REFLECTIONS ON LAOS
By: Gloria Lara
Having recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia. which included Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma ... I have many profound impressions. I especially was impressed by the week I spent in Laos. It all began with the Return to Southeast Asia reunion in Bangkok. Ten of us who attended the reunion joined together for a tour of Laos. Our travels were arranged by North by North-east, http://www.thaitourism.com, and they couldn't have done a better job putting our program together.
I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Laos. It is a country that has had a very special place in my heart for most of my life, beginning with the books of Dr. Tom Dooley that I read as a young girl. I was very fortunate to have been involved with Laos for five years, including being stationed in Udorn from 1969-1971. 1 had many opportunities to visit Laos during those years in Udom, and have never forgotten the beauty of the country and of the people.
On our tour of Laos we traveled to Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang on the Plain of Jars. In Vientiane I stayed at the Settha Palace Hotel which has been restored and is part of the Raffles Group of hotels. What a lovely and gracious hotel in the colonial style. Everything about the hotel was superb, including the service. There was nothing about the feeling of Laos that made me think I was in anything but a peaceful country. I am sure there are challenges ahead as Laos becomes part of the world economy. I must say, one thing I very much missed was seeing that unique red and white flag representing the Land of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol.
The group of people that I was touring the country with had all lived and worked in Laos some 30 years ago. Some had worked with Air America, USAF, or IVS in the early days before USAID. All along the way we were met by English-speaking guides and very comfortable vehicles with drivers. The guides all spoke excellent English, which I found surprising. They were very open and friendly and couldn't have been more helpful. We explained that we had all been in Laos during the war. It was very hard for us to stifle our enthusiasm for the country and our fond memories. Everyone who had lived in Vientiane wanted to go back to see their old homes.
On our first day in Vientiane we spent a little time in the morning market. We found many wonderful items to buy, and the prices were very reasonable. The people were very friendly. We visited the shop of Carol Cassidy who is producing museum-quality weavings. The United Nations offered Carol Cassidy a job in Laos in 1989. She is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the Laos weaving tradition. Her business, Lao Textiles, is making Laos a favorite destination for New York designers and London art collectors, according to a 1998 article in the "Financial Times".
We toured That Luang and many other temples. The city seemed quite unchanged from our memories of it, which made everyone very happy. There are some new roads and some changes, of course. But there was much that was recognizable, and there were some improvements. Laos only opened up to the outside world within the past four years or so. They seem eager for tourism.
All along the way we went to many temples and had the opportunity to see many novice monks. It was surprising to learn that most student monks are studying English in school and that they are always eager to have Americans to talk to so they can practice their English. My greatest and most pleasant surprise about Laos was our reception because we were Americans. It isn't just that they want our dollars, my impression was that they truly admire Americans.
From Vientiane we went to Luang Prabang. Our hotel there was the Phou Vao. What a dream that hotel is it has a very Balinese atmosphere. Luang Prabang is such a lovely city. We also visited many temples in the old royal capitol. One thing that made me profoundly sad was to think of the King and Queen and the Crown Prince and their fates. They were taken away and the people never heard from them again. I think that the Laotian people loved their King. I read recently that previously there was never a feeling of nationalism in the country because of the many ethnic groups, many of whom lived in remote regions and had no feeling of patriotism. However, I read, everyone in the country loved the King. When we asked about him we were told that he would be a very old man now and was surely dead. The Crown Prince is rumored to be a hennit in a cave with a long beard. I have the feeling that the royal family met the same fate at the hands of the Russians as Czar Nicolas and his family. But my impression was that the Laotians do not want to consider such a fate. Apparently there are children of the King who now live abroad in France, and I believe that one daughter lives in Luang Prabang but lives the life of a commoner just like everyone else. For some reason I could not get the royal family out of my mind while in Luang Prabang.
My favorite day of the entire month-long trip to Southeast Asia was the day we spent on the Mekong. We traveled to the Pak Ou caves by boat. It was just such a joy to spend a day on the Mekong because that is something we could never do during the war. The caves were very interesting with all their Buddhas, but most interesting of all were the two villages we stopped at along the way. One of the villages was across the river from the caves, named Ban Pak Ou. In both villages we had to climb primitive steps from the river up to the villages above. The villages were very picturesque and the people were delightful. They had many items for sale and it was fun to bargain with them. There is one memory I will never forget of a very old husband and wife. Their beetle nut smiles were so dear and their weathered faces so beautiful. When I purchased two hand-made cowbells from them made of bamboo, they asked to give me a special blessing. Of course, I didn't understand a word they said, but there was such a feeling of love about them that it didn't matter. I knew that their blessings were special. Life in those villages was very primitive, but everyone seemed well fed and happy. One of the villages had a beautiful park-like area. Later I have thought about it and considered that perhaps those villages were not typical but were showcases for the government. I don't know. But they were charming and the graciousness of the people seemed natural and sincere.
Our next stop was Xieng Khouang and the Plain of Jars. Again, what a special memory I have of that time. Our guide was the most special of all our guides on the entire trip. His name is Pet. Pet is a natural storyteller and singer in particular he seems to like Eric Clapton. He travels to remote villages teaching student teachers. He said it can be very complicated because the people are very superstitious in the villages and if something unfortunate befalls the village, he is suspected of bringing bad spirits into the village with him. Pet also has students in Xieng Khouang. He is a very industrious young man. His English is perfect and I noted a difference to his accent and asked where he had learned to speak English who he had practiced with. It turns out he has a Kiwi accent there have been New Zealanders on the Plain of Jars helping to locate the UXO unexploded ordinance). He has spent a lot of time with them and picked up their accent I found his accent totally charming and told him so. I told him no man would ever tell him that he had a cute accent, but a woman would.
Pet told us the story of his family. When he was an infant one night the bombs were falling around his home in Xieng Khouang. In the terror of the bombs, Pet's mother grabbed him, being the baby, and some of the other children and ran out into the blackness of night. The 'father ran with other children into the night, but was separated from his wife, running in different directions. The wife ended up eventually making her way to the Vietnam border in Sam Neua province and lived with her children there in a cave for the duration of the war. The father ended up with his group of children in a refugee camp in Vientiane. When the war was finally over, both mother and father made their way back to Xieng Khouang and the family was reunited. Only then did they discovered that one child was missing, neither one of them had found that child in the darkness of that terrible night. It wasn't until several years ago when Laos opened up to the outside world that they discovered what had happened to that missing child some 30 years before. That son was very young and eventually forgot who his family was except that he had a photograph with their name on the back. After much searching, he located them and was reunited with them when he made a visit to Laos. What had happened to that child on that dreadful night was that he was lost and a Hmong family took him in. That Hmong family raised him as their own and he learned to speak their language and forgot his own. They eventually made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand and later took him with them as refugees to the United States. That missing son is now a doctor in Minnesota. I was very touched by Pet's story, and amazed also that he seemed to hold no anger towards the United States. He truly is a special young man and an American couple had arranged to get a scholarship for him and was bringing him to New York City to study. Unfortunately, their name appeared on the list of the World Trade Center victims. He said it is very ironic that he and his brother can only communicate in English.
We very much enjoyed seeing the Plain of Jars. Pet explained to us that there is only electricity in Xieng Khouang ftom 6:00 p.m. until I 1:00 p.m. every night. The people love to watch television and the many who live in the outlying areas have no electricity at all. Every night they plug their television into a car battery and run it as long as the charge in the battery holds out. They either take their battery to town every day or send it on a bus (we also noted this phenomenon in Burma). Pet said that they particularly love sports events, and also Thai television. The government encourages the people to turn their antennas to Vietnam to pick up the television signals from there. But Vietnam broadcasting is not very interesting to them, so they turn their antennas toward Thailand. Aside from the fact that Thai and Lao are similar languages, he said most Laotians speak Thai very well because of Thai television.
One very special memory I have of that day on the Plain of Jars was walking through rice paddies. I had never been in a rice paddy before. Between the paddies is a little dike raised above the water level. This dike is only about 12 inches wide, so I was watching my step carefully as I walked along I had seen a woman in front of me slip and get her foot in the water below and wanted to avoid that. I was happily walking along, watching my footing, when suddenly I looked up to see standing in front of me the village shaman wearing a faded, old Pathet Lao uniform. It was quite a moment. I couldn't believe my eyes. I motioned to him with my camera and communicated that I wanted to take his photograph now, that is a photograph I cannot wait to see when my 50 rolls of film are developed!
My friend Carla and I were traveling together for that incredible month in Southeast Asia. We shared a room in a very rustic, but picturesque, cabin in Xieng Khouang. At I 1:00 p.m. the lights did truly go off we had not prepared ourselves for the darkness of night and though we discovered the next day that there were candies and matches in our cabin, we didn't know it that night. It made it a little difficult getting around because there was absolutely no light coming in the window, not even moonlight. I had heard something on our roof and didn't know what it was. Carla heard the same noise later and her comment was that whatever kind of animal it was it sure had long legs. That struck me as quite humorous. I was just glad it didn't have little, short, scurrying legs! Anyway, in the darkness I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Pet's family that night when their family was separated for so many years and the future so difficult and uncertain.
Every country that we visited on our adventure was truly amazing. Angkor Wat is incredible and must be seen to be believed. We stayed at the Grand Hotel D'Angkor that is another wonderful hotel of the Raffles Group. Cambodia also just opened up to the outside world within recent years and it is obvious by the number of new hotels being built in Siem Reap that the government is very interested in international tourism to stimulate their economy.
Burma was also truly amazing. I must say I didn't like Rangoon. In Rangoon I did sense the heavy hand of the government, but once outside Rangoon, things changed drastically. How much we enjoyed Mandalay. There is so much to see. Our 7-hour (I 80 mile) drive to Bagan from Mandalay was incredible as we had the opportunity to see many fascinating sights. We felt that our brains would be jarred loose on that drive I have never been on such a bumpy paved road. The government of Burma is so poor. Life is very primitive in Burma. However, we stayed in a lovely hotel in Mandalay, and our hotel in Bagan was, again, like something out of Bali. It is obvious that the government of Burma would also very much like international tourism. There are very few American tourists. Mostly Spanish and French tourists go to Burma. But, again, all along the way I felt very special when the people would ask us where we were from and discover that we were Americans. Our guides knew more about American movies than we did. I hadn't wanted to take any clothing that was patriotic looking however, on the entire trip we constantly ran into people wearing American flags on their clothing, "U.S. Army", or some form of "Americanism".
Another special moment was at a monastery near Mandalay of 1400 monks. Our guide took us there at the time they were eating lunch and we were invited to observe this daily ritual. One of the monks came up to me and asked why I was taking photographs. I told him that in my country our way of life was so different and that I wanted the photographs to show my friends what life was like in Burma. He seemed to understand and approve. Then he began to tell me that he wanted me to know that Buddhist do not believe in the terrorism that is taking place. He was very thoughtful and expressed his feelings very well in his limited English. That conversation reflected several others that we had along the way with people who could barely speak English, for example a taxi driver in Bangkok. Many people went out of their way to let us know how sorry they were about September II. It was very heartwarming and reinforced my feeling that Americans are admired more than we realize. I had the feeling before going on this trip that everyone in the world hated Americans. It was
a very pleasant surprise for me to know that is not the case. We have much to be proud of in this country. Our country represents freedom to people around the world. We have our enemies, of course. Our enemies are against freedom. We have made mistakes in foreign policy. It is a complicated world out there. But I was most surprised when talking to our guides in Laos to learn that as soon as the Americans let the Russians moved in. They forced the children in school to speak only Russian. They tried to discourage the people from supporting Buddhism and young men from becoming monks saying it was better for the country to go into the army. They tried to change the culture and the people were tremendously repressed. The Russians moved out in 1987 because they could no longer support worldwide communism. To this day, Laos celebrates the day the Russians left. The Vietnamese still have influence in Laos, but they are age-old enemies and I was told that the Laotians do not like the Vietnamese and we know they like Thai television. There are disputes over water resources with Thailand, but I hope that over time Laos and Thailand will experience mutual cooperation.
The day we were taken to the airport to depart Laos our guide told us that Thailand was like a 33 record with many songs and played at a faster speed, but that Laos was like a 45 with only one song that played at a slower speed. He said that Thailand had many riches and Laos was far behind, but that they are working to catch up. The way he expressed himself was very touching. I tremendously enjoyed the week in Laos and wish it could have been a longer visit. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to return.
I ended my journey to Laos with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes. It is still a sleepy little country of enormous beauty and lovely people. I pictured how years ago Tom Dooley must have felt when he saw people trying to escape communism and how much he wanted to help them. Those of us who were there during the war also wanted to help the people. The cause was great. For many years there has been great sadness and regret about losing the war and leaving so many people we admired to their fate at the hands of communism. It will take a little longer, but as contact with the outside world grows, hopefully there will be a better life ahead.