American Bombs (Luang Nam Tha, Laos)

At the crossroads – Trekking – Development Challenges – Luang Nam Tha – Laos’ Future, Past and Present – American Bombs

I crossed the Mekong at dawn.  Instantly I felt the subtle differences between Thailand and Laos.  The pace of life was slow in Laos: the border guards had not yet stumbled into work when our ferry arrived.  All the official signs and hotel advertisements were in French, linguistic holdovers from the colonial era when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam formed the French colony of Indochina.

The challenge to get off the tourist trail continued.  We landed in Huang Xai and most of us were immediately herded from the border crossing to the docks and loaded onto the “slow boat” down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey on a 70-person barge crammed with 120 people.  No thanks.

Instead I opted to go north, from the border with Thailand to the northern border with China.  I spent  five days in the eastern corner of the Golden Triangle between Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing, attempting in vain to organize a trek into the nearby national park.  I hesitated a moment too long and missed my opportunity to go trekking, but it’s worth mentioning unique nature of the treks in Luang Nam Tha.

Unlike the exploitative manner in which most guides bring tourists to small hill-tribe villages, the companies in Laos have developed profit-sharing partnerships with the hill-tribes.  Whereas a trek in Thailand visit a virtual human-zoo where the locals “dress-up” in their traditional attire and sell tourists souvenirs and opium, the hill-tribes in Laos are genuinely happy to welcome tourists into their homes.  Because the trekking companies share around 1/3 of their profits with the tribe, the villagers do not rely on selling souvenirs and drugs to make a living.  My friends that went on such a trek were ecstatic afterwards.  They ate a traditional meal with the villagers, drank laos laos (the local moonshine) with the village chief, and then handed a blunt knife and asked to decapitate a chicken.  So the treks might be eco-friendly, but they are not quite PETA-approved.  This innovate approach to tourism is representative of Laos’ choice to develop along a sustainable path.  Hordes of NGOs are helping the receptive government develop their economy while preserving the Laos’s natural beauty.

But there is still much work to be done.  Laos’s people are in desperate need of education, infrastructure, and business opportunities.  Thankfully, the one-party socialist government has opened itself up to the world after disastrously flirting with collective agriculture and nationalized industries.  Laos has buried the past and is looking keenly towards the future, so if you are a recent grad looking for opportunities in development work there are plenty of opportunities here.  Check out www.directoryofngos.org for a starting point.

Though I missed out on the trek I had an enjoyable time in the north of Laos nonetheless.  I wandered through the towns, sampled incredible Laos coffee and French baguettes in cafes, rode through farmland on a motorcycle, and watched barefooted opium addicts stumble through the streets.   There were few tourists, the weather was cool and comfortable, and the scenery was enough to keep me in Luang Nam Tha for a few days.

Luang Nam Tha lies in a low, wide valley surrounded on east and west by green mountains stretching for miles into the distance.  The mountain ridges were shrouded in dense gray clouds that transformed as the day progressed, darkening and thickening into ominous rainclouds that poured sheets of rain through the afternoon heat.  Come midnight, lightening pierced the sky and thunder fulminated through the valley with a fury that made me sit upright in bed.

The valley was beautifully serene during the day.  Rice paddies spanned the width of the valley, each small plot partitioned by thick grassy ridges of earth that formed irregular patterns of squares and rectangles in the soil.  I rode a motorcycle through the farms and villages surrounding Luang Nam Tha, marveling in the beauty of it all and admiring the reflection of the mountains in the yellow waters of the flooded green rice paddies.  Old women knelt beside the river; some fetched water in woven baskets, some washed clothes on its banks, and some bathed their wholly covered bodies in the muddy waters.  Hours passed as I watched this lazy rural life trickle by to a soundtrack of buzzing crickets and chirping birds.

A busy highway bisected the lazy river and the hum of a thousand Chinese lorries overpowered the gentle buzz of the crickets.  China built this highway to connect Chinese exporters with the growing economy of Thailand.  This highway is one of many springing up across Laos, criss-crossing the country and connecting her neighbors with each other.  Dirt roads are still the norm in the countryside, but China is paving a smooth highway from Beijing to Singapore.  Laos’s future lies in her connecting freeways.

Her past is not so cheerful.  Laos is famous for being the world’s most heavily bombed country, a title earned during the American Secret war of the 60s and 70s.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most Americans at the time.

In the 60s and 70s Laos was a mess.  Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam had formed the French colony of Indochina since the 1800s, but the hasty departure of the French in the 50s left chaos in its wake.  Internal power struggles eventually descended into guerilla warfare between a US-supported government of right-wing elitists and the popular communistic Pathet Lao party.  The Pathet Lao party allied themselves with Ho Chi Minh’s army in North Vietnam, the US supplied the government with money and arms, and the CIA began training the Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight guerilla warfare.

Eventually the war in Vietnam spilled over the borders into Laos when the North Vietnamese Army established the Ho Chi Minh Trail along Laos’s eastern border.  The Trail was a vital supply route allowed the communists to circumvent the US military in central Vietnam, one that the Pentagon was determined to eliminate.  In 1965 the US began secretly carpet bombing Laos without approval from Congress and continued until 1973.  The bombing campaign created 750,000 refugees in Laos, and to this day the presence of unexploded ordinances (UXOs)  has retarded economic growth – essentially, it is too dangerous to farm in much of the countryside because unexploded American bombs are still buried in the soil.  Tourists are strongly advised not to wander off the trails, lest they step on bombs.

Luang Nam Tha was not spared from the destruction.  The Chinese highway linked the Chinese-owned hotels in the new town with the American-bombed ghost of the old town.

I visited the local Buddhist temple in the hills above the valley.  Like the town itself, there was both a new and an old section of the temple.  The old temple was a crumpled ruin of brown bricks while the new temple shone proudly like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past.  As I paid my $0.30 admission fee I asked the groundskeeper what happened to the old temple, but I already knew the answer.  “Bomb,” he said, “American Bomb.

I did not know what to say to him.  I wasn’t alive when this happened and I had no part in this war, yet I was panged with guilt.  This was the first time I had witnessed the aftermath of an American war firsthand.  I had written research papers on Vietnam in university, but in Laos my paper’s carefully crafted arguments and well-researched statistics crashed to the ground when the abstract met reality.  That was all irrelevant, years in the past high up in an ivory tower halfway around the globe.  Where was The Domino Effect now?  No, the truth was staring at me in the form of a crumbled temple, a crushed village, a cold reaction to my stated nationality.  I’m from America.  The brief pause, the forced smile, then Ohhh, America…yes, yes, yes.

Yes, indeed.  What dark memories hide within those three ‘yes’s?  What other truths lurk in these small villages, in the soil of fallow pastures and the memories of the old men who watch me from their porches?  How many more times will I have this experience?  How many more times will I learn the history of a place, only to say, “Yeah, well…shit.” No explanations, no arguments, just guilty speechlessness.

What am I supposed to do?  This question remains unanswered.  The temple’s groundskeeper told me the history of the temple, but what could I say?  Sorry for blowing up your innocent Buddhist temple? I dropped a few pathetic dollars in the donation box and walked away in silence.

After five days it was time to move on.  Luang Nam Tha had been a beautiful place to learn a horrible history, but the Lao Lunar New Year was approaching and I wanted to be in a good spot for the festivities.  I packed my bags and headed south to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Hertitage Site and purportedly the best place to bring in the New Year.

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