The Lao People’s Army Museum in Vientiane is a shining example of how to use adjectives to make a point. That the point they are trying to make is almost as anachronistic as the government it represents just adds to the entertaining reading.
Begun in 2004 with Chinese aid money, the museum is spread over two floors. The ground floor has the big loud bits: a row of Bofors anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces, a tank, a half-track, and a few trucks, complete with bullet holes and front-end damage, probably from a vehicle accident.
A wide, sweeping staircase -think Gone With the Wind meets industrial quantities of concrete- leads to the far more interesting collection on the second floor.
This houses all kinds of military and assorted memorabilia with many captions rendered into the kind of English one might expect to have come straight out of a 1930s Charlie Chan movie. ‘When closs (sic) people they congratulate that good when left they thing of us,’ is just one example of a completely unintelligible photographic caption.
The new museum replaced an older one that had a collection of rusting pieces of military hardware in the front yard, some of which were moved to the new construction.
The old museum had bare concrete floors and walls painted in varying patinas of faded yellow, light blue and understated pink, which gave the place a faintly surrealistic air. I wasn’t permitted to take any photos inside it, probably for reasons of national security, so I can only describe ‘The army cow farm at Nakai’: a faded black and white still taken in about 1970 of a few hundred cows of various hues, all looking very bovine.
As with the old museum, the captions in the new version are just as entertaining. The alleged political leanings of each country or military force to come into conflict with the Lao are noted on each photograph. The French are ‘colonialists’, the Japanese are ‘fascist’, the Americans ‘imperialist’, the Thai’s are labelled as ‘extremely rightists’ while the eventually overthrown US-backed government were known as the ‘Vientiane puppet soldiers’.
The eventually victorious Pathet Lao troops are referred to as ‘patriotic soldiers’.
In a picture featuring a ‘Lao people’s army art performance movement’ I’m almost certain at least one of the males in battle fatigues is sporting bright red lipstick.
There’s a wonderful photo of the economic damage inflicted by aerial bombing. Beneath a picture of two dead buffalos the caption reads: ‘US booms (sic) destroled (sic) many cows and buffalos of Laos people. We can’t count how many.’ Well, there were at least two, judging by the picture.
The exhibits on a couple of border wars in the 1980s between Laos and Thailand include captured uniforms and weapons as well as maps, dioramas and photographs.
One photo, showing the results of a leaflet airdrop, bears the delightfully quaint caption, ‘Thai soldiers wrote a letter to a Lao village to bamboozle Lao people.’
The first conflict, in 1984, involved Thai claims to three small villages nestling in high country in Paklay province. On the wall was a map drawn by the French in 1907 demarcating the border. Beneath it was a 1965 American-drawn map relocating the border and placing the three villages inside Thailand. The area was so small it hardly seemed worth going to war over.
There’s a Thai unmanned spy plane, complete with camera, that was shot down on 15 February 1988 during the 1987-88 border war, which took place over a few more bits of mountains and trees in Botain district (also spelled Botene, Botard and Botend in the same museum).
The town is in Xayyabouly province, also rendered Xayyabuly, Xaignabouri, or Xayhhabuly province depending on which picture you happen to be looking at. If you think the place is spelt in the manner of a standard eye-test chart you’d be on the right track.
A visitor is left to wonder at the enormity of the achievement of the Lao patriotic soldiers who alternatively overcame the Japanese fascists, French colonialists, American imperialists, Thai extremely rightists, and their own Vientiane puppets before finally running out of opponents, and colourful adjectives.