Colourful adjectives give this Lao museum a certain character

Army Museum entranceThe 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.

Army Museum Thai spy planeThere’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.

Unsolved marine mystery probably down to pirates

In a past life I used to write columns and articles for the Pattaya Mail newspaper.

In late 2001 I took a trip to the southern town of Satun. The story I wrote about this gateway to the Malaysian island of Langkawi and the nearby Thai national park islands of Tarutao and Lipe, among others, appeared soon after.

Among the photos included in my story was one of a wrecked Indonesian fishing boat.

As I wrote at the time: ‘The port area is the place that most foreign visitors to Satun first see, the majority coming from, rather than heading too, Malaysia and the one ferry I saw disgorged a horde of Malay and Thai passengers and only one Westerner.

Left of the berth for the Langkawi-Satun Ferry lies the Anjas Moro.

Listing heavily to starboard it serves as a salient reminder that these waters are home to smugglers and the odd Thai version of Long John Silver.

A senior Customs officer told me the Anjas Moro was a wooden-hulled Indonesian fishing boat caught a number of years ago smuggling a large quantity of heroin.

A naval patrol boat was tied to a jetty while further down, at another pier, were three Customs vessels: two speedboats and a launch.

The Customs officer told me he sometimes spent up to three weeks off the coast engaged in surveillance operations.’

Not long after the article appeared I was given a hand-written letter that had been delivered to the offices of the Pattaya Mail.

Written by a man named Bob McDonald, it told a sad story of a father’s desperate hunt for his missing son.

McDonald was staying at a central Pattaya hotel and it was my piece on Satun, and especially the Indonesian boat, which prompted him to write to me.

I was reminded of his letter recently after coming across the picture of the aforementioned vessel while looking through some of my old photos.

I have reproduced the bulk of that letter, unedited, below.

‘I lost my son in the Indian Ocean in 1977-78. He and 5 others were sailing from Sri Lanka to Phuket on a 51 foot Canadian yacht called ‘Crusader’. November 11 1977 they talked by radio to Bangkok and Colombo- “heavy seas, heading back.”

Never heard from since.

My searches of Sri Lanka, Andaman and Nicobar islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand proved futile with the exception of an Indonesian fishing boat operator (now a member of Parliament) who says the boat called in to his home port of Sabang on Pulau Weh. It was damaged, no radio and they were heading for Phuket. He gave them water, bananas. They moved off quickly rather than go through Customs etc,

He thinks pirates got them. Piracy was a weekly occurrence then and I personally witnessed one whilst flying overhead.

I went to Satun as all roads led there and arranged a 5am boat to visit Koh Adang group.

I had posted ‘wanted’ signs and a reward of 30,000 baht which I knew could be dangerous.

At 1am the fisherman woke me and said I must get out of Satun ‘now’. He wouldn’t take me on his boat. I went.

3 days later I flew over Adang group and there was a yacht there!

My flight was illegal so authorities couldn’t help me any further.

I know one day someone will find a piece of wreckage and my problem is solved.

You could not mistake Canadian maple with the Asian fishing boat construction. Also Crusader was sheathed in fibreglasss.

If pirates got her, the mast would be removed and cabin structure replaced. She was 9 ft beam, had a keel, a large 6-cylinder motor diesel/petrol?…[the letter continued for a couple more paragraphs not relevant to this story] Don’t worry to reply if no news. Every enquiry is worth a try even after 23 years.’

A very matter-of-fact letter. Yet there is no doubting the heartache within its terse sentences. Here is a father who knows beyond doubt his son is gone forever. The hollow pit that would have formed in his stomach when he first realised his son was missing all those years ago would have gnawed away every day thereafter.

I didn’t reply as, indeed, I had no news or information I could impart.

I do not know if Bob McDonald is still alive. I suspect he was in his late sixties or early seventies when he penned that letter.

I can only hope that by putting this story out into a forum as wide and pervasive as the Internet it might just jog a memory of something seen but not understood so many years ago.

©Duncan Stearn