National Geographic : 1960 Jan
Little Laos, Next Door to Red China threatened. The golden arrows now are Com munist propaganda and infiltration. By its very geographical position, as next-door neigh bor to Communist China and North Viet Nam, Laos finds itself in the front line of the struggle against Communist expansion.* My husband and I came to Laos four years ago in connection with the American aid pro gram, whose mission is to help this small nation strengthen its economic and social structure. Before leaving the United States, we tried to learn what we could about our home-to-be. There wasn't much information available in English, and not a great deal even in French. For example, there are no reliable popula tion figures; estimates range from 1,500,000 to double that many. Lao Boot Lacks a Toe We did learn how the people pronounce their country's name: the "s" is silent, so that Laos rhymes with "how." On the map we could see that it is shaped somewhat like Italy, except that the boot lacks a toe (map, page 50). It is about 650 miles long and from 55 to 300 miles wide, covering an area of some 91,000 square miles. Forested mountains make up two-thirds of the coun try. Two large plateaus, the Bolovens in the south and Tran Ninh in the north, together with the Mekong Valley, provide almost its only level areas. For about 500 miles between Laos and Thailand, the Mekong River serves as a border. Here there is scant need for defense, though this was not always so. But on the critical north and east, where wild peaks jut six to eight thousand feet into the sky, border defense can be a military nightmare. We went to live in Vientiane, the economic and administrative capital. (The royal and religious capital, the town of Luang Prabang, lies an hour's flight farther north.) It was hard to think about invasions and the Com munist menace the day Nick, my husband, took me for my first sightseeing tour. Though it has more than 60,000 people, Vientiane is really a big overgrown village nestling at a bend of the Mekong, which at low water splits into two brown streams. It was February, toward the close of the dry season, and a light wind, blowing off the broad expanse of dry river bed and clifflike banks, sifted red dust over us. The same red dust lay thickly on the thatched houses of the Lao working people. Yellow stucco buildings with weathered red roofs-almost a trademark of the French throughout Indochina-stood at intervals along the main street, the old Rue Marechal Foch, renamed Setthathirath. We passed the hospital, the police build ings, the Ministry of Public Works, the Post, Telegraphs and Telephones office, a movie house, the Bank of Indochina, and scores of the little open-fronted shops of the Chinese and Indian merchants. Children played in front of the shops or squatted contentedly, eating noodles and shredded vegetables from little bowls with blue-and-white china spoons. All the smaller children toddled naked in the white sunshine. We saw more than 40 wats, or temples, their roofs of blackened tiles decorated with un dulating gilt nagas, the serpent guardians of the kingdom. Strange Americans Take No Nap Today a new sense of destiny animates this sprawling city. In a few years the town has burgeoned from a quiet Oriental village half asleep in the sun to a bustling place with roaring automobiles and trucks, though not yet nearly enough roads. Hundreds of bicycles bear what are surely the world's most hap hazard riders. Many new buildings reveal hasty construc tion. Altogether there is an air of racing to catch up with the second half of the 20th century-except for the hours from noon until three o'clock, when almost everybody but the * See in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: "War and Quiet on the Laos Frontier," by W. Robert Moore, May, 1954; and "Indochina Faces the Dragon," by George W. Long, September, 1952. Face the Camera! Soldier Coaxes a Lens-shy Akha Girl Into View Generations ago, bands of Akha peoples migrated south from China to the hills of northern Laos. Often called Kha Kho, they are not related to the Kha tribesmen of Indonesian descent who originally occupied the land. The photographer, Dr. John M. Keshishian, spotted this girl beside a food vendor in Muong Sing. An obliging soldier persuaded her to pose. Her headdress of silver, beads, and shells identifies her as an Akha. KODACHROMEBY JOHN M. KESHISHIAN, M.D. © N.G.S.