The Laos Project #1 : A Place on a Map

In Laos on October 31, 2011 at 4:00 pm

An excerpt from my manuscript, One Million Elephants, about a journey through Laos that will begin at the end of November. I will serialize two chapters throughout the month, so that readers can learn about my interest in this little-known country. Check back for regular updates. Photograph taken during my 2000 sojourn in Vietnam.


You could say I threw a dart at a map. Except for the dart.


It was a sunny morning in 2010, and I was looking at a map of the world, which hangs on my living room wall, a gift from my girlfriend’s mother. This is a colored political map, elegant and heavily framed, and the surface is pricked with several dozen pins. Each pin represents a place we’ve visited.

There’s no better way to start a day. Looking at this map gives me enormous satisfaction and pride. The United States is a forest of little red pinheads, the Caribbean a sparse woods, and Europe a crooked row, from Reykjavik down to Naples. There are four pins in Africa. One in South America.

As I absently scanned the pins, sipping my morning coffee and strategizing my workday, my eyes drifted to the pins in Vietnam and Malaysia, countries I had visited a decade before. My gaze floated up, and there it rested on a name both known and unfamiliar: Laos.

A country the shape of a keyhole, or maybe a palm tree. I had never really noticed it before. Never traced its borders, never tried to pronounce its capital. “Veen…” I murmured to myself. “Veen… tee-ahn-eh?” I focused on the word, realized it was probably a French spelling, and tried again. “Vee-en…tee-ann.”

And in a flash I realized, to my chagrin, that I knew literally nothing about Laos. Not one solitary fact. No names, no dates, no past or present. What did they speak in Laos? What was their major religion? No images came to mind, no stereotypes or exports, not even an eye color, a traditional outfit, a musical instrument. I couldn’t think of a flag or monument, an artist or celebrity or national hero. Nothing. A blank sheet. A big empty.


I was alarmed. How had an entire country escaped my notice? I knew at least somethingabout Bhutan and Bahrain, countries smaller than Nevada. But here was Laos, which bordered nations I had personally visited, and still I didn’t know a smidgen about it. So I went to the computer. This had to be redressed.


Point one: Laos is not pronounced “Louse.” It’s pronounced Lowh, rhyming with “cow.” The “S” is a French addition, and therefore is silent.


Point two: Laos is a Communist country. I gawked. Really? A one-party Communist regime? How did I not know this? I had visited four Communist countries before, and several former Bloc states, and I’d never known that Laos was Communist, or anything else, for that matter. For all the disdain Americans harbor for socialist nations, how had this one slipped our minds?


Point three: Laos is mostly Buddhist. Which made sense, surrounded as it was by devoutly Buddhist nations. Different types of Buddhism, sure, but variations on the same theme. Theravada Buddhism in particular.


Point four: Laos is the most heavily bombed country of all time.

I reread this statement, unable to fathom it. I double-checked with other sources. Triple-checked. Most heavily bombed country of all time? More than Great Britain? More than Germany and Russia? More than Japan, for crying out loud? The fact kept popping up, confirmed and re-confirmed. Most heavily bombed, measured on a “per capita” basis.

That is, more bombs per person. The most bang for your buck.

But who? Why? When? What had Laos done to deserve so many tons of explosives? And what war had they fought—for surely only an official, declared war could warrant so much gunpowder? My mind reeled. Because when it comes to military history, I can hold my own. I grew up on history books, war movies, plastic soldiers. As a kid, I’d paint figurines and send them into battle, day in and day out. I knew every uniform of every army. I knew every detail of Bull Run and Waterloo. And now, as a peace-loving adult, I still carried a vast arsenal of military knowledge, from ancient Assyria to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and if there was a conflict I didn’t know, it had to be obscure.

Laos didn’t ring any bells. I shook my head at the computer screen. I ran a search. I needed to know who dropped so many bombs on Laos.


The answer: We did. That is, the United States. And not just once, or over the course of a few months, but for nine years, from 1964 to 1973.

I had never heard of this, never even conceived of it. Nine years of bombing runs? In Laos? Instantly I corresponded the dates to the conflict of the era, the Vietnam War. I knew about Vietnam, I had been to Vietnam, and I had even visited the American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. I had crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels, which once housed and concealed Viet Cong soldiers. I knew the Vietnam conflict backward and forward. I knew about Cambodia and Lieutenant William Calley, and I’d read a dozen books and seen all the movies. I’d talked with Vietnam vets. A Vietnam sniper taught my mother to fly a plane and shoot a pistol. A Vietnam ex-marine taught my Earth Science class. I knew plenty about it. Didn’t everybody?

But Laos was a complete shock. A Pandora’s Box, bursting open. Nine years of protracted bombing. I was blindsided by this news.


And this is how it all began. One line, blandly written in an online encyclopedia. A single jot of trivia. Yet ever since, I have thought of little else. Laos has become my obsession. Laos haunts and magnetizes me. My days are colored by Laos, chilled and burned by Laos. The most heavily bombed country in human history, and I had no idea. Not even a hint.

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