Drifting through the romantic palm-lined streets of red tiled roof French colonial villas and down quaint, winding alleys spilling over with flowering terrace gates it’s easy to see how the ancient city of Laung Prabang in central Laos made the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. We arrived here after a lazy two-day float on a “slow boat” down the Mekong River where it merges with the Nam Khan River and is nested in lush, green mountains where mist hangs in the morning before burning off into a sunny swelter. One of the main tourist attractions is the Royal Palace Museum, so on a particularly hot afternoon I went to check it out.
Ascending the marble staircase it became quickly apparent that the Royal Palace in Laung Prabang is unlike any palace I’ve ever seen. Not because it was bigger, more gilded, or had vast treasures, but because it is so simple. Built in 1904, the Palace is a flat French colonial mansion, with high white ceilings and beautiful teak wood floors. The main throne room has rich red walls decorated in colorful glass mosaics depicting important Laotian festivals and battles. A French tour group crowded around conversing loudly and gesticulating: “Oh-la-la!”
“F***ing French colonizers” I thought to myself with a bemused smirk. The halls where lined with chronological display cases dedicating gifts from foreign emissaries: a hand painted decorative bamboo screen from Vietnam, traditional porcelain bowls from China, and a French dining room set. Finally at the last display case, I was pleased to recognize a familiar name on the plaque: “United States of America.” The gifts included a desk set of ink pens engraved with the Presidential Seal and signature of John F. Kennedy.
The main object that caught my eye was an odd anachronism in this colonial era palace: a fist-sized model of the Apollo Lunar Landing Module. The model was delicately balanced on a silver plated “moon surface” of decorative Buddhist Bodhisattvas. Next to it was a plaque with a tiny version of the former national flag of Laos; red background with the triple-headed white elephant and a tiered Buddhist parasol. (The white elephant is a symbol of royalty and the ancient name of the country “Land of a Million Elephants and the Parasol” and the three heads represent the three united Kingdoms of Laos.) Imbedded in a clear lacquer on the plaque were three floating specks of crusty black rock. It read:
I like the idea of giving an earthly king something from beyond our planet. There was something inspiring that in a long line of ancient handicrafts this spacecraft stood out as a testament to humanity’s “giant leap” forward into modernity.
The museum guards were closing the doors and ushering out the last visitors. (Closing time is officially 4, but my watch onlyshowed 3:30: welcome to Laos.) Remembering the Royal Car Collection in the garage out back I managed to convince the attendant to let me have a quick poke around. Expecting to see a showroom of glittering Rolls Royces, stretch black limos, and red Euro roadsters I was surprised to see a collection of four white Fords. The signs read “Ford Motor Cars. Gifts from the United States of America.”
The curvaceous steel doors of the Lincoln Continentals rounded into sharp classic 50’s and 60’s designs, with the headlights popping off the hood like frog eyes. Each door had the same triple-headed royal elephant crest but the worn white leather seats looked more like comfy seats primed for drive-ins instead of thrones. The brazen chrome grills were perfectly fit for the garage of every post-War suburban king in the U.S. (or the King of Laos). I marveled at these graceful beasts that had spawned from the industrial belly of Motor City, USA in a revival of ingenuity and economic might.
The attendant lost her patience with my dawdling, shouted something in Lao and clicked off the lights. I slid on my cheap sunglasses and the unfamiliar clink of metal on plastic reminded of the new bracelet I was wearing. I had bought it the night before at Laung Prabang’s open air market from a vendor selling them on behalf of artisans from a rural village. I re-read the flyer that she gave me with my purchase.
Reminded that my bracelet was also likely “Made In America” knotted my stomach.
From 1964-1973 the United States government dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on Laos. That’s about one planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes for 24 hours a day over nine years - making Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. The relentless bombing was part of a “Secret War” intended to prevent communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops from operating in Laos, though the U.S. government repeatedly denied the existence of the bombing campaign. The result: a staggering toll of countless civilian deaths, mostly poor rural peasants.
The cars and moon rocks were remnants from U.S. diplomatic emissaries during the 50s and 60s. During that time the U.S. government was bankrolling almost the entire budget for the Laos government, giving them $150 per capita in aid, thats more that twice the average Laotian’s annual income. Unfortunately military commanders hoarded almost all of the funds and the average person living in extreme poverty got next to nothing.
Today hundreds of rural villagers, mostly farmers and their children, are killed every year when they step on undetonated bombs and other “unexploded ordinances.” 40 years later the silent “Secret War” continues to kill.