National Geographic : 1968 Dec
The Mekong, River of Terror and Hope the wall of the village chief's house, I noticed a photograph: father, mother, three children, a happy family. The village chief's wife said the picture had been taken five years before, after they came from another village overrun by the Pathet Lao. Then two units of KMT's, clashing over an opium caravan, spilled across the Mekong and fought nearby. The family sought escape by boat, down river, at night. The boat hit a rock and sank. Her three children drowned. She said, "We have two more now." Foreigners Crowd Into Vientiane On my flight back to Vientiane, I stopped off in Luang Prabang, the royal capital of Laos, nestling amid green mountains on a great hairpin curve in the Mekong. Restored wats sparkled in gilt glory. The royal palace had a new throne hall, inset with glass brick. At the river, I heard a Mozart melody played in brass. The band of the royal guards was practicing the national anthem of Aus tria. Then came the anthems of Australia, Pakistan, Turkey. Ambassadors were arriv ing for the wedding of a royal prince. Luang Prabang had 24,000 people. Vien tiane, where I landed later that day, had near ly 150,000. Construction here had added a high school, a huge police headquarters, a grandiose monument to dead Lao soldiers. The mayor of Vientiane noted other changes, without enthusiasm: "Europeans, Americans, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, more of them come all the time." Most of the Amer icans worked for USAID and lived with their families at Kilometer 6-a suburb with neatly squared-off streets, a baseball field, and a Boy Scout troop. But the mayor was not objecting to them. After all, the guns, rice, and pay of the Royal Lao Army came via USAID; and, directly or indirectly, the United States provided for more than half the government's needs. The mayor said, "The big change here, you see, is that life has become competitive, a fight for existence." I asked if competition wouldn't be a good thing. The mayor replied, "As a Lao, I say it is not good. We cannot stop others from coming here, but we would prefer a more quiet life." One quiet morning, I saw a little girl fishing in a mud puddle with a basket. I asked to see what was in her pail. Four frogs, a dozen small fish, a fat beetle, crisp watercress. Little boy with a big burden trudges into a Lao refugee village on the banks of the Mekong neat the Thai-Burmese border. He comes from the hills of northern Laos, home of the Yao, one of the dozens of tribal minorities in the country. Fighting between government forces and Lao Viets (Lao insurgents and North Vietnamese) has made the northern region unsafe. Lao of ficials estimate as many as 600,000 people a quarter of the country's population-have fled the war zone. If they remain behind in Communist-controlled territory, Royal Lao forces consider them enemies, subject to bomb ing. They also risk being drafted by the Lao Viets to work as porters on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and having their rice crop confiscated. EKTACHROME© N.G.S.