Beneath the attraction of Laos' enchantment
Andrew Symon, Contributor, Laos
Few parts of Southeast Asia can be as enchanting as Laos, a small,
mountainous and landlocked country on the upper reaches of the Mekong
River. The predominantly Buddhist country, a largely agricultural society
of a little more than six million people, once part of France's
Indochinese empire, still casts the spell of the exotic. Tranquil temples,
tasteful French colonial architecture, often beautiful landscapes and a
graceful people embracing age-old Buddhist traditions and legends all make
Laos these days something of a Mecca for the discerning tourist. Providing
a handsome guide to the temples, legends and history of Laos is Naga
Cities of the Mekong.
The stories of the three historically important towns and cities of Laos
-- today's capital, Vientiane, and the old royal seats of Luang Prabang
and Champasak, are told comprehensively by Martin Stuart Fox, a one-time
journalist in Laos and Vietnam in the 1960s, and, subsequently, a
historian and authority on Laos at the University of Queensland.
A rich array of photographs is provided by Steve Northup, who worked with
Stuart-Fox for United Press International in the 1960s and who later
worked for Time Life.
But as Stuart Fox touches on in his history of the cities, Laos was far
from paradise not so long ago. Cold War politics and Indochina wars of the
1960s and 70s badly damaged Laos, and their legacies are only now really
receding into the past.
Although Laos was not as traumatized as Cambodia was between 1975 and 1979
by the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge -- who came to power as a result
of the destabilization of their country as it became entangled in the
Vietnam War -- nor suffered as much loss of life and destruction as
Vietnam, Laotian society was badly torn.
Laos fell into a cauldron of confusion and conflict. Possibly 300,000 or
more civilians were killed in fighting and by bombing. Whole towns were
The war in Laos ended in 1975. But with the establishment of the Communist
Pathet Lao government the same year, and the abolition of the monarchy,
many of the urban end educated middle and upper classes fled to France,
Canada and Australia.
In the early, hard-line days of the new government, many of those
remaining who were prominent in the old regime were sent to prison and
tough "re-education" camps.
As many as 30,000 were sent away and of these perhaps one-third died from
malnutrition, starvation, lack of medical care or execution. Among those
who perished were the last king, Savang Vatthana, and his queen,
Khamphoui. Their sad story is told by Australian journalist, Christopher
Kremmer, in his book, Bamboo Palace (see photo).
The upheavals of the 1960s and 70s had their origins in a contest for
power between royalists and moderates on one hand and the Communist Pathet
Lao on the other, after Laos became independent of the French in 1953.
What some argue was more a domestic Laotian squabble -- although the
Pathet Laos was certainly supported by Communist North Vietnam -- became
magnified by rivalry between the Soviet Union and the U.S. into a major
international flashpoint by the time president Kennedy took office in the
U.S. in 1961.
To prevent the Pathet Lao, who controlled the northeast with Hanoi's help,
take over the whole country, Washington considered sending in U.S. troops
and air force. Then, in a scene that could have been scripted for Stanley
Kubrick's 1963 movie, Dr Strangelove, Kennedy asked what would happen it
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer, told
the president: "If we are given the right to use nuclear weapons, we can
But Kennedy's good sense, as well as that of his other advisers and
congressional leaders, prevailed. By the end of 1961, the tension has
defused with opposing sides in Laos agreeing to form a coalition
government, which would be internationally neutral.
Today, there is a slightly comical reminder of those days in Luang
Prabang, a lovely picture postcard mix of Buddhist temples and old French
colonial buildings -- and a Unesco heritage site -- on the northern
reaches of the Mekong.
In the garage in the royal palace, now a museum, there are two huge white
American limousines, a Lincoln Continental and an Oldsmobile, given by
Washington to the king to curry his favor -- the sort of cars you see
--usually black -- in old newsreel footage of U.S. political leaders,
tycoons and mobsters, arriving and leaving events in style in the late 50s
and early 60s.
Given how narrow and limited Laotian roads are, even today, it's hard to
imagine the cars being driven too far.
In fact the king -- or at least his chauffeur -- preferred, so the museum
says, to drive a manual-transmission, French-made Citroen, which is now
parked next to the two American monsters.
Laos' neutrality did not last very long. By the mid-1960s, Laos has become
a major front in the U.S. wars on Communist North Vietnam and its southern
Viet Cong supporters.
To try to halt North Vietnamese supply lines through Laos to South Vietnam
-- the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- and to keep the Pathet Lao at bay, U.S.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents directed guerrilla fighters from
Hmong hill tribes against Laotian Communist forces and the North
Vietnamese Army. Tension between the Hmong and Vientiane remains today.
The CIA agents and their unorthodox ways of war were, in part, the
inspiration for Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford
Coppola's 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.
U.S. State Department records available on the Internet (see "Foreign
Relations of the United States" http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/) show
Washington gave approval as early as 1961 for the CIA to "enlist tribal
support to fight Communism."
Modernizing, but retaining charm
CIA-funded aircraft and, later, the U.S. Air Force, also heavily bombed
Communist strongholds in the north and the Ho Chi Minh Trail down the
east. A commonly referred-to measure is that more bombs were dropped on
Laos per head of population than any other country to date.
A lot of unexploded ordinance remains hidden in fields, killing and
maiming villagers every year. Large slabs of land cannot be cultivated.
More than 12,000 people have been killed or injured since 1975. I was
reminded of this when I visited the famous prehistoric stone urns on the
Plain of Jars in Kieng Khouang province in the northeast, where signs warn
you not to walk off the marked trails because of this danger.
Today, the Pathet Lao, now the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, continues
to have a monopoly on political power. But the party has moved well away
from its early puritanical approach to controlling society and
establishing a centrally planned economy.
Government rule now is fairly relaxed, although there still are
allegations of human rights abuses. A market economy is encouraged.
While Vietnam continues to influence with senior and now very old
leadership still oriented to Hanoi, where many studied, economically and
commercially, there are more and more links with Thailand, a country with
which most Laotians have cultural and linguistic affinity.
Tourism and foreign investment are welcome and the government is more
active in regional and international forums. Laos' gradual liberalization
and opening up the world was marked by its hosting of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and ministerial meetings in 2004.
Laos became a member of Asean as recently as 1997 -- an organization in
its early days on establishment in 1967 more concerned with regional
security against the Communist menace in Laos and elsewhere in Southeast
Asia than the all-inclusive economic, trade and development goals of today.
Better times finally seem ahead for Laos, although it is likely to remain
one of the economically poorer countries in the region.
Then again, it may also avoid some of the problems resulting from rapid
industrialization and urbanization being faced elsewhere in the region.
As the alluring photographs in Naga Cities of the Mekong suggest, Laos may
be able to both retain its charm and improve material life well enough for
Sharply-rising GDP growth rates are not the only measures by which to
judge a society.
A good sign that old wounds are finally healing is the return of many
‚migr‚s -- often born to Laotian exiles and growing up overseas -- in
search of a culture and a belonging as well as new careers or business
(The writer is a Singapore based business consultant and journalist. He
recently visited Laos.)