I skipped town the long July Fourth weekend and took the night train to Vientiane to get my Bangkok World story for Sterling.
I missed the traditional lawn party thrown by the American Embassy for expat Americans in Bangkok, but I don’t think Unger missed me. Bill Boudra came along to shoot photos for my stories.
The U.S. Press Attaché in Vientiane gave us a lengthy briefing in his office when we arrived. He unrolled a map of Laos and pointed with his pencil. Yes, the Plaine des Jarres was lost, but we had managed to save the civilian population from the advancing communist forces. USAID Laos had rushed in giant C-130 Caribou transports from Okinawa and in one week had removed 13,000 Laotian peasants from their homes and flown them down to Vientiane. They were currently being resettled in various refugee camps outside Vientiane.
“It was an amazing feat,” he declared. “It made you proud to be an American.”
I wondered how the refugees viewed it. “I’d like to interview some of them when I return from Luang Prabang,” I said.
“I can get you up to the Ban Na Long refugee camp when you get back.”
He continued his briefing. Gen. Vang Pao’s main force had retreated to Long Cheng while smaller fighting units had escaped back to their mountain villages all over Luang Prabang province. Air America was air-dropping food and supplies to the fleeing guerillas. That was the story I wanted. That was Hemingway.
“How do I get on one of those rice drops?” I asked eagerly.
“We don’t advise that,” he replied, rolling up his map. “We’ve had some close calls.”
“They use small, light planes and they fly pretty low. You hit bad weather or have mechanical problems, there’s no place to land in the jungle. And if you go down, you’re in no-man’s land.”
“We’re willing to take that risk.”
“Planes sometimes come back with bullet holes. We don’t advise it.”
I persisted. “If we still want to go…?”
“We don’t….” He gave up and returned our press cards.“Check in with the refugee chief at USAID when you get to Luang Prabang. It’s his call.”
We hurried over to Wattay airport to see if we could catch the once-a-day charter flight to Luang Prabang. On the way over, I leafed through a handout the attaché gave us describing life under the Pathet Lao up on the Plaine des Jarres.
“Listen to this, “I told Bill, reading from the handout. “A favorite banner posted on house walls in Pathet Lao territory is ‘Shoot Down a Thousand Airplanes.’”
“That’s not funny,” he replied sourly.
We found a World War II, prop-driven DC-3 loading on the tarmac. Some of the seats had been removed to make space for cargo, and soldiers were dragging crates and ammunition up the metal stairs. When they finished, a farmer loaded a live pig in a cage. We found our seats and squeezed in. The lone stewardess – a pretty Laotian girl in a vaguely French uniform – passed down the aisle and switched on the six, small electric cabin fans. I looked back and saw several soldiers sitting on the floor of the plane, smoking cigarettes and clutching their weapons.
The engines turned over with a burst of black smoke, the plane shook and rattled, and we taxied down the runway into the air.The flight was fairly short, 425 kilometers, the landscape quickly moving from flat river plain to rugged mountains. The DC-3 flew north, skirting towering thunderclouds dark with monsoon rain, and bumping around violently before slipping through the high mountains that ringed Luang Prabang and descending steeply onto a sunlit plain where the royal city nestled on the banks of a sparkling silver Mekong river.
It was one of the prettiest places on earth. You once could drive to Luang Prabang from Vientiane in a four-wheel vehicle, but the road was no longer safe. In happier days, Siddhartha wannabees paid 1000 kip – two dollars – and did the return trip by boat, floating back down the Mekong to Vientiane. The languorous, three-day trip was an opium dream of quiet solitude and enlightenment. Now the Pathet Lao stopped boats going downriver, searching for Americans.
The pedicab driver dropped us off at a little hotel on Sisavang Street. It was either the Pousi-Akane Hotel or the Lan Xang (Million Elephants) Hotel, depending on whether you believed the sign in the lobby or the sign thumb-tacked to the back of the door in your room. The Americans simply called it “The Bungalows.” It was one of the few places in town that foreigners could stay and prices were steep – 2600 kip, about five bucks. Guests were warned that “clients without baggage must pay one day in advance.”
We filled out a long, detailed fiche de police for the desk manager, identifying ourselves as journalists on U.S. Embassy-approved business in Luang Prabang, dumped our knapsacks in the room and headed for the Commissariat Provincial de Police to find out what was happening.
If the Pathet Lao wanted it, Luang Prabang was theirs for the taking. Nobody rushed about barking orders, no defenses were evident. On the road into town, teenage soldiers in oversized, rumpled U.S. Army-issue uniforms pedaled by on their bikes, carrying chickens in bamboo baskets or a meal of fried rice tied up in a palm leaf hung from the handlebars. Few of them carried weapons. They smiled and waved at us. Checkpoints were non-existent.
“I know apartments in New York City that have tighter security,” Bill quipped.
We passed by a movie theater where an Italian spaghetti western, Three Pistole for Caesar, was playing. The local artist had managed to distort the perspective so that half the 20-foot wide billboard was covered with a huge gun barrel pointing at the passers-by. The hero brandishing the pistole was a bearded cowboy in a raunchy poncho, a cigar butt clenched in his teeth. A few smiling Laotian soldiers stood in front of a second billboard featuring “Coming Attractions.” An enterprising Thai film producer had rushed to the silver screen a knock-off of John Wayne’s recent flop Green Berets. Red Berets was one its way from Bangkok.
We found the Luang Prabang Police Station in a cool, shaded compound near the bridge to the airport. We presented our credentials to the guard at the gate, and asked in Thai for a briefing on the situation in Luang Prabang. He led us inside the compound where we found another soldier asleep in a chair under a banyan tree. The guard woke him up. I presented my credentials again and asked him if he could help us.
“I’m sorry,” the sleepy one apologized. “You will have to talk to the Chief of Police. “
“Where is the Chief of Police?” I inquired politely.
“He is not here.”
“When will he return?”He shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow. Can you come back tomorrow?” The soldier returned to his nap.
We headed over to the palace which sat on the banks of the Mekong river. Yellow butterflies flitted in and out of tamarind trees and small boats putt-putted by on the water. A soldier in a red beret stood at considerable ease inside a little red and white guard box that parodied the one at Buckingham Palace. He smiled at us.
Just inside the wrought iron gates, I could see a parade forming. About fifty soldiers stood in the sunshine. A horn blower tried a few notes and they lined up in a fashion. Some of them were dressed in white straw cowboy hats, some in red berets. One row was dressed in British khaki, another in U.S. Army olive drab. Some wore sneakers, some wore street shoes, others wore boots. Some of the soldiers were armed, some weren’t. Of those that were, some carried submachine guns, some carried M-16s, some sported Korean War M-2s. Of those who had rifles, some had bayonets, some didn’t. They started walking. Leading the curious parade were two elephants, a big one and a little one. As the crowd marched around the driveway in front of the palace, the band began to play. There were four rows of horns, a drum or two, a pair of cymbals, a big tuba and a little tuba, and something that looked like Benny Goodman’s clarinet. Around and around they went. A few saffron-robed monks joined us at the fence to watch the show, the marchers sweating in the tropical afternoon sun. The band finished and the last notes faded away. The King, if he was home, remained inside.
We stopped at the French cultural center on our way back into town. It wasn’t much. A few rooms, a little library, just the ghost of a presence. A month-old issue of Paris-Match magazine lay on the table, open to an article on the war in Laos. A map accompanying the story illustrated the spread of the war. Laos was covered with a rash of little red dots that looked like measles. Each measle represented communist troops, and right in the middle, surrounded by these little measles, was Luang Prabang, us. “Pathet Lao Occupy the Plaine Des Jarres and Threaten the Royal Village of Luang Prabang!” screamed the headlines in French. That was the view from Paris.
“Are we missing something?” Bill asked.
“Yeah. We don’t know what’s happening up in Long Cheng. If we did, we’d know whether Luang Prabang is really in trouble or not.”
“Long story. I’ll tell you sometime.” I hadn’t told him about Bill Young.
The mosquito threat was much more immediate and real. That night, polishing off several litres of Algerian red at a small outdoor café, we slapped away. I was anxious to avoid dengue fever again, though malaria was a better bet. Right up through World War II, Luang Prabang was one of the most malarial places in Indochina. In 1941, before the introduction of anti-malarial drugs, French colonial soldiers in Luang Prabang had an annual hospitalization rate of 317 percent because of malaria. I had stopped taking Aralen tablets a few months after arriving in Thailand, despite Dr. Ron’s warning at our orientation. It was too much of a hassle.
We hit the sack early. I wanted to be at the Police Station at dawn to catch our elusive Inspector Clouseau.