When most people think of Laos, they imagine thick green jungles and epic Karst mountains splaying across an ancient spiritual and culturally unique landscape.
Some may think of The Hmong, their especially distinct customs and shamanic practices. Travelers might recall the numerous Theravada Buddhist temples scattered in every part of the country that is today, The People’s Democratic Republic of Lao (LPDR).
To be sure, most certainly do not think of a warzone or a country that was caught in the crosshairs of the most powerful military on Earth. How could a nation of barely 7 million people, with a very tribal way of life, pose a threat to the most technologically advanced nation on Earth in the 1960’s and 70’s?
Well its complicated, but that doesn’t change the inconvenient truth that The United States dropped two million tons of bombs on this landlocked Southeast Asian country, from 1964 to 1973. To offer some perspective, that is a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.
Tragically, up to 1/3 of these bombs did not detonate, leaving Laos, to this day, plagued with UXO’s (unexploded ordinances). Thus not even fifty years later, there is a reason why there is a clear tourist track in Laos. While navigating backroads are certainly possible and doable, go off on any unmarked trail and one may come across a danger that in very few other places would have to be worried about.
Fortunately, cleanups and money from The United States government from the 90’s onward, has gotten the casualty rate from these UXO’s, down to under fifty a year. But that doesn’t change the fact that the late twentieth century was a very difficult time for this often overlooked Southeast Asian nation.
Why did this seemingly, benign country, become the most heavily bombed nation per capita, in history?
Well one has to go back to the early days of the Cold war to find out.
In the eyes of the CIA during the era of struggle between Democracy and Communism, Laos, while not a threat by itself, was territory that could not be afforded to be lost to to The Reds. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, feared that if Laos was lost, then the rest of Southeast would also follow suit.
That is why before he left office in 1961, Eisenhower approved the CIA’s request to train anti-communist fighters in the mountains of Laos. These fighters would resist the Pathet Lao Communist group who were allies with Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam. Furthermore, there was a treaty signed by The USA, USSR, Vietnam, China and ten other nations, that prevented any such nation from invading or establishing military bases in Laos, but of course there were loopholes and other methods to subvert the country. Thus, a secret war began.
Before the bombing campaign, the CIA began training the Hmong, a ethnic minority group that had historical tensions with the low land Lao majority population. The CIA called this new Proxy War, Operation Momentum. They hoped the Hmong fighters would keep the Communists at bay, while the United States fought it’s ground war in Vietnam.
Since an invasion by US forces was off the table and this was for more practical reasons than just a treaty signed by world powers, (Laos’ geography is a nightmare for military strategists) the CIA started the bombing campaign, aiming at disrupting the Communist’s supply chains to North Vietnam forces.
The results were catastrophic for Laos. By 1975 about one-tenth of the population had been killed since the start of the proxy war. Another quarter of the population had become refugees, including Lao General, Vang Pao, whom the CIA had allied with to resist Communist forces.
Visiting Laos and traveling to various small villages, one can find people with missing arms, legs and other scars that do not go easy on the eye. The Late Anthony Bourdain confronted these realities first hand in his show, No Reservations. Whilst talking with a Father who lost his arms and legs by stepping on an UXO, he pondered the uncomfortable reality that his own country was responsible for this horror. Though astonishingly, the villager appeared to lack anger for him or the United States. Another villager with a nasty scar across his abdomen, spoke of the gratefulness he felt for the USA building hospitals and sending doctors, to help his people recover.
I suppose this forgiving attitude is a signature quality of the Lao people. Very much influenced by their Theravada Buddhist heritage, their outlook on life tends to be much more laid-back and mellow than other Asians and Westerners as awhole.
This friendly demeanor is partly why many are travelers are drawn to Laos again and again. A survey conducted by London Based, Rough Guides, found Laos to be ranked in third among the world’s most friendly countries . This is also probably why it is so difficult to imagine the suffering that has taken place in the country within the last fifty to sixty years.
Most Laotians still to this day, prefer to live in the countryside in small towns and without electricity. Children are raised in extended families and the sense of comfort and security that this provides, probably contributes to their strong values of community, kindness and harmony. Research conducted by Anthropologist Sebastian Junger, indicates that community is an enormous factor in a human being’s sense of wellbeing, and this possibly explains the decline in the mental and emotional well being, that is occurring in Western countries.
Laos is a special land in Asia, but it’s appeal should not neglect it’s recent troubled history. Travelers to Laos have the opportunity to discover an enchanting cultural and geographical landscape. Though, for Americans as unpleasant and inconvenient as it might be, it is imperative to keep in mind the reality of this secret war and the consequences that are still being felt.