Laos 1960, the door to red China

Laos1A LEGEND OF VIENTIANE, capital of the Kingdom of Laos recount a strange attack against the city cen­turies ago.

An army of the king of Luang Praliang lay outside Vientiane’s tall sandalwood fortifica­tions. It was the tenth day uf the siege» and the men from the north were growing im­patient. Showers of arrows from their cross* hows had not brought surrender.

Inside the city, confidence reigned. The defender» felt able to hold out indefinitely.

Suddenly a stream of golden arrows flushed over the walls. Unbelieving, the besieged warriors picked them up and found that the arrowheads had Iteen dipfted In molten gold and were heavily plated.

More Arrows*—Then Sudden Death

Next the watchmen reported excitedly that the attackers were packing up their equip* meat and melting into the forest. As they withdrew, they fired more volleys of golden arrows. Many stuck in the walls.

  • *A tribute to an unconquerable foe!” the defenders thought, as they waited until long after the enemy disappeared.

Carefully at first, and just a little, they opened the gates. Soldiers ran through to pry the arrows loose. This was too much for the guardians of the gates; they joined the rush. Then, like bees a-swarming, the arrows, came again, this time bringing sudden death. In moments the city was taken.

Today Vientiane and all Laos again are threatened. The goldeu arrows nuw are Com­munist propaganda and infiltration. By its very jtyggxrsphfcitl position, as next-door neigh­bor to Communist China and North Viet Xarn, Laos finds itself in the front line of the struggle against Communist expansion.”

My husband and T came to Laos four years ago in connection with the American aid pro­gram. whose mission is to help this snail nation strengthen its economic, and social structure.

Before leaving the United States, we tried to learn what we could about our home-to-be. There wasn’t much information available in English, and not a treat deal even in French. For example, there arc no reliable popula­tion figures: estimates range from 1,500,000 to double that many.

Lao Root Lucks a Toe

We did learn how the |>coplc pronounce their country’s name: the “s’* is silent, so that Laos rhymes with ‘how.” On the map we could see that it is shaped somewhat like Italy, except that the boot lacks a toe (map. page 50). It is about 630 miles long and from 35 to 300 miles wide, covering an area of some 91.000 square miles* Forested mountains make up two-thirds of the coun­try. Two large plateaus, the Bolovens in the south and Tran Xinh in the north, together with the Mekong Valley, provide almost its only level areas.

For about 500 miles lietween Laos and Thailand, the Mekong River serves as a iKirdrr. Here there is scant need for defense, though this was not always so. But on the critical north and east, where wild peaks jut six to eight thousand feet into the sky, border defense can be a military nightmare.

We went to live in Vientiane, the economic and administrative capital. (The royal and religious capital, the town of Luang Frabang. lit» nn hour’s flight farther north.) It was hard to think about invasions and the Com­munist menace the day Nick, my husband, look me for my first sightseeing tour.

Though it has more than 60,000 pleople.

Vientiane is really a big overgrown village nestling at a bend of the Mekong, which at low water splits into two brown streams.

It was February, toward the close, .of the dry season, and a light wind, blowing off the broad expanse of dry river bed and clifflike banks, sifted red dust over us. The same red dust lay thickly on the thatched houses of the Lao working people.

Yellow stucco buildings with weathered red roofs—almost a trademark of the French throughout Indochina—stood at Intervals along the main street, the old Rue Maréchal Foch, renamed Sctthathirath.

We passed the hospital, the police build­ings. the Ministry of Public Works, the Post. Telegraphs and Telephones office, a movie house, the Bank of Indochina, and scores of the little ofien-frnntcd shop« of the Chinese and Indian merchants.

Children played in front of the shops or squatted contentedly. eating noodles and shredded vegetables from little bowls with blue-and-white china spoons. All the smaller children toddled naked in the white sunshine. We saw more than 40 teats, or temples, their roofs of blackened tiles decorated with un­dulating gilt nagas. the serpent guardians of the kingdom.

Strange Americans Take No Nap

Today a new sense of destiny animate this sprawling city. In a few years the town has burgeoned from a quiet Oriental village half asleep in the sun to a bustling place with roaring automobiles and trucks, though not yet nearly enough roads. Hundreds of bicycles bear what are surely the world’s most hap­hazard riders.

Many new buildings reveal hasty construc­tion. Altogether there is an air of racing to catch up with the second half of the 20th century—except for the hours from noon until three o’clock, when almost everybody but the

strange Americans sensibly goes to sleep.

Lao« has some catchinp up to do. Seldom in modern times tuts a nation faced the fu­ture with so tittle of the world’* k’mxIs and so few men trained to guide her through the critical yearn ahead.

Vientiane—the name is a French version of the Lao “Vieng Chan”—was once the capital of a rich and powerful kingdom called Muong Lan Xang Hum Khao—Land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol. From the |4th to the ISth centuries It was a power in Southeast Asia, with borders far beyond its present ones. Many Lao still call their country Lan Xang.

Eventually the kingdom .split into factions, and part of It was ruled by Thailand. Then came half a century of French rule, followed by World War II and a series of disasters from which Laos has not yet recovered.

The country was first occupied by Japanese, then by Chinese troops. The burdens of oc­cupation, followed by Communist invasions in 1953*54, left the nation depicted and poor, her livestock industry and agriculture largely demolished, and with only a handful of men capable of taking over the reins of govern­ment.

At present the United States Operations Mission, the United Nations, and France, among others, are helping Laos rebuild. But the process is time consuming, as we were to learn.


First thing after our arrival, we had the Job of house hunting. In the early days of American aid the director and his few assist­ants lived in tents. Finally, after 18 months of living with friends and in a makeshift apartment, we got. our home, a new cement- block house about four miles from town.


National Geographic, 1960