Before the Vietnam War, Laos was known to the French as their Indochinese Shangri La, a peaceful retreat from the strident bustle of Saigon, where they could refresh themselves in the cool upland drift, among a simple, happy and uncomplicated people. It no doubt owed its reputation partly to the mountains and green valleys watered by rivulets, pools and the great Mekong River, but also to its remoteness from the mainstream of Indochina’s economic and commercial life, and to the atmosphere of indolent wellbeing which Hinduism and Buddhism always seem to foster in their followers. For Hindu influences are strong here and in Cambodia, where the temple of Angkor Wat, that priceless monument to Hindu culture, now languishes amidst the chaos wrought by the Vietnamese invasion and the horror of bloody civil war. The Annamite chain was in history the watershed and natural barrier between the Hindu civilisation of these countries, and the Chinese culture on the Vietnamese side of the range.
The Laotians are Buddhists, and it is the time-honoured custom for their boys to serve and study at the pagodas for several years, under the hard discipline of the senior monks. They do no work, but spend the day from 4 a.m. onwards studying their scriptures, chanting and praying, while the local community feeds them. The monks at the temple near us used to parade at dawn past a group of kneeling local ladies, who would put into each monk’s basket a small parcel of food so that at the end of the line they had enough food for the day. No words of greeting were exchanged, only a respectful inclination of the head to acknowledge the gift. Their religion has left its strong mark on the people’s character and bearing, for they are imbued with a happy acceptance of their lot, a tolerance and a compassion towards their fellow-men, which it would be hard to match in any other part of the world.
The King ruled from the Royal capital of Luang Prabang, a beautiful mediaeval township set high in the mountains above the Mekong, and remote enough to be hardly touched by modern civilisation. The King was benign and friendly, but so far removed from the running of the country as to be in effect a constitutional monarch. His elderly relative Prince Boun Oum ran the Southern provinces, in more feudal conditions, but the effective government, by princes of Royal family and high ranking families, was centred on Vientiane, a dusty unremarkable town just across the Mekong from North Thailand, relieved only by the presence of that river, its sandy shores, and treelined approaches.
All would have been well under this half feudalistic, half paternalistic regime, had Laos been left to its own devices. But Vietnam was already on fire and the whole of Indochina in ferment. The war in Vietnam was already spilling over into the North of Laos, which quickly fell under Communist control as far as the central plateau around the Plain of Jars. Fierce resistance was put up by the mountain tribes, which, so far as we know, even now smoulders on, in spite of repeated bombings and punitive expeditions. The Americans were represented in force as advisers throughout the country, and did all they could to stiffen the Government’s resolve to resist the Communist encroachments. The leaders conformed to this all-pervasive influence, and occasionally the Americans would find a new strong man, who would be put forward as the real answer to the Communist threat, only to be proved incapable of stemming the tide at a later date. Only Prince Souvanna Phouma, the neutralist Prime Minister supported by the French, tried against these American pressures to set up a government representing all shades of political opinion in the country. His fortunes fluctuated as he moved in and out of office, and his efforts were in any case doomed to failure as the confrontation grew between the American and Communist sides. On the one hand the right wing doing its best to shut out a Communist voice in the government, on the other the hard-line Pathet Lao led by Souvanna Phouma’s half-brother Prince Souphannouvong, who with his Vietnamese wife contributed much, in spite of his princely origins, to the eventual fall of Laos to Vietnamese communism.
We were not at that time greatly troubled by the Communist threat. It was a shadowy but very real presence in the North and on the Southern borders with Vietnam. We could travel about reasonably freely, but always uneasily looking over our shoulders, in outlying areas not under Communist control. In Vientiane, life went on as if nothing were happening. We had a house on the main road out to the airport, a Mediterranean-style villa built directly on the ground, unlike most houses in the vicinity, which were wooden huts raised up on stilts, to provide cool air currents all round the house, a harbour for the cattle underneath the hut, and safety from snakes. We would envy the owners when the temperature and humidity soared, or when the odd snake came into the sitting-room out of the rain and took shelter beneath the easy chairs.
Once again we were blessed with good, loyal servants. The attractive cook Thi To and her husband with the improbable name of Vim To were, with their aunt Thi Ba who also served us, refugees from Hanoi, and kept themselves very much to themselves and their ancestor worship. Especially when after a cocktail Thi Ba would mix all the alcoholic left-overs, to produce a horribly potent brew capable of driving away even the most malignant of evil spirits. Sot the sweeper and odd-job man was a wily Northern Thai peasant boy who made far more extra money than he earned with us, plying a pedicab on the streets of Vientiane, and Thai boxing at weekends in the villages just across the river. He only really came to us for the shelter and companionship; he was fond of John, then only 8, and taught him the art of Thai boxing, which uses the feet as much as the fists, with impressive resounding claps as the blow hits a particularly fleshy part of the buttocks. Great commotion was caused when later at his public school John was invited to box, and did so in the only way he knew how, with deft use of the feet as much as the fists. It was a heart-burning experience both for him and the gym master to unlearn what Sot had taught him, and to conform to Queensbury Rules.
The Mekong was a boon whenever we wanted to escape from the heat and the dust, for a short break on its breezy beach. We would make for a quiet place up-river, set up the picnic, hit a golf ball (thus laying in much bunker practice), and bathe, if the ever-changing currents were not too treacherous at the time. The men would sometimes retire a way off to bathe in the nude, to the accompaniment of loud, merry giggling from the Thai girls doing their washing and watching through the bushes on the other bank. Weekend picnics called for longer excursions, on precarious roads and rickety rafts, North to the rolling blue hills of Phou Khaw Kwai in Meo country. Like their fellow mountain tribesmen and the Black Thai race, they maintained a rugged aloofness and independence as they went about their simple, hard life of wood-cutting and peasant husbandry. That is, until the Communists came and they rose up against them in ferocious resistance. Only intensive modern warfare, including napalm bombing, subdued them. And destroyed what had been a naturalist’s paradise, remarkable in particular for the host of large tropical butterflies, of every conceivable species and colouring, which hovered over the surface of the pools. A profusion of orchids flourished at a lower level, at remote grottos and places of pilgrimage, where clusters of rare orchids would hang down from the rocks and crags, mostly untouched and guarded by the scorpions nestling in their roots, and by the many snakes in the brushwood, which only slithered away at the very last moment in front of our tread.
We saw a lot of the Americans, both from the Embassy and the various aid missions, and enjoyed their company and generous hospitality. They had most of the six pianos in Vientiane, and were only too happy to let me play on them. The rain on the corrugated iron roofs of their prefabricated houses would sometimes interfere with the tape recording, or even drown the music, and during the monsoon the snakes would glide in to seek shelter in the dark recesses, and curl up fascinated by the music. The geckos, with their ruby-red eyes and scaly emerald armour, would peer over the back of the upright pianos to see what had disturbed their slumbers, and on one occasion it seemed that a breakthrough in communication with the animal world had been achieved, when the little Rhesus monkey pet of an American friend leapt on my right knee and lay there spread-eagled, staring up at me with her soulful protruding eyes. The reason for her bliss was not, alas, the quality of my playing, but simply that with each up and down movement of the pedal her backside was scratching on the edge of the keyboard and getting rid of her fleas on me.
A break in Bangkok was necessary once in a while, to rest from the dry season’s dust or from the hard political and material realities, and to adjust once more to the bigger dimensions of a sophisticated part-Westernised capital city. We would travel around for hours on its canals just to observe the scenes of domestic life being enacted on the balconies of the wooden shacks raised up on stilts above the lapping water. The vendors of food, clothing and other household needs would skilfully manoeuvre their boats up the “street” from one landing stage to another, and every kind of merchandise was traded from boat to boat. Many canals, or “Klongs”, have since been filled in, which is no doubt better for hygiene, but less picturesque than the old-style waterways. We were irresistibly drawn to the Sunday morning market, set out under gaily coloured awnings, which subdued the direct sunlight, but caught the suffused lighting reflected from the dancing waves of the canals, and there admired and were tempted to buy, the exquisite tropical shrubs and plants on display. Tropical fish of every species and hue abounded in the adjoining aquarium, which again it was hard to resist, although it later proved impossible on the return night train to Vientiane to keep the water in the small aquarium from slopping over the brink, or the mosquito larvae, sold as an essential accompaniment to the fish by the sharp Thai trader, from hatching out and tormenting us all through the tropical night. For the evening entertainment of its guests, the Erawan Hotel would put on shows of Thai dancing, enacting famous passages from the Ramayana and closely resembling the dancing in Indonesia, more akin perhaps to the Balinese model because of its livelier movements. Above all we were drawn to the capital’s many outstanding temples, a priceless treasury of Hindu art and culture, where devout Buddhist monks in saffron robes would carry out their day-long prayer duties and minister to the heartaches of the bereaved or lonely pilgrims. The Temple of the Dawn has the most imposing site on the waterfront, but the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is perhaps the most beautiful for its proportions, its frescoes, statues and decorations, especially when the sunlight reflected from the pavement casts its indirect glow on the ceilings and walls.
The Laotians enjoyed their feast days in their simple, uninhibited way. Each temple would in turn stage a gala to make some money, and it was an outward and visible sign of the close relations between the monks and their flock to see how well the sacred and the profane mixed together. The booths and sideshows familiar to our fairs were rigged up around the pagoda’s open spaces, and there would be several rings for the Thai boxing. But the star attraction never varied: a raised dance floor, on which the local girls condescended to dance with all comers – provided they were prepared to pay beforehand, for about two minutes’ dancing time, the local equivalent of 10 cents a dance. Water was always a precious commodity, especially just before the monsoon broke, when the Mekong was reduced to a trickle and the women had to trek far out into the river bed to do the washing and collect their pails of water. That was the ideal moment to hold the Water Festival, and woe betide anyone who ventured out to watch, for young men on trucks, carts and anything that moved would from large containers drench as many passers-by as they could, hoping no doubt by such prodigality to provoke the water gods into an early delivery of the monsoon rains.
Fertility also preoccupied them, and the purpose of the Fertility Festival was to give thanks for past blessings, to stimulate the imagination, and to provide an occasion for the young ladies to meet their braves. As they sat tending their parents’ stalls set out on the roadside, dressed up in their Sunday best, the young men who were attracted to them would come up and sit beside them, helping to sell their wares and thus indicating to the parents their serious intentions. The highlight of the Festival was the yacht race. Huge phallic symbols had been painted on the sails, and the objective seems to have been less to win the race than to match a male with a female sail. The Mekong’s breezes provided the necessary agitated movement as the one sail intertwined with the other.
The greatest of all the festivals was, however, the That Luang Festival, the annual national jamboree in front of the golden-spired pagoda of that name attended by the King and the whole diplomatic corps. The usual booths and sideshows were there, but the proceedings were greatly enlivened by a mammoth kind of hockey match called Tiki, between some 40 members of the King’s bodyguard, in their Lincoln green or vermilion uniforms, and a similar number recruited from the populace. Blows were aimed as much at the opponents’ shins as at the ball, as was to be expected in the meléé of 80 players, and it was the unchangeable tradition that the bodyguard should always lose out to the townsfolk. Each diplomatic mission was called upon to contribute to the festivities, usually in the form of a display stand. In addition, we made a spectacular contribution by arranging for a Scottish pipe band, followed the next year by the band of the Cheshires, to fly up for the ceremony from Singapore. It was one of our proudest moments when at 10 a.m. sharp on the first day, just as the band had deployed before the King, RAF fighters flew past in salute, timed to the second in spite of the long flight from Singapore. The King would not take his eyes off the players, for bagpipes are also played by the North Laotian tribes, and long parades were held in the morning and late afternoon on both days. No more memorable nor colourful a sight could be imagined than the kilted bandsmen beating a haunting Retreat beneath the golden pinnacle of the pagoda, and merging gradually with the crowd and the monks as the setting sun illumined with its glow the golden spire, the saffron robes and the tartan colours of the band. An awe-inspired hush descended on the many thousands present, followed as the band left the parade ground by round after round of delighted applause.
In spite of the clouds of war over Vietnam, the communist infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh trail and into the Northern and Southern provinces, the political upheavals and the looming disaster, we spent a happy time in Laos among its gentle, uncomplicated people, and we would like to think that under the Communist dictatorship the ordinary people and monks can still pursue their simple desires and aspirations with the minimum of interference. Sadly, the steady influx of refugees into Thailand indicates that the opposite is true, and that it will be hard, if not impossible, for the Laotian to cling to his traditional untrammelled way of life. But it must be just as difficult for the regime to wipe out their centuries-old customs and beliefs, and make good Communists of them; the barren Communist faith just does not mix with the Laotians’ easy going ways and the Buddhist creed of tolerance and compassion. They have at least been spared the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the cruel, bloodthirsty civil war which has engulfed Cambodia. Fortunately, Thailand has also escaped largely unscathed, apart from problems with the refugees and ensuing border clashes, thanks to the stout determination of the Thai to defend his country, and to the protective umbrella of SEATO. The danger to Thailand is also greatly lessened because of the internecine warfare on the other side and the struggle for power and influence in Cambodia between China and her arch-enemy Soviet-backed Vietnam.