Thursday, August 22, 2013


Old Prime Minister's house in former US built village known as '6 Clicks City'
I'm continuing my visit to former Prime Minister Kaysone's compound. His homes are in a suburb originally built for US government workers, living here in Vientiane, Laos during the war.

Having finished looking at Kaysone's simple ranch house, my helpful guide takes me outside to the back yard. Here was the big boss’s final home. After his health declined in later years, they built a larger residence for him in the yard behind. The two houses nearly touch, they're built so closely. White with blue trim, it’s a much more cheery home than his small old American house. Although modern it’s built on stilts, giving it a Laotian look. Perhaps in his old age, Kaysone wanted to get back to his roots. We’re not allowed inside, but we are able to walk up on the front porch.

“They build for him, his doctor say it more healthy,” explains my guide. “He move in 1990. He die there 1992.”

Coming down the far stairs, my guide suddenly sticks his arm out in front of me, stopping me in my tracks. There on
I nearly stepped on this poisonous snake!!
the stairs right in front of me, is a snake. Slithering across the steps, it’s more than 2 feet long; green with dark spots. I’ve never seen this type of snake before.

“If it bite you, then you die,” he says.  

I’m glad he stopped me.

The serpent slides off the steps and down into the grass, where it slithers under the shade of the staircase. Strangely, after we pass, the snake emerges and climbs back up on the stairs again. Apparently it likes that vantage point.

Further behind Kaysone’s final house, is a wooden building unlike the rest. Curious, I ask what it is.

“That Russian sauna house”, he says “they make for Kaysone.”

During the 1980’s,  Caucasians seen around Vientiane were no longer the Americans or French. They were from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block. These were advisors, engineers and
Russian sauna house built by USSR near former Prime Minister's house
technicians, trying to fill the gaps left by the departed westerners.

A heavy dependence on foreign aid was a rallying cry of the Pathet Lao during the war years. Despite their claims that they would eliminate that dependence, they merely shifted their reliance from the west, to the east. From 1975 onward, Laos was heavily dependent on their new patrons: the Soviet Union and Vietnam.

Round about the time that Kaysone moved into his new house here, the Soviet block was coming apart. Laos desperately needed their communist donors, and it lost them.  Kaysone had already begun returning to free markets, making the dubious claim that ‘state capitalism’ was the road to socialism. But without the millions in foreign aid from their brother communist countries, Laos was headed towards economic disaster. Soon they were begging USAID (United States Agency for International Development) to come back, and full diplomatic relations with the USA were re-established in 1992.

Now USAID is back in town, and American aid projects are once again happily promoted in the state controlled newspapers. The cycle of aid in Laos has come full circle, although nowadays the budget and scope of US projects is far smaller. The country’s big brother to the north, China, has become the biggest patron of Laos. 

Continuing to exert political influence in Laos, are the Vietnamese. Near this complex on Route 13 is their recent museum project, the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial. Partly funded by Vietnam it cost $8 million to build, a ridiculous expense in one of Asia’s poorest countries. Unlike in Vietnam where Ho is nationally revered, the communist party’s attempts to create a personality cult for Kaysone after his death have fallen short.
There are no visitors today at museum honoring ex-Prime Minister Kaysone
Like his buddy Ho Chi Minh, Kaysone would not have approved of this attempt at hero worship. The people of today’s Laos seem to agree. Although filled with photos and memorabilia from the strong man’s life, the quiet museum gets few visitors. The current generation in Laos is too focused on the present and the future, to be concerned with old communist leaders from the past.

I think Kaysone himself would get a good laugh out of some of the official attempts to  idolize him. One example sits downtown in the Lao National Museum. In a small case
displayed in a corner, is an old piece of exercise equipment. It’s a four spring chest expander, the type that was briefly popular in America back in the 1970’s. The caption for this display was worth reading. “This spring was used by Comrade Kaysone Phomvihane in the gymnastic session during the elaboration of the plan to seize power.”


I ponder over another of history’s 'strong men'. Somewhere in the not so distant future, I can picture another display in a museum in Austria. Beneath a display case of exercise equipment, there will be the following caption: “These barbells were used by Arthur Swarzenegger, during the elaboration of his victorious campaign to seize power as Governor of California.”

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