Wednesday, September 22, 2004

And so on to little Laos. This country is so laid back it's almost horizontal. Boats that leave at 8.30 usually end up chugging away from the dock at 10; used dinner plates will sit uncleared at a restaurant table for hours; citzens lie back dozing in the shady spots; and everyone lazily greets you "sabai di" as you stroll past in the sun. This land is almost entirely jungle with a few clearances for towns and villages mostly along the Mekong. Life here begins early in the morning and peters out in the early evening. There is genuine friendliness here - no wonder everybody loves Laos.

But, like the population of two of it's neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia, the people of Laos went through terrible hardships during the US occupation of the region. Between 1964 and 1973, in direct contravention of the 1962 Geneva Convention recognising Laos' neutrality and forbidding the presence of all foreign military personnel, the US made this land the most bombed in history - in fact more bombs were dropped here in that period than were dropped during the entire campaign of World War II by all sides. Laos was of huge strategic importance and the administration, especially Nixon's, thought that pressurising Laos and Cambodia might shorten the conflict in Vietnam and lead to a less embarrassing US pullout.

To evade the Geneva Convention - perhaps in law, if not in spirit, the US made air force pilots wear civilian clothes temporarily declaring them to be civilian pilots and placed CIA agents in foreign aid posts. The North Vietnamese soldiers didn't even bother to do that. The name "Laos" was banned from all communications - being referred to simply as "the other theatre". Almost every rule of engagement that had to be observed over Vietnam could be safely ignored.

The Laos governemt at this time was nothing less than a puppet of the Americans. The Laos economy was almost entirely reliant on US money and inflation has been rampant. Today, one US dollar is worth 10,000 kip.

The statistics of The Secret War make for sober reading. The number of air sorties over Laos totalled 580,944 by 1973, 50 per cent more than took place over Vietnam - making it one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, costing US taxpayers US$2 million per day. By the end the bombing amounted to approximately 1.9 million metric tonnes per square kilometer - over half a tonne for every Laotian man, woman and child.

To help them, the US recruited 60,000 Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight in the war. These soldiers were paid with funds earned via CIA-supported opium trafficking, although they were a very poor force which lost almost every battle they fought.

When one visits a country, sees its beauty and meets its wonderful people, it becomes almost impossible to read such histories and avoid the feeling of disgust. Hence my eagerness to describe it here. Very few people are aware of what happened here. The history of Cambodia is arguably even more atrocious. Western governments have been guilty of following abstract political philosophies for decades at enourmous human costs. The ridiculous thing is, these philosophies often turn out to be borne out of a sence of superiority and end in spectacular failure and disaster. In this case communism, poverty and destruction weighed heavily on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the years after the US pullout which in the case of the economies of Laos and Cambodia was akin to pulling the foundations out from under an already tottering building.

I'm currently residing in Luang Prabang - I try to avoid the word, but it can only be decribed as quaint. A tiny town on the spot where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, old buildings and markets vie for the tourist kip.

Monks trudging down a busy Luang Prabang street. A common sight.

This compares with Bangkok which I have just vacated. On my last day I saw 'The Terminal' at a cinema for 600 bhat. That's eight British pounds. Extremely expensive as it is akin to British prices. The difference was that I sat on a leather sofa with one remote control to recline the seat and another to select one of the seat's many massage programs. I got a waitress service, free drinks, and arguably the greatest toilet seats on the continent. Mmmm....

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