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An American in Vientiane

By Bertil Lintner

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos by Brett Dakin. Asia Books. $15.00

There are very few recent personal accounts of Laos written by foreigners. Stalking the Elephant Kings: In Search of Laos, by Christopher Kremmer, published in 1997, is one. The Hanoi-based Australian radio journalist travelled in Laos in the 1990s, setting off in search of the last--and lost--royal family of Laos, who were deposed by the communists in 1975. He tells the story of a Southeast Asian revolution and its tragic consequences, how a landlocked corner of Asia is coming to terms with the legacies of the American war and communism. Lao Roots: Fragments of a Nordic-Lao Family Saga, by Fleur Brofos Asmussen, also came out in 1997. Asmussen was told late in life that her grandmother was Lao. Her Norwegian grandfather had been a trader in French Indochina at the turn of the last century, and was then briefly married to a Lao woman, Asmussen's grandmother.

Given this paucity of writings, Brett Dakin's book about an American's sojourn as a consultant at the government's tourism authority in the late 1990s and early 2000s is a valuable new insight. The title, Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, and the style are influenced by Graham Greene's famous book about the early stages of the Indochina War.

Dakin writes that "as a young American, I simply couldn't escape the legacy of America's influence in Vietnam and Laos, that echoes everywhere in life in Vientiane today."

Laos is known as the most heavily-bombed country in history. The United States dropped more ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War than it did during all of World War II. The American goal was to cut the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply line from North to South Vietnam, which went through Laos. Also, American B-52 bombers that took off from airfields in Thailand and couldn't drop their loads on Hanoi because of anti-aircraft artillery, simply dropped the bombs over Laos on their way back to their Thai bases.

Dakin reflects on the Laotian legacy of unexploded ordnance everywhere, which is still killing and maiming people, and discusses the refugees who left Laos after 1975.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dakin did not encounter any anti-American feelings. On the contrary, Laotians look up to America, where many now have relatives, and numerous families in Vientiane depend on money they receive from overseas relatives who fled after 1975. Some refugees, and children of refugees, are now returning to Laos, Dakin notes.

Dakin ventures beyond the usual superficial descriptions of expatriate bars, bar girls and taxi drivers, and makes a real effort to understand the new, strange world around him. Unlike many foreign visitors to Laos, Dakin made an effort to learn the language and feels a deep sympathy with the Lao people. He is less sanguine about the country's authoritarian government. But, as Dakin reflects, there is no sign of an alternative. Even the disaffected Laotian royalists in France and the U.S. have little to offer their compatriots other than reminiscences of glorious days gone by.

Dakin is not kind to other Westerners he meets: Businessmen who constantly complain about everything, and aid workers involved in endless and largely meaningless "development projects" who write reports "no one would read" in between "sipping the local beer in some hotel bars." The book's highlights are descriptions of Dakin's English lessons with Lao students, who vividly come alive on the page.

Some might argue the book could do with a more substantial political and historical material, but that was not Dakin's intention. Instead, he portrays the reality of Laos as one of the world's least-developed countries, where most people survive on subsistence farming. Economically, the country is decades behind Thailand, though the two are closely related ethnically and linguistically. The book is an excellent contribution to a better understanding of life in Asia outside the big cities and the usual expatriate enclaves where many Westerners spend their time in this part of the world.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March 18, 2004

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