Hitchhiking Through Nixon's Laos
The American-sponsored invasion of Laos last February was ostensibly directed at cutting off the main supply route from North to South Vietnam--the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For years before the invasion the United States had engaged in extensive bombing of the trail; enough bombs have been dropped on it to have rendered the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System impassable, yet the trail has survived.
What is it that makes the Ho Chi Minh Trail so durable? Is it the superior quality of North Vietnamese tarmac? The answer is much simpler--there is no Ho Chi Minh Trail. The name itself was invented by Americans. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not a trail, but rather an area not under American control; and that area is called Laos.
Vientiane, the administrative capital of Laos, is a small, tired city of 130,000 people. Three main streets, each with about 10 shops, run through the town. It is a city with little in the way of grandeur, having been the furthest, last, and least developed outpost of French colonialism.
Dominating the northern half of the city is a 200-ft. high copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It is slightly orientalized, and built out of American concrete. The original name or it was the Monument to Victory, however this title was dropped several years ago for the present one: Monument to the Dead.
About a fifth of the land area of Vientiane is taken up by what is called the USAID compound--the center of operations for the United States Agency for International Dement in Laos. All American aid to Laos--military or otherwise--comes under the title of USAID, due to the 1962 Geneva Agreement which forbids all foreign troops and advisors, instructors, and foreign civilians "connected with the supply of war materials."
In defiance of the Agreement, large numbers of Chinese Nationalist troops supported by the United States remained after 1962, along with Thai and South Vietnamese troops. The CIA, whose active participation in fighting the Communist forces of the Pathet Lao is barely disguised, now goes under the name USAID Annex.
Other evidence of the CIA presence is also given by Air America, nominally a private company which contracts solely with the CIA. Air America has its own private air strip in Vientiane and its own pilots, many of whom were former officers in the U.S. Air Force who have resigned their commissions for the duration of their stay in Laos.
Air American is primarily involved in flying supplies to the CIA's guerilla army, the Clandestine Army of Meo tribesmen led by General Vang Pao. Recently, due to expanded CIA operations, Continental Air Services, a division of Continental Airways, has also been flying supplies for the CIA.
Besides its military functions, Air American also comes in handy to those who want to travel cheaply. Travel in Laos cannot be done by land. Almost all of the countryside is under the control of the Pathet Lao or in question, and thus not safe to travel in for anyone with as questionable attributes as white skin, no knowledge of Lao, and a passport issued by the United States or one of its allies.
The United States and its ally, the Royal Lao Government headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma, control about six cities, including Vientiane (which is officially neutral), Luang Prabang, the royal capital, and several small "strategic hamlets." The rest of the country, or about 98 per cent of the area, is subject to continual bombardment from U.S. jets.
The only way to travel between the enclaves of American control is to fly. There are two airlines that link the cities of Laos--Royal Air Lao and Air America. Via Royal Air Lao the 150-mile flight between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, on a DC-3, costs about five dollars. On Air America it is free, if you are a persuasive and persistent hitchhiker. I was lucky enough to get on one of Air America's cargo planes going to Luang Prabang. The plane was stuffed full of crates and peasant refugees, being readied for resettlement in "strategic hamlets."
Summer nights in Vientiane before the monsoon comes are hot and muggy and seem to drag on forever. After 8 p.m. bored Westerners and occasional wealthy Laotians congregate in one of the city's small bars, the most notable of which is White Rose's. With only about ten small tables, White Rose plays host to male refugees from America's involvement in Laos--USAID workers. Air America pilots, correspondents from the American press, eleventh-hour French and U.S. businessmen.
People drink imported beer, smoke tobacco and grass-which is legal in Laos--and fondle girls provided by White Rose. The girls are often Thai and Vietnamese, considered to be more aggressive than Laotians.
For the price of a beer a girl is yours to fondle without restraint. For another 200 kip--about 40 cents--she will take off all her clothes, sit beside you, or jump on top of you at your urging.
Yet another 200 kip and she will put on the show that is the favoritie of the crowds that come to White Rose's. She will light a cigarette and insert it in her vagina. With her legs spread in front of you she will contract her muscles and repeatly draw the cigarette in and out. For each addition 50 kip you give her she will insert another cigarette. The maximum is seven cigarettes at a time.
Vientiane, during peacetime, would have little if anything to catch the eye. However, due to the huge American presence, Vientiane today smacks of the surreal. On the street passing the Morning Bazaar amid the traditionally sparse traffice of taxis, pedal-rickshaws, and jeeps, today there are American station wagons, driven by American housewives of USAID employees, often with American children jumping around on the back seat. Driving down the main Boulevard paved with U.S. concrete, in their air-conditioned Ford Country Squire, they seem oblivious to the heat, dust, and squalor surrounding them.
Americans live in the suburbs of Vientiane, complete with villas (left over from the French), servants, and gardeners, and can send their children to school with other USAID children and American teachers.
Even American culture is imported for the convenience of Americans in Laos. The theatre in the USAID compound shows movies nightly. I went one night to see Omar Sharif in "Che," which drew a rather large audience. Many chuckled knowingly towards the end of the film.
For the Lao, however, Laos has very little, if anything. The little industry that exists is owned by Chinese, Thais, or Vietnamese, as are most restaurants and shops.
Fred Branfman, a reporter for Dispatch News Service who lived in Laos for four years reports that in the three years before June, 1966, Laos's exports totalled $3,000,000 while imports totalled $108,000,000--an import-export ratio of 36 to 1. Recent government reports say that the ratio between 1964 and 1968 was 14 to 1. Other reports run as high as 60 to 1.
Government statistics yield ample evidence of the extent to which the Lao economy is dependent on foreign assistance. Only 40 per cent of the Lao budget is raised locally--and seven-eights of this is through indirect taxes. The military and police get nearly 60 per cent of the budget, About two per cent goes to development.
With regard to governmental corruption, the traditionally tame Far Eastern Economic Review reported the following in 1970: "Its corruption, lethargy and indifference is as great if not greater than it ever was. Few people living under its rule actively support it. American officials have been unable to push for basic reforms due to the political necessity of getting on with the Lao civilian and military elite so that continued American bombing will be permitted."
When I first arrived in Vientiane, I went to the Government Tourist Office to get a map of the city. At 10 a.m. when I arrived at the dilapidated Tourist Office, I found the door open but no one inside. I was tired and sat down to read a book I had with me. About half an hour later, a man in a coat and tie arrived, smiled at me politely and said hello. I responded likewise and asked if he had a map of the city. He responded, "No speak English, sorry." I repeated the question in French, which he understood. He seemed surprised at my question and answered, in French, that I could find such things as maps of the city at the American Embassy.
My next need, after a map of Vientiane, was a place to stay. There are four hotels in Vientiane, all costing five dollars a night and over--a lot for that part of the world, and too much for travellers like me who try to spend next to nothing.
I had heard that I could stay in a Busshist Wat, or temple, for free, so I looked on my new-found map for the nearest wat and asked a saffron-robed monk if I could find temporary lodging in his temple. He ran inside to speak to the abbott and reappeared five minutes later. "Are you a hippie?" he asked me, straight-faced. "No," I replied, rather taken aback. He disappeared again, and after another five minute wait, told me I could stay.
The temple was divided into two parts, a building containing ritual objects and images for worship, and dormitory building in which the temple's 75 monks slept. I was taken into the dormitory section and brought to the room of the monk I had met outside who became my host. I slept on the floor on a straw mat between two bunk beds. My host, who spoke fairly good English, explained the customs of his temple so I could follow them while I stayed there. At 5 a.m. everyone gets up, bathes, and begs for alms at houses throughout the city. Between 6 and 6:30, breakfast, which consists of polished rice, is served in a large hall where everyone sits on the stone floor while eating. Only one other meal is eaten for the rest of the day. It also consists of rice and must be taken before noon; between noon and the next morning nothing can be eaten.
About half an hour every day the monks engage in meditation. They sit Indian-style and concentrate deeply on one thing. At first, my host explained to me, I should try to sit as still as I could and think about everything my body is doing. I should try in particular to concentrate on my breathing.
My first impression was that half an hour was a rather short time and that this sort of meditation would not be difficult. Upon trying it, however, I found I could not concentrate for more than a couple of minutes. "Meditation is hard work," my host told me.
My host was 25 and had been a monk for four years. Before that he had trained as an acolyte for seven years. He told me that he planned to quit being a monk when he turned 30--a common practice in Lao Buddhism.
When I left the temple. I asked him why he had learned English, instead of French or some other language. He answered, "English is the international business language. I will be a businessman when I am finished here."
Luang Prabang, City of the Golden Buddha, is officially the "royal capital" of Laos. Except for the king's palace there is little that in any way seems royal. It is Laos's second largest city with a population of 45,000. Only two of the streets have any paving at all, and on these it is very thin and cracking. All others are dirt roads. There is one hotel and within it the only Western-style restaurant. In addition there are about five Chinese restaurants. When I was there the city's only movie theatre was showing Clint Eastwood in a dubbed version of "Where Eagles Dare."
Although it lacks royalty, Luang Prabang in peace time would be a quite, restful city. As it is today the only time it seems quiet and restful is if you hold your ears. Planes fly low overhead almost constantly. Every two minutes a plane takes off from Luang Prabang airport--without a doubt the busiest one-strip airport in the world. The noise is often so great that people standing more than two feet apart must shout in order to converse. This goes on 24 hours a day.
The airport is served by only two airlines, Royal Air Lao, which flies three flights a day, and Air America, which officially flies ten. The other planes are ostensibly flown by members of the Royal Lao Air Force. However, in town I talked to several Thai and Filipino mercenaries who said they also flew missions.
In the center of Luang Prabang is a tall hill that rises suddenly and provides an excellent view of the city, its airport, and the surrounding valley which is circled by more abrupt mountains. At night I climbed with several friends to the top of the hill. We watched the airplanes take off and fan out over the mountains. Shortly afterwards the horizon would light up from the explosion of bombs. This was repeated about every ten minutes. When I asked a Lao friend what targets were just over the mountains he said no one lived there any more. Everyone had been told to move to the Luang Prabang valley in 1964.
The bombing of civilian targets in Laos began in 1964 and was escalated in 1969 to an intensity unprecedented in the history of warfare, including atomic bombing. Most of the bombers come from the huge American bases in Thailand. One old refugee said, "The planes came like birds, and the bombs fell like rain."
Fred Branfman interviewed over 1000 refugees in government centers during 1970. Branfman reported that "each, without exception, said that his village had been totally levelled by bombing. Each, without exception, said that he had spent months or even years on end hiding in holes or trenches dug in foothills."
Harrison Salisbury, during his visit to North Vietnam, was told by a foreign Communist who had visited the Pathet Lao headquarters in Sam Neua: "You cannot imagine what it is like in the headquarters of these people. Never is there any halt in the bombing. Not at night: Not by day. One day we were in the cave. The bombing went on and on. The toilet was in another cave only 20 yards away. We could not leave. We could not even run the 20 yards. It was too dangerous."
The horror of life outside of the enclaves of American power is almost too great to believe. One woman wrote of her pre-refugee life in the Plain of Iars, a strategic valley in Northern Laos which was formerly littered with huge stone cisterns thought to be ancient funeral urns. It is now a deserted wasteland. She reported: "Every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes in order to protect our lives...Thusly, I saw the life of the population and the dead people on account of the war with many airplanes in the region of Xiengkhouang. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until it was levelled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and I am still afraid."
The people in the area outside of U.S. control come out only at dusk and dawn to try to grow enough rice and manioc to survive, but planes attack any sign of life. Anything moving is shot at--even trails and cultivated fields are bombed. Reportedly all strategic targets of any kind have been destroyed, and the bombing is now simply plowing up ground.
Even inside caves people are not safe from bombing. Phosphate bombs are dropped around cave entrances; the smoke from these bombs blinds those inside and eventually causes loss of consciousness and death. Those who flee from smoke-filled caves are later attacked with high-explosive bombs. In addition, the bombardment is said to include guided missiles that dive into caves.
The horror of the war--if something so one-sided can be called war--is made increasingly tragic by the utter simplicity of the Lao people.
One afternoon in Luang Prabang I sat drinking the juice of a coconut on the banks of the Mekong. I had just begun a second coconut when a Lao in an air force uniform sat down beside me and told me I should not drink so much coconut juice. I told him that people in India believe coconut juice makes you strong.
He said this was not true. He said that he had been told when he was in America training as a pilot that oranges and applies make you strong.
"They say that because in American there are no coconuts," I replied. "Coconuts are better than oranges and apples."
After a moment of thought he said, "If this is true why are Laotians, who eat coconuts, so small and Americans, who eat oranges and applies, so big."
I laughed and we sat talking for a while longer. We discussed the bombing and I asked him why he was a pilot. "I am paid like a rich man," he replied.
He changed the topic suddenly. "Do you know that the Mekong is the world's longest unbridged river?"
I looked out at the wide, muddy-red river. "Really?" I said.
"Yes," he replied. "But I expect the Americans will build a bridge one of these days. They are like that, you know."
The monsoon came while I was in Luang Prabang. One rainy night I went with a young USAID agricultural worker to try out the area's traditional specialty, opium. Laos's opium, which is legal, is reputed to be the best in the world.
The opium den was in a small bamboo shack. The interior was dark except for one lamp used for lighting the opium. Sleeping bodies lay on wooden benches along the walls. I lay down on one of the empty benches and an attendant handed me one end of a long, thin pipe. He stuffed the other end full of opium, pierced a hole in the center of it, and held it upside down over the lamp. He told me to draw as hard as I could until all the opium in the pipe was burnt up. I did this and exhaled the cool, sweetish smoke. I lay down and lazily watched my friend smoke. After each having six pipes of opium, we felt ready to leave and paid the attendant 250 kip, or about 25 cents apiece.
There is so much opium in Laos that it is not surprising that Americans have found some way to take advantage of it. Reliable reports say that pilots smuggle vast quantities to Saigon and Hong Kong in their spare time. It is also reported that pilots smuggle gold--from Vientiane to Hong Kong. The legal price differential is so great that if you buy a half-pound of gold in Laos, pay full duties on it, and sell it legally in Saigon you can pay for the round-trip airfare from Vientiane.
My last night in Luang Prabang I ate dinner in the bamboo shack of a Lao translater I had met in the U.S. Information Service office. We ate a typical meal of tasteless "sticky rice," cooked vegetables and soup. We talked about the war, the Americans and the Pathet Lao. "Do you know what Pathet Lao means?" he asked me.
When I said I didn't he told me, "It means Lao People and that is what they are, Just Lao People." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper money used by the Pathet Lao. I had never seen one before. On it was a scene of the Plain of Jars: Lao gunners were shooting bazookas at American planes flying overhead. The remains of several shot down planes were strewn across the background.
He put the money back in his pocket. After a pause, he turned toward me and looked into my eyes. "I just want one thing," he said. "I wish the fighting would stop." I turned away