Land of a Million Elephants
The day I left Laos there was a report in the Vientiane Times, the only English language newspaper established in 1994 by the Lao Government , on the plight of a teenage boy named Phongsavah Manithong. Phongsavah lost both arms and both eyes to a cluster bomb while walking to school . The heading screamed : "Unexploded ordnance, an unwanted heritage". Unexploded ordnance continue to kill on average 300 people a year in Laos and maiming many more , three decades after the CIA's secret Indochina War .
Laos holds the dubious distinction of being the single most heavily bombed country in the history of human warfare. The Guardian reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 10 years - US bombers dropped more ordnance on Loas in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War, and three times as many than during the Korean War , causing immense damage in almost every province. The bombing costed the US taxpayers 7.2 billion dollars , or 2 million per day from 1964 through 1973 .
After a brief visit to the Xieng Khouan Buddha Sculpture Park , we left Vientiane for the north eastern province of Xieng Khouang, half an hour away by flight . Xieng Khouang Plateau is home to the Plain of Jars and is a National Heritage Site. These enigmatic archelogical stone jars were apparently carved from solid molasse ( akin to sandstone ) boulders of varying sizes by Iron Age people more than 2,500 years ago , hence the jars vary in height from one to three meters , weighing from 600kg up to 6 tonnes each. One Lao legend claims the jars were made by giant ancestors to store homemade rice wine called lau-lau, which is still drunk today; another folk lore says they were Victory Cups used by King Khoun Chuang in the 6th century to store wine ; yet another that they were sarcophagi for dead nobilities . Certainly this could well have been an ancient burial ground as Japanese archeological excavations have uncovered human bones, stone axes, iron tools, ceramics, bronze ornaments, fabrics and ashes in the area. Interestingly, more than 50 similar sites have been recorded over a large area of SE Asia, including Vietnam and India , which when linked together form criss-crossing trading routes with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre .
Xieng Khouang was a prosperous province until it became the target of the US Airforce " 3 raze operation " with the mission of "full killing, destroying and exterminating ", authorized directly by President Richard Nixon in the 1960s . Due to its strategic importance as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ("Truong Son Road") supply and infiltration route , Xieng Khouang suffered intense aerial bombardment and ground battles , as evidenced by the hundreds of moon-like, barren bomb craters pockmarking the lush rolling hills . Of the 260 million bombs that rained down on Laos, a half-million tons were dropped in this region alone . Over 85% of the villages were bombed and Muang Khoun ( old Xieng Khouang capital) was totally obliterated by carpet bombing , thus a new capital was built in present day Phonsavan after the war. In Xieng Khouang we experienced at first hand the deadly legacy left behind by the US : the unexploded ordnance (UXO) .We were repeatedly warned to stay strictly within the red marks lining the pathways as we walked around the fields as there's still a large amount of UXO in the Plain of Jars . About 10-30% ( 80 million ) of the bombs dropped remain unexploded, hidden or buried underground in the hills, fields and plains. Despite continued efforts over many years, the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, together with NGOs and international community, have only cleared 0.2% of Xieng Khouang's land mass of about 1.68 million hectares. UXO is a serious challenge to national development and poverty reduction plans , and a daily threat to the residents as they farm their land, tend to livestock, develop new housing areas . UXO can still be found in rice fields that have been cultivated for 10 years.
The history of Laos reads like an Epic Tragedy.
Laos traces its history to the Kingdom of Lan Xang or Land of a Million Elephants, founded in the 14th century by Fa Ngum, descendant of Khoum Boulom. Originally part of the Khmer Empire, Laos suffered hundreds of years of foreign invasions . It was absorbed by the Kingdom of Siam in the 18th century, incorporated into " French Indochina" in 1893 , then endured a brief Japanese occupation during World War Two . Swept along by the wave of global decolonisation after the War it gained independence in 1945, with France remaining in de facto control . By the mid-1950's the French were engaged in the Indochina War, afterwhich Laos was granted full independence as a Constitutional Monarchy in 1955 . Unfortunately this was closely followed by a militant communist uprising that threw the country into civil war. In order to stabilise the volatile tension from fighting for alliance in SE Asia between the Communist Block and the West , the major world powers met at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1954 and again in 1962 , and the Geneva Convention Accords was signed,which stated that Laos was to remain neutral of foreign military intervention, making it illegal for foreign military powers to intervene in Lao affairs or to provide combatants . But the devious warmongers quickly switched the mode of action from overt to covert .
By the mid-1950's the US Department of Defence had already created a Special Programs Evaluation Office to support the King of Laos , Prince Souvanna Phouma's Royal Army against the communist Pathet Lao, as part of the US Communist Containment Policy. Controlled secretly by the U.S. Ambassador in Vientiane , the CIA together with the US Air Force Commandos were responsible for setting up air and ground operations , all "ghost" missions carried out by "Spook" aircrafts and carriers , which had no identitification markings in order to evade the Geneva Convention . From 1955 to 1963, US contributed more military aid per capita to Laos than it did to South Vietnam . The secret war in Laos started with a few occasional hill tribe employees but by the late 1970's had turned into a multi-U.S.-intelligence agency supporting 30,000+ member 'Secret Army' of irregulars . On the other hand the Lao Communist Party was backed militarily by Vietnam , creating a unique situation whereby all armed forces on both sides of the civil war were entirely financed by foreign powers. On learning of the deception of US involvement in Laos in a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Oct 1969 , Senator William Fulbright asked , " Doesn't this ever strike you as sort of an absurdity ? The North Vietnamese are pretending they're not there, and we're pretending we're not there ."
It was indeed an awful absurdity : Nobody's there . There's no war in Laos . Yet thousands upon thousands of Lao civilians are dead .
Even the worst nightmare must come to an end. In 1974 the Democratic majority in Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act which cut off military funding in SE Asia, and brought the 20 year US Secret War to a close . On 2 December 1975 the Royal Laos King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was formed .
Where did these people find the strength to heal from trauma this deep ? I wondered as I looked at four beautiful young girls in their sin ( narrow skirt ) and phaekhit (sash worn across one shoulder ), who gracefully agreed to pose for my camera . Xieng Khouang might have been bombed to cinders , but from the ashes of war the Phoenix has risen . Xieng Khouang epitomizes the durability of the human spirit , inspite of all odds normal life has returned to the area . Walking around town it's easy to spot decor and house stilts made from military scraps , spoons made from old military aircrafts , empty bomb casings used as planters or pylons, and US Army parachutes shaded vendors selling fresh fruit juice and beer. The remnants of a dark period have been resurrected to serve the hopeful present .
The Vientiane Times reported Phongsavah the unfortunate double amputee had been fitted with artificial arms at the National Rehabilitation Center . Though the boy still had trouble learning to put food in his mouth using his new arm, he's already talking about his dream to become a technician . The same newspaper announced the opening of a new centre to assist disabled people, built by the Japanese Foundation . Laos is one of the ten poorest countries in the world, and has been receiving aids from many countries since the end of the war. America is conspicuous only by its absence, which is perhaps not surprising as only in 2005 that the US established Normal Trade Relations with Laos, ending a protracted period of punitive import taxes . " How do the people feel about the Americans ?" Prathana our guide was disdainful " You know the Americans sprayed this stuff all over Laos then pretended it didn't happen . You know, the yellow something ....." " You mean the Agent Orange ?" I gave her a prompt . She nodded gravely.
Agent Orange got its name from the color of the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped , to be sprayed by aircraft over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as part of the defoliation warfare program . From 1961 to 1971, it was by far the most widely used of the so-called "Rainbow Herbicides" to remove the jungle canopy and facilitate aerial attack . Over 537,495 gallons were dumped in Laos, but South Vietnam was drenched by 21 million gallons . In 1963, the United States initiated a study on the harmful health effects of Agent Orange ( contaminated by dioxin, the most toxic man-made chemical known ) and by 1967 confirmed that it caused multiple types of cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems, but the knowledge had no effect whatsoever on the continue use of the substance. On the contrary the use of herbicides was quickly expanded to the destruction of enemy crops in a Food Denial Program . By 1965, 42 % of all herbicide spraying was directed to food crops . This horrendous American war crime was covered-up and officially denied until 1982, when Air Force historian William Buckingham's draft of the "Operation Ranch Hand ( military code name for the operation) study" was made public under a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange.
Dioxin binds itself to the fat cells of humans and animals and can remain in the body for decades . There are still a number of dioxin contaminated hot-spots dotted around SE Asia ; moreover it's already in the food chain and the diabolical effect continue to show up in people born long after the spraying ended. Between the UXO and the Agent Orange, the Vietnam war is still alive and claiming victims . Would the Americans pay for the cleanup ? Unlikely, given that the US has yet to pay the reparations to Vietnam promised at the time of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973 !
In 1991, the US Congress implemented the Agent Orange Act giving the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to declare over a dozen conditions 'presumptive' to exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin and therefore entitled to compensation . The U.S. government has compensated well its own Vietnam veterans . Last year alone $13.7 billion was forked out on disability payments for more than 1 million veterans, and millions more in compensating veterans' families whose children were born with birth defects. And yet in the years since the Vietnam War Washington has steadfastly denied any moral or legal responsibility for the victums in SE Asia , even refuses to acknowledge the same health problem to be Agent Orange related when it happens in a Vietnamese. In 1984 a number of class action lawsuits by American GIs against the chemical companies which produced Agent Orange were settled out of court. The veterans were granted a $180 million settlement, the most affected veterans receiving a one-time lump sum payment of $1,200. Yet in 2005 , the same judge who had defended the U.S. veteran victims of Agent Orange, Judge Jack B. Weinstein , ruled against the same claim made against the same companies by a group of Vietnamese victums . He went further to rule that the U.S. Government cannot be a party in the lawsuit, citing sovereign immunity.
I rest my case.
Being a simple soul my basic requisites for a trip to qualify as good are friendly locals and good beer - and Laos abounds in both. Laos is the most relaxed Communist country I've been to so far. We got our visa on site at the Thai-Lao border and as I peered into the Immigration Control room I was astonished to see the officer's wife resting in a camp-bed behind his table and his small daughter doing her homework on a folding table and chair nearby, except her eyes were glued to the TV set , inside which Tom and Jerry were noisily quarelling in fluent Lao. The Moneychanger in the next building was equally impressive. The 3-4 young ladies sitting around the table laiden with an open pile of Lao kip were more interested in filing their nails and drinking soda than doing business with us, though when they finally came to the window they were efficient. From the mountain of kip they quickly extracted the right sum to our US dollars, I was apparently the only one concerned that the bank notes might be blown to heavens everytime the electric fan on the floor swung pass the table in its set path to cool the room .
I quickly found that simply by chanting "Sabaai-di " and placing my palms together to perform "nop" , the formal Lao greeting, I could break down any door, literally, as I betook myself in and out of stranger's houses, and successfully pestered guileless villagers for pictures . Intrigued by the incongruous combination of Lao cast-iron resilience and easy-going placidity, I was keen to unravel the mystery. Prathana explained to me who they are . The Lao are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. While there are at least 68 ethnic groups in Laos, the Lao government divides the population arbitarily into 3 main ethnic categories according to the elevation at which they live . Lao Soung ( 10-20% of the population ) live at altitudes of 1000 meters above sea level and tradfitionally relied on the cultivation of dry rice and opium ( Laos being one of the 4 in the poppy growing region known as the Golden Triangle) ; Lao Theung ( 20-30%) live on mid- altitude mountain slopes, they are largely animist and the poorest ; Lao Loum ( 50%) live in the Mekong River Valley, subsist on wet-rice cultivation, and practice Theravada Buddhism . Lao Loum are politically and culturally the dominant group. Laos still has a fairly large ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese communities, residing mainly in towns and dominate the commercial and business sectors .
Our driver and his wife were Lao Soung . 2/3 of the Lao Soung are Hmong, the most recent migrants to Laos, entering the country from the high steppes of Mongolia and Tibet around the turn of the nineteenth century. They were the CIA's " secret army" in the Indochina War and today more than 200,000 of them reside in the US . Through Prathana's translation I learnt about the driver's courtship and marriage . The driver was actually in love with another girl but could not go against the wishes of his mother, who liked his present wife. They were married in the traditional way, using go-betweens to fix the bride-price , which typically ranges from three to ten silver bars, worth about US$100 each, a partial artifact from the opium trade. The wedding took place in two installments, first at the bride's house, followed by a procession to the groom's house for the second ceremony. Prior to the LPDR regime "bride stealing" practices were rampant, the young woman being abducted to the house of her suitor by the young man's friends, the rationale was fait accompli automatically lowered the bride-price . Hmong New Year is one of the main occasions young people get to check each other out ; during the festival a small fabric ball, the makkono, is tossed around for hours by the young men and women as part of a courting ritual.
Laos covers an area the size of Great Britain , yet has the lowest population density of all Asian countries , a result of war deaths, mass exodus of refugees and emigration . At present females outnumber males by 2 : 1 and 85% of the population live in rural areas . Laotian cities failed to attract the rural population as cities do in other countries, because they offer little obvious economic advantage while villages are self-reliant and provide a reasonable living . I was surprised to note even the poorest shack ( Lao houses are typically sparsely furnished ) in some villages we passed through had a satellite disc attached to the roof . Nearly all villages are ethnically homogenous, and traditionally Lao holds a far stronger allegiance with one's village and clanship than national identity . Only since 1975 has there been any sense of national unity and this basic village character of Lao society is the source of great stability and support for the people. Even under the present political system, governance in a village is generally through consensus rather than by elected village leaders alone . The rhythm of life is inevitably tied to the changing seasons and farm duties. For village projects each family is expected to contribute equal amounts of labor, material, and money . Households also cooperate informally, and all families are obliged to help each other to finish farm or house-building work on time. No specific repayment is required , everything goes on a labour exchange system of mutual assistance.
Religion is the other obvious cohesive factor for the Lao. Traditionally the wat ( temple) is the centre of social and religious gatherings , and is also where boys receive religious and secular education. This still holds true today. Our guide in Pakse was a typical example. Mr King, as he'd have us call him, left his village at 13 to become a novice monk in the city because his family couldn't afford school for him . The temple provided board and schooling and after graduating from secondary school he left the temple to study English in the university. Now he's married with a baby son. This is a beneficent arrangement for everyone concerned : the temples get a steady supply of novice monks and the boys get a chance of education. The temples are mainly funded by devotees , whether in the form of the daily "takbaat" alms-giving ceremony which we participated in at the crack of dawn in Luang Prabang, or the merits-buying ceremony for ancestors which we ran into in Vientiane , or offeringss for all festivals and major life events .
Though Laos is officially a communist country , the golden Pha That Luang ( Great Stupa ) in Vientiane is the most important national momument and symbol, which reflects the importance of Buddhism in the Lao psychic. That Luang to me represents all the attainment Lao people aspire and strive for for this life and the next. It has the appearance of a large , open lotus blossom , and consists of 3 levels, each represents a different stage along the path to Buddhist enlightenment. The lowest level signifies the materialistic world of desires ; the second, the world of appearances; and the highest, the world of nothingness - nirvana. On the third level, there are 30 miniature stupas, at the base of each was inscribed each of the ten palami, or Buddhist virtues of perfection : generosity in giving alms; morality; renunciation; wisdom; energy; patience; truth; resolution; compassion; and imperturbability . In the symbolism of Lao Buddhism, the lotus represents the female organ of procreation, thus the petals on the second terrace of That Luang gave birth to the 30 miniature stupas, and ultimately to the tower at the very pinnacle, which represented the male.
Patuxai Monument (Victory Monument) was built in 1969 to commemorate the wars deaths using cemete donated by America that was designated for constructing a new airport, thus it's also known as anusawali ," The Vertical Runway". Though it was fashioned after Arc de Triomphe of Paris, the ceiling motif is entirely Lao and tells the epic story of Ramayama . Passion for legends, poetry, romanticism, songs and dance is inherent to the Lao. In Ramayama the Devil is bad because he's a supreme seductor , and in one of his escapades he wooes the heroine by changing into a snake so that he can embrace her over and over. Prathana was enthralled . " Can you imagine to be so loved ?!" she exclaimed, and with starry eyes she crossed her arms over her chest and gave herself a little hug . Humour is the shortest distance between people . Prathana knew Hong Kong people love sea food, so at the first meal she quipped " Here in Loas you cannot have SEA food, you can only SEE food !" referring to the fact that Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia . After climbing three floors to the top of Patuxai Monument she announced " The shortest route to get down is to jump" whereupon someone responded with " OK,You jump, I jump !" only to be corrected instantly by a smart rejoinder " No, you jump, I watch !", which brought roars of laughter.
Prathana and Mr King as tour guides are the first generation of occupational specialization in Laos ; previously everyone was a rice farmer first and all other skills are supplementary to the fundamental task of growing enough rice and vegetables for the family. Though the wages are higher in the private sector, young people generally still opt for civil service job if they can get it , because of all the perts . At present local businesses pay 35% profit tax while foreign investors pay only 20% for running the same business , but there're talks that a single profit tax rate might be introduced soon . "We were close to China before , now we're best friends with Vietnam" Prathana said, " but Thailand is our biggest trading partner " Since the opening of the Khau Midthaphab or Friendship Bridge in April 1994, business with Thailand has been brisk. With virtually no industrial production outside the Vientiane area, almost all manufactured goods are imported from Thailand ,while Thailand uses at least 3/4 of the hydro-electric power produced in Laos .
Laos is just finding out opening up to the outside world is a double-edged sword. According to a report in the Vientiane Times on the 20th Jan '10 :"The popular culture, fashion, media and music of neighbouring countries is continuing to affect Lao society, with growing fears that youngsters may forget their own culture ." The Director General of the Ministry of Information and Culture, in a bid to promote Lao music, issues a document banning all local cell-phone providers from using international songs for call waiting jingles. Meanwhile the Vientiane Police find themselves grappling in vain a problem that had plagued other countries for decades , that of : "motorbike-riding teenage hooligans disturbing the peace and create a public nuisance late into the night", so it's fortunate that the Police Headquarters' Deputy Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Khamxoui , has a plan." When we catch the culprits," he says," we'd attempt to educate them as to how dangerous such activities are and how they hamper our work"
Food in Laos was good. I loved the glutinous ( sticky) rice, which is a staple diet for the Lao Loum. Because it has a high starch content, sticky rice must be steamed rather than boiled , and therefore always served in small baskets . It is eaten with the fingers and dipped in soup or a vegetable or meat dish, and goes extremely well with Beer Lao, the number one beer in Laos. In passing I mentioned to Prathana some tasty meat dishes we'd tried and she made a face . " I never eat them. Did you notice how dark the meat was ? That's because it's cooked in oil that's been reused repeatedly, the darker the meat the older the oil" . But reheated oil is carcinogenic ! Now this sort of information should be in every guide book !
Laos is rich in both natural and cultural attrations . Champasak province which we visited contains Wat Phou, one of the grandest Khmer ruins outside Cambodia , and Luang Prabang is the definitive tourist showpiece and an UNESCO World Heritage Site . In recent years the Government has been ardently promoting ecotourism in Lao's wonderful mountains and rivers, waterfalls and hot springs . Because of the low cost and unspoiled environment, I believe Laos is likely to become a popular tourist destination in SE Asia soon . But tourism can have a multitude of downsides, not least among them my pet issue when travelling in under-developed countries : tourists giving candies to local children . The week we were in Laos the Bridge the Gap Foundation from the Netherlands donated some new equipment to the Faculty of Dentistry in Vientiane University so that the dental students can have practical skill training . Dental care is still by and large a luxury in Laos and it grieves me to see kids' teeth ruined by sugar . There's an ancient Lao Proverb : "If you want to help someone, don't do it unless it dignifies him ." There's certainly nothing dignified about edentulousness ! Tourists please take heed !