Vientiane, Laos

We are walking down the street in Vientiane, Laos, toward the Patuxai (Victory Monument), commemorating Laotians who died in pre-revolutionary wars. It was built in the 1960s with cement given by the USA to construct an airport — hence, some expats refer to it as the “vertical runway.”

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The Patuxai reflects pre-Revolutionary sentiment, and failure to complete it exemplifies the inefficiency of the Royal Lao Government.

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Sign on the base of the Patuxsi

We pay the entrance fee, climb stairs to reach floor after floor, each offering souvenirs for sale. We see the Laotian and Communist flags on the wall. The Communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975.

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View from the top

We go to the COPE National Rehabilitation Center, an organization dedicated to supporting victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO). Betwen 1964 and 1973, the USA dropped about 260 million submunition “bombies” on Laos. About 78 million bombies failed to explode. People uncover them and they explode, causing over 12000 post-war civilian casualties, many of them children.

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During the Vietnam War, North Vietnsmese used the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” to reach South Vietnam. It passed through Laos and Cambodia.

Laos was bombed with more munitions than were dropped during all of World War II; it is the most heavy bombed country per capita in the world. U.S. Forces launched an average of one bombing mission every 8 minutes — 24 hours day for nine years. Between 1964 and 2011, over 50,000 were killed — almost half after hostilities ended. Theses days, there are about 100 casualties per year — 40% are children.

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An exhibit

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An exhibit

We see exhibits of artificial limbs, anti-personnel “bombies,” and other munitions. My wife weeps.

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The center builds wheel chairs from old bicycles. It fits people with artificial limbs and trains them. The exhibits tell stories about people who uncovered bombed and were maimed.

We watched a movie about this. Anti-personnel mines are still being used. The Isralis dropped these mines in Lebanon and Lebanese people are coping with the resulting tragedy.

We visit the Wat Si Saket, oldest temple in Vientiane. We look at over 300 seated and standing Buddhas, with interior walls containing more than 2000 silver and ceramic Buddhas.

I walk down a passageway to see the Buddhas!

I was an American soldier in Vietnam in 1971-72. I worked with South Vietnamese soldiers and had the chance to talk with an American advisor with the Laotian government forces. He said that, in the early days, the advisors had problems teaching the Laotians how to be Royal Government soldiers. They did not seem suited for the military life. The advisors lined them up and tried to teach them how to march as a unit. The Laotians fell down on the ground and rolled around laughing. Marching was the funniest thing that they had ever heard of.

I turn the corner and what is there? More Buddhas!

The north Vietnamese had similar problems training the Communist Pathet Lao. It seemed that Laotians did not make very good soldiers. They tend to be easy going people — Buddhists who do not wish to fight.

Mark Twain says, “Everything worth doing is worth doing in excess!”
What do we see? More Buddhas! Most of the Buddhas are from the 16th to 19th centuries but some are from the 15th to 16th centuries.

The American advisor told me that in the early days, the Royal Laotian government forces had some battles with the newly trained Communist Pathet Lao. No one was injured because both sides failed to aim their rifles properly. This story might be merely folklore but it gives you an idea of the absurdity of war.

I visit the Lao National Museum — housed in a “well worn” building from the 1920s. Most of the upstairs collection reflects Communist revolutionary zeal. Some Korean tourists got out of a bus and visited the museum.

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There are paintings portraying French colonial atrocities.
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French colonists killing babies.
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Weapons used by the Pathet Lao resistance. The Lonely Planet guidebook says, “There’s enough historic weaponry to arm all the extras in a Rambo film.”

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Pathet Lao supporters

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Heros of the revolution

In reality, the Pathet Lao and their opponents, the Royal Lao government army, were not particularly effective. Most fighting was done by the North Vietnamese forces and the U.S. aircraft (Airforce, Army, CIA, and South Vietnamese, at times). The French left Laos in 1954. Most Laotian peasant farmers had little concept of a national government. Laos was a colonial concept, created by the French, and the various ethnic groups did not think of themselves as Laotian. The Royal Laotian government, supported by the U.S., was particularly corrupt and inept. The Royal Laotian military took part in the profits from the opium trade and the American CIA was said to have facilitated this.

Toward the end of the conflict, the Laotian army ceased to be an effective military force. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the 1975 collapse of the Royal Laotian government was inevitable.

So, in the end, the Anericans spent billions of dollars, lost over 50,000 dead; Vietnam became Communist but eventually became Capitalist without foreigners spending anything. Vietnam suffered permanent ecological damage from bombing and Agent Orange (weed killer). Over 3 million Vietnamese were killed. Laos has bombs in the ground and little children are still being killed and injured by them. I am an old guy who comes as a tourist and looks at the exhibits while my wife weeps.

Can you understand why I meditate each day?

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