locals - and treats them as favoured guests who, like us, are welcome to enter her world for a while.
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on 16 May 2000
Dervla Murphy's book weaves together a fascinating account of a trip around the byways of Laos with an account of the country's history and current state. Books on Laos are thin on the ground ones as well researched and observed as this still more so. I bought a copy after returning from a fascinating but all too short trip to the country and would recommend it warmly to anybody who has been there (or plans to visit).
Beyond this I think "One Foot in Laos" is an inspiration to any traveller with a sense of adventure. Murphy seems to have boundless energy, a sympathetic approach to all she meets, a healthy disrespect for those driving the "progress" that is changing Laos so fast and irreversibly, and a talent to laugh at herself. Added to all this considerable bravery.
With long term scars left by the secret war, illegal logging, inadvisable damming and a headlong rush towards Western backed development it is quite hard to be optimistic about the country's future. Murphy is not - but her arguments against the whole "development aid" industry seem rational and well thought out.
I think I will now seek out some of her other books.
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on 26 December 1999
Reviewed from the perspective of an expatriate who lived in Laos for two years (1995-1997), at a time when the country was facing a host of economic (and associated social) challenges, 'One Foot In Laos' certainly succeeds in presenting familiar vignettes of Laotian life. Dervla Murphy has an eye for detail, with which she holds the reader's attention as she describes what are often quite mundane events.
Her thoughts on the conundrum facing Laos of how to curtail the worst aspects of development - progress but at what social price - are, generally, accurate. But she is a little too quick to point the finger at external influences (whether foreign companies or individual consultants). There's no doubt that many donor country-inspired macro aid projects, whilst impressive on paper, have minimal impact at the micro-level. But the reasons for this are many and varied. The rigid bureaucracy of the Lao government certainly doesn't help. And much of the worst of the logging and associated degradation of the environment comes courtesy of army-run companies. I can't help but feel that the forests would be under siege irrespective of the interest of dam consortia. Also, too, the social and cultural threat from neighbouring Thailand gets a mention, but is understated.
But this is to nit-pick. 'One Foot In Laos' remains well-observed throughout and, for me, rekindled feelings of both nostalgia and melancholy. I have returned to Laos several times since 1997 and, whilst the people retain their characteristic good humour, the New Economic Mechanism has done little to improve their lot.
And finally, cats in Laos do not have their tails deliberately broken (p.28); it's a (presumably) genetic flaw. My cat had four kittens, three of which were born with deformed tails.
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on 19 November 2000
Having read Dervla Murphy's "The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal" I was expecting another book in the same style, an amusing, insightful series of travel anecdotes. "One foot in Laos" contains the same level of detail of an astonishing and, at times, perilous journey but intertwined throughout the book is a very strong political and heartfelt message. The author could hardly be described as unbiased in her views on the impact of foreign intervention in the development of this country. She covers many subjects including Lao farming methods, the impact of unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War, dam building projects and the logging industry. Whether or not you agree with her views, the book is certainly a compelling and thought provoking read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 October 2014
Published in 1999, after an intrepid lone tour of Laos by the author - a charismatic 60-something lady on a bike. From the temples and colonial architecture of the capital, up into remote mountains and tiny villages where foreigners are a rarity; Ms Murphy chronicles her journey, from the amusing to the picturesque.
This is, however, a serious book, focussing at length on USA's 'Secret war' and the vast numbers of live bombs still making much land unusable; on covert American co-operation with the opium producers; and on modern day 'development' of the country by such benevolent-sounding organisations as the United Nations Development Programme, and the horrific results of attempts to forcibly westernize a traditional society. I have to say that my eyes have been greatly opened by Ms Murphy's expose of such matters.
A very informative read.
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on 11 October 2000
I read this book just before I left on a Round the World Trip. I really wish I hadn't. Although it deals well with the history of Laos, and describes the place pretty well, it does not do the people of Laos justice, to say nothing of Thailand. She spends the whole time complaining about how the people are on the verge of being permeantly corrupted by the West, how vunerable they are and how unable they are of dealing with the opening up of the country. For a small nation that has retained it's identity in the face of strong neighbours ( such as Vietnam and Thailand), constant invasions and even becoming the most bombed nation in history ( thanks to the US/China/Vietnam), the implication that a few cans of Coke and a few backpackers will detroy them is not only ludicrous, it's downright rude. Laos needs good books written about it, not patronising, maternal concern.
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on 26 April 2014
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on 17 October 2011
The author has a keen eye, is curious and knows how to share her emotions through her words. Her travelogues are always informative, and this is no exception. I have read it after my own trip to Laos and enjoyed it because she helped me see things, even retrospectively, that I had not seen, and also provided confirmation for what I did see and notice. She goes out of her way to find how people live, to get off the beaten track, to meet those whom tourists avoid and spares no effort to do so, giving up every comfort and even safety. I have done a little of what she has done, so I can admire the effort.

I do find she is too uncritical of the regime and her openly declared far left ideological bias is evident in every paragraph. I don't share it, but that does not bother me. We all have our prejudices and she has hers. I still think the travelogue part of the book is highly valuable, even unique. As for political and economic issues there are many other sources one can find and draw one's own conclusions.

She also makes frequent references to a few academic studies of Laos, but neglects many others. Perhaps she chose those that fit her theories best. In any case, again, she is free to choose her sources, and this is not an academic book, so her selectivity did not bother me. I have of course read other books on Laos to enrich my own opinions.
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on 6 February 2001
I have just found Dervla Murphy in the year 2001. Starting with Full Tilt, and followed on since with the rest of her books. To discover how much she has done in her life. Not only to do these things, but to pass on the experiences for us all to share. The influence that comes from this reading will affect your whole outlook on life. A magical feeling of being there with her through voluntary hardship,happiness, and excitement.
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on 10 September 2014
Dervla at her best.
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