Tuesday, August 20, 2013


After US government workers and their families moved out, the Prime Minister moved in!
I’ve entered a quiet American neighborhood, and I’m having a feeling of deja vu. White, single story ranch houses line both sides of the street. Each home has a driveway where Dad can park the car. Low chain link fences surround landscaped lawns, where children can play after school. Big old, GE air conditioners sit in the windows. These are American made houses, built with American architecture, made with American money. And yet, this isn’t the USA, this is Vientiane. It’s as if I’ve been instantly transported from Laos, all the way back to 1970's suburban America.

“This was house of the American family,” says my guide. That's true, Americans did in fact live here. Made of more than 200 buildings this was known as ‘Six Clicks City’, since back in the 70’s it used to be six kilometers outside of Vientiane. Many of these old homes were torn down, but these originals remain.

”(This) same style (as) homes on American military base,” my guide says. Looking around, I see he’s right. Like standard US government housing, each
Ancient US made GE air conditioner. It still works!!
ranch home is almost identical to the next. This insular community was organized like base housing for families of US government workers posted in Laos during the war. There used to be a swimming pool, tennis courts, a club, commissary, school, and American office buildings. All these facilities were right here in this quiet neighborhood of Americana, that just happened to be located in a remote, war torn Asian third world country.

As the war in Laos heated up, American support for the Royal Laotian Government increased, as they sought to hold back the communists. At its peak Laos was receiving $250 million a year in aid, an enormous amount for a country with less than three million people. With that support came an ever increasing need for government advisors, intelligence men, diplomats and staff working for USAID. (United States Agency for International Development, the governmental arm for foreign aid.)

As the war was ending USAID became a target for the Pathet Lao, who were now able to walk Vientiane’s streets freely. As the communists took over, the Pathet Lao orchestrated ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations, pushing for USAID to close and leave Laos for good. American installations were targeted with demonstrations.

Visitors wear shoe covers on this 'hallowed ground'

Prime Minister's shoes, as though he just stepped out
There were strikes led by communist infiltrated unions and student groups. (One student leader from those days, was a young communist named Bouasone Bouphavanh. He later became the Laotian Prime Minister.)

Soon mob attacks led by plain clothes Pathet Lao took over government buildings, and left the Royal Laotian government paralyzed. One such group occupied USAID’s headquarters, and the writing was on the wall. Finally in 1975 USAID closed down and left the country. 
Prime Minister's safe, with whiskey bottle atop
Here in Six Klicks City, the Americans and their families were forced to pack up and get out, and the communists moved in. I head toward one of the better maintained ranch homes. Before entering, my guide has me put cloth foot covers on over my shoes; they want to preserve this quaint American house just as it was. I step inside the front door, and sitting there on the floor by the door, are a pair of slippers, and a pair of tennis shoes. It’s as if the owner of the house has just stepped outside, and will be coming back soon.

I wonder who the American family was that lived in this house, but that fact is lost to history. What is remembered, is who moved in here after their hasty departure. In 1975, a Laotian named Kaysone Phomvihane moved in, and he ended up staying here for 15 years. A hard line communist, he was the unquestioned leader of the Pathet Lao. This simple, two bedroom, ranch house built with American aid, became the official residence for the Prime Minister of newly communist Laos!

Kaysone was half Laotian and half Vietnamese, which tells you where communism in Laos really came from. Originally from Savannakhet to the south, Kaysone went to Vietnam to attend university, since Laos had no universities at all back then. While studying in Hanoi, he learned the ways of the communist party. He actually took part in an election once as a candidate. Back in 1950, Kaysone ran for office in a reasonably fair election. He lost. Discarding democracy, he went on to lead the Pathet Lao in their armed struggle to overthrow the government.
As I enter the living room, Kaysone’s décor is not quite what I was expecting for the leader of a nation. Striped furniture sits on simple brown carpeting. Two elephant tusks stand in corners of the room. A pair of stuffed turtles and a stuffed lobster appear to be climbing the blue cinder
The odd decor of the Prime Minister's living room
block walls. It looks like the home of a bachelor, not a Prime Minister. 

Nearby a couple of comfortable pillows sit on a traditional carpet, in front of a boxy old television. It looks as though Kaysone preferred to watch TV while he was lying down on the floor. A large 1980’s era satellite dish outside brought him access to foreign programs. Besides foreign TV, Kaysone enjoyed his whiskey as well. Home made bottles of local Lao Lao whiskey are on the shelves, and a half empty bottle of Black & White Scotch sits on top of a large green safe. The guide tells me that after Kaysone died, they opened the safe, finding nothing of value inside. Hmmm… if there was nothing of value inside, then why would the Prime Minister keep a big ugly safe in his living room? 

Also adorning the room, are photos of his family. There are black and white portraits of his Vietnamese father, and Laotian mother. A color photo of Kaysone with his wife, adopted son, and other relatives sits on a desk.
Kaysone's overcoats, and a US made suitcase?
“How long did Kaysone’s family live here with him?” I ask my guide.

“Two months,” he replies. I don’t doubt it. Obviously, the scattered décor of this house lacked a woman’s touch. Peeking around the furniture in the back sitting room, I spot a small bed behind a bookshelf.

“Bodyguard sleep there,” my guide says. Kaysone needed him. As the most powerful communist in Laos, there were at least three assassination attempts on his life.

Heading for his bedroom, I find it very basic. There’s only simple wooden furniture here, a double bed, a dresser and closets. There isn’t room for much more, since bedrooms built by the US government weren’t built for size. I’ve seen children’s bedrooms in America bigger than this. And yet, this was good enough for the most powerful man in Laos. Much like his friend Ho in Hanoi, Kaysone shunned the colonial mansions, favoring more simple accommodation. 

Inside the closets are what’s left of his clothes. Curiously, there are two heavy overcoats. Kaysone never needed these in the heat of Vientiane, they were for his official winter visits to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Up on top of the closet, lay his suitcase. I pull it towards me for a closer look, and I see that the manufacturer’s tag still there: Samsonite. The old commie not only liked American housing, he liked American luggage too.

For a head of state this building certainly isn’t the White House, although the building, and much of its contents, are still American made. Since Kaysone needed not only a residence but offices too, he took over the house next door. Inside I find a reception room, meeting rooms,

Kaysone meets Ho Chi Minh in 1986, a miracle, since Ho died 17 years before!
offices, and lots of old US office furniture.  The old style American grey filing cabinets and heavy lockers are easy to pick out. A tell tale sticker still at the top of one gives away the origin: “Victory Steel Art Office Equipment”. What an ironic name.

Atop a bookshelf, is a painting of Kaysone, and a certain elder Vietnamese politician with a goatee. Amused, I ask my guide what this is.

“1986. President and Ho Chi Minh.”

“Really?” I say disbelievingly, “They met in 1986?”

“Yes,” he confirmed.  If my guide was correct, this was a miraculous meeting. Here was Kaysone sitting on a couch next to a smiling Ho Chi Minh, a man who had been dead for 17 years. 

Obviously, my guide knows his Laotian history, far better than Vietnamese history. 

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